Family & Companions
From the early 1920s until his premature death in 1936, producer and studio executive Irving G. Thalberg walked the line between commerce and art in transforming the Hollywood system and shifting the balance of power from directors to the studios. Thalberg had his start with Carl Laemmle's Universal Studios, where he took a heavy-handed approach to guiding hits like "Foolish Wives" (1922) and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) through production, famously clashing with director Erich von Stroheim on the former. In 1924, Thalberg left Universal for newly-formed rival MGM, where he thrived under head Louis B. Mayer with "The Big Parade" (1925), "The Divorcee" (1930) and "Grand Hotel" (1932). Regarded by the American film industry with a mixture of respect, awe, envy and fear, Thalberg was deemed a "Boy Wonder," until suffering a heart attack in 1932 that led to his departure from MGM. He returned as a producer the following year and went on to make massive hits like "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1934), "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935) and "A Night at the Opera" (1935), as well sharing his life with MGM's grand dame, actress Norma Shearer, who had married him in 1927. Though he died young, Thalberg remained eternal. His obsession with quality films and unwavering faith in public opinion turned him into a paragon of the studio factory system and an exemplar of public taste, all of which cemented his place as a Hollywood legend.
Born on May 30, 1899 in Brooklyn, NY, Thalberg was raised by his German-Jewish immigrant parents, William and Henrietta. Sickly as a child, Thalberg was nonetheless a bright youngster bound for early success. In fact, he began his film career straight out of high school in 1918, when he worked as a secretary for Universal Studios founder, Carl Laemmle, in his New York office. The bright and ambitious young Thalberg quickly rose up the ladder and was soon installed as the head of production at Laemmle's studio in Universal City, CA. Once there, Thalberg sought to upgrade the quality of the studio's product and to reign in profligate costs on its "Jewel" productions. He made an immediate impression by clashing with profligate director and star Erich von Stroheim over the cost of "Foolish Wives" (1922), which led to ordering substantial cuts. The film went on to become a substantial hit, validating Thalberg's decisions. He later removed von Stroheim from the helm of "Merry-Go-Round" (1923) and replaced him with Rupert Julian. Meanwhile, he tightly controlled the production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) starring Lon Chaney, from pre-production planning to editing and promotion, which resulted in another tremendous success for studio.
Because of his tenacious defense of the bottom line and his unusually canny perceptions into what makes for a profitable film, Thalberg fast became Laemmle's most trusted ally. But in 1924, he was lured away from the parsimonious Laemmle by rival Louis B. Mayer with the promise of more money. Thalberg joined Louis B. Mayer Productions, which soon merged with Metro Pictures Corporation into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and became head of production at the new studio. Once again, he clashed with von Stroheim, cutting his mammoth version of "Greed" (1925) down to a manageable two hours while overseeing every aspect of the autocratic director's production of "The Merry Widow" (1925). This muzzling of von Stroheim marked the demise of the era of the flamboyant producer-director and heralded the birth of a new order of powerful executives within the studio production system. The litmus test for this paradigm shift was the World War I epic, "The Big Parade" (1925), directed by King Vidor and heavily supervised by Thalberg. The film's spectacular success - it was reportedly the most profitable of the silent era - validated Thalberg's production methods.
Thalberg's strategy became synonymous with the MGM house style that held well into the late 1940s. He combined intensive pre-production preparation with the post-production system of previews designed to gauge audience reactions and determine ensuing retakes - a practice mirrored by studios in using focus groups in the latter part of the century. Working with Mayer and facilities supervisor Eddie Mannix, Thalberg oversaw every MGM production to ensure that the highest standards were maintained. He had a remarkable talent for script development and doctoring, and - although he was determined to produce films efficiently to insure profitability - he had ambitions to produce prestigious art films. Sustaining a virtual high-wire act between the money men in New York and the studio artists, Thalberg transformed MGM into the most profitable and respected studio in the industry with such well-received successes as "The Broadway Melody" (1929), "The Divorcee" (1930), "Grand Hotel" (1932) and "Red Dust" (1932). He also helped develop new MGM stars including Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, and nurtured the careers of already-established stars such as Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer, the latter of whom he had married in 1927.
In 1932, the high-flying Thalberg was dealt a crushing blow when one of his associate producers, Paul Bern, committed suicide, leaving MGM's then biggest female star Jean Harlow a widow. His reaction to Bern's death and the ensuing scandal surrounding it was to pour himself into MGM's upcoming productions, but after a time he could not personally oversee the production of 50 features a year. Never in strong health following his sickly childhood - doctors never expected him to see age 30 - he suffered a heart attack at the end of that same year. Travelling abroad for an extensive rest for six months, he created a power vacuum that Mayer - smoldering with resentment over Thalberg's power - readily filled by replacing him with David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger as unit producers. When Thalberg returned to MGM in August 1933, he was consigned to being just another unit producer, while his system of production supervision was entirely scrapped. Still, he did maintain a privileged status on the lot and held onto his considerable percentage of studio stock. Even as a unit producer, Thalberg helped create such massive hits as "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1934), "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935), "A Night at the Opera" (1935) and "San Francisco" (1936).
Despite churning out hit after hit and shifting the balance of power in Hollywood to himself, Thalberg's fragile health continued to deteriorate, much to the distress of Shearer and those close to him. During pre-production on "A Day at the Races" (1937), one of the most famous and successful Marx Brothers movies, he contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 37 on Sept. 14, 1936. At the time, Thalberg was preparing for the productions of "The Good Earth" (1937), which focused on a group of Chinese farmers struggling to survive, and "Marie Antoinette" (1937), which starred his wife Norma Shearer as, fittingly, the queen. All of Hollywood's studios briefly stopped working during his huge funeral, as the town's "Boy Wonder" was laid to rest. Although Thalberg never took screen credit, "The Good Earth" did feature a dedication to him. Meanwhile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would institute the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which recognized notable achievements by industry producers. Notable recipients through the years included, ironically, David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg. But most importantly, his hands-on approach to making movies would remain standard Hollywood practice through the years and became his true legacy.
Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Special)
Became secretary at Universal Film Manufacturing
Became vice president and head of production at Louis B. Mayer Pictures
Made vice president and supervisor of production at newly-formed MGM