Known as "Boy Wonder" for his considerable power at an early age, Irving Thalberg (1899-1936) was an influential film executive, first at Universal, then Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Before his death at the age of 37, Thalberg helped redefine how movies are made within the studio system and became the consummate movie mogul.
Irving Grant Thalberg was born on May 30, 1899, in Brooklyn, New York. He was one of two children and the only son born to William Thalberg and his wife Henrietta Heyman Thalberg. Both were German immigrants. William Thalberg worked as a lace importer. Thalberg suffered from ill health since birth. He was born with a heart defect, and doctors predicted that he would die before the age of 30. While a teenager Thalberg also suffered from diphtheria and rheumatic fever, and only grew to a height of 5 ′ 6 ″ . He was educated at home during his bouts of illness, but still managed to graduate from Bushwick High School. After graduation, Thalberg thought about studying law, but an illness changed his mind. Instead, he decided to go into business.
Began Movie Career at Universal
Thalberg began working in his maternal grandfather's department store, Heyman and Sons, as a clerk. He taught himself to type, and attended a private commercial school to learn Spanish and shorthand. Thalberg placed a newspaper ad describing his skills, and was soon hired by Taylor, Clapp and Beall, an import-export film. Within a short time, Thalberg was promoted to the head of the export department. He also wrote speeches for Morris Hillquit, a Socialist from New York. In 1918, Thalberg got a new job as a secretary at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. He had gotten the idea to work there when he met the studio's head, Carl Laemmle, while vacationing at his grandmother's cottage. Laemmle was her next-door neighbor. Laemmle found Thalberg working at Universal and made him his private secretary at a salary of $25 per week.
One of Thalberg's duties was transcribing and editing notes Laemmle made during screenings. Thalberg showed his talent by becoming adept at the process and adding his own insightful commentary. Laemmle was impressed with Thalberg's instincts. In 1920, he was invited to go with Laemmle to work at Universal City, Universal's movie lot in California. Thalberg was being groomed to become an executive. Laemmle tapped him to become Universal City's studio manager for a weekly salary of $60. For all intents and purposes, Thalberg was in charge of the studio when Laemmle was not there, though the young man was barely in his twenties. By the age of 21, Thalberg was also made production manager, in charge of Universal's slate of films. His goal was to improve the quality of Universal's releases, keeping in mind the opinion of the moving-going public, while keeping costs down.
Clashed with Von Stroheim
Thalberg's mettle as a film executive was tested by Erich Von Stroheim, a director and actor with considerable power and a taste for extravagance. Thalberg wanted Universal's films to be produced on time and on budget, the exact opposite of Von Stroheim's working methods. Thomas Schatz wrote in Genius of the System, "Thalberg did not question Stroheim's skill as a director, writer, or actor …. But Thalberg was determined to rein in Stroheim's talent and increase the profit margin on his pictures, thus demonstrating that the pursuit of excellence was not a license for waste. And if one thing characterized Stroheim's film-making it was waste… . " The two men clashed during the making of Foolish Wives (1922). Von Stroheim wanted to build a replica of Monte Carlo. The film was cut down on order of Thalberg, and was successful at the box office. When Von Stroheim continued to spend money wildly during production of his next film, Merry-Go-Round (1923), Thalberg fired him and the director left Universal.
Thalberg put his ideas about production to the test with the big-budget motion picture, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). He took control of the project from inception to pre-production, from editing to marketing. Thalberg believed that good planning in pre-production and test marketing during final edits would give Universal a superior product. He seemed to be right, for the movie was a smash hit. Despite his accomplishments, Laemmle did not want to increase Thalberg's salary of $450 per week, nor give him any piece of Universal. There were rumors that the two disagreed creatively as well. In any case, Thalberg left Universal in 1923 for another company.
Hired by Louis B. Mayer
In 1923, Thalberg was hired by Louis B. Mayer Pictures as vice president and head of production at $600 per week. The following year, Louis B. Mayer Pictures merged with two other film companies, Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures Corp., to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Thalberg was named vice president and supervisor of production at the new company. His salary was increased to $2000 per week, with a guaranteed annual income of $400,000. Thalberg's work made the company a real power. His first order of business was a film which had started at Goldwyn and turned into a fiasco, Ben-Hur. The movie had had a problematic shoot in Italy, then California. Thalberg saved the project, though it meant exhausting himself to the point where he was viewing daily rushes from a hospital bed. Though Ben-Hur made no profit because of high production costs, the studio gained prestige by completing the quality project, defining the new concept of the "prestige picture."
The production of every movie made by MGM between 1924 and 1932 was supervised by Thalberg. He perfected the production methods he had developed at Universal, though this sometimes led to creative clashes with directors and others. One fight was with an old nemesis, Von Stroheim. The director had produced a film, Greed (1925) that was ten hours long and refused to cut it for release. Thalberg fired Von Stroheim from the project, and had the movie cut down to an acceptable time of two hours. Not all agreed with Thalberg's decision. Some critics and scholars thought the ten-hour version was a masterwork ruined by Thalberg's studio system. This system dictated that the director merely followed the blueprint set out by the producer, an employee of the studio.
Thalberg was not an ogre to all who worked on the creative side of film. He supported directors like King Vidor, who made one of the most profitable silent films, The Big Parade (1925). But Thalberg insisted on having input into every film, including this one. He added war scenes to the epic romance and changed its genre, making it a classic war film. Louis B. Mayer, the man who hired him, supported Thalberg's methods. Mayer took on the administrative and creative sides when necessary for Thalberg's benefit. Mayer had good reasons. When Thalberg was in charge, MGM was prestigious and profitable. In fact, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, MGM was the only studio that did not lose money.
Thalberg helped the career of established stars like Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Marie Dressler, John Gilbert, and Greta Garbo. He had MGM make several pictures for Garbo, including The Flesh and the Devil (1927) and Freaks (1932). Thalberg also nurtured new stars like Jean Harlow who appeared in the successful Red Dust (1932), and Clark Gable. One starlet he helped, Norma Shearer, became Thalberg's wife on September 29, 1927. They eventually had two children, Irving Jr. and Katherine. Thalberg guided his wife to an Academy Award in The Divorcee (1930). Another success of Thalberg's was the movie, The Broadway Melody (1929), MGM's first sound feature. This proved that all of his instincts were not right: Thalberg thought sound films were a passing fad.
Despite Thalberg's track record, his growing power was resented by Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg wanted more money and a cut of the profits. He also wanted MGM to maintain high production standards despite the Depression, which the company did not do. At the same time, Thalberg's personal life was taking a turn for the worse. A friend and employee, associate producer Paul Bern, killed himself. Thalberg's dedication to his work led to exhaustion and illness. He suffered from a severe case of influenza, then suffered a heart attack at the end of 1932.
Though Mayer and others tried to talk him out of it, Thalberg took several months off at the beginning of 1933 to rest and travel in Europe. In the meantime, Mayer took the opportunity to realign power at MGM. Mayer effectively eliminated Thalberg's position. In its place, he created so-called "unit producers" who were in charge of only a portion of MGM's productions. He hired two such producers, David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger, to head two of the units. When Thalberg returned to MGM in August 1933, he was made a unit producer as well. However, he still had greater privileges than the others on MGM's lot.
Despite the demotion, Thalberg continued to supervise hits for MGM like Riptide (1934), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), China Seas (1935), The Merry Widow (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), A Night at the Opera (1935) and San Francisco (1936). Mutiny on the Bounty won an Academy Award. Thalberg also revived the operetta genre with Naughty Marietta (1935), making stars of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Thalberg continued to service stars like Greta Garbo. She turned in one of her best performances in Camille (1936). Thalberg did make some questionable decisions. He insisted on adding songs and a romantic subplot to the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. He also told Mayer that MGM should not finance Gone with the Wind (1939).
An Early Death
Thalberg was doing pre-production work on what became A Day at the Races (1937) when he became seriously ill. In early September he caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia. Thalberg succumbed to the illness on September 14, 1936, in Santa Monica, California. He was only 37 years old. When The Good Earth (1937), the last important film Thalberg completed, was released, he received one of his only screen credits. The film was dedicated to him.
After his death, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences named an award after him, the Irving G. Thalberg Award. It was given to those who made a substantial contribution to the film industry. MGM named a building on their Culver City lot for him in 1937. As industry executive Will H. Hays said in The New York Times upon Thalberg's death, "The death of Irving Thalberg is an irreparable loss to the motion-picture industry. No one can take his place, though others may come to do his work."
Further Reading on Irving Thalberg
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Cassell Companion to Cinema, Cassell, 1997.
French, Philip, The Movie Moguls: An Informal History of Hollywood Tycoons, Henry Regnery Company, 1969.
Harmon, Justin et al, American Cultural Leaders: From Colonial Times to the Present, edited by Amy Lewis and Paula McGuire, ABC-CLIO, 1993.
Schatz, Thomas, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Film-making in the Studio Era, Pantheon Books, 1988.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, third edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
The New York Times, September 15, 1936.