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Irving Thalberg

Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince

Mark A. Vieira
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 528
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  • Book Info
    Irving Thalberg
    Book Description:

    Hollywood in the 1920s sparkled with talent, confidence, and opportunity. Enter Irving Thalberg of Brooklyn, who survived childhood illness to run Universal Pictures at twenty; co-found Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at twenty-four; and make stars of Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Jean Harlow. Known as Hollywood's "Boy Wonder," Thalberg created classics such asBen-Hur, Tarzan the Ape Man, Grand Hotel, Freaks, Mutiny on the Bounty,andThe Good Earth,but died tragically at thirty-seven. His place in the pantheon should have been assured, yet his films were not reissued for thirty years, spurring critics to question his legend and diminish his achievements. In this definitive biography, illustrated with rare photographs, Mark A. Vieira sets the record straight, using unpublished production files, financial records, and correspondence to confirm the genius of Thalberg's methods. In addition, this is the first Thalberg biography to utilize both his recorded conversations and the unpublished memoirs of his wife, Norma Shearer.Irving Thalbergis a compelling narrative of power and idealism, revealing for the first time the human being behind the legend.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94511-1
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)

    • CHAPTER 1 The Boy Wonder
      (pp. 3-16)

      In the waning years of the nineteenth century, William and Henrietta Thalberg were living at 19 Woodbine Street in Brooklyn, New York, a narrow brownstone wedged into a middle-class German-Jewish neighborhood. The young couple could not afford to rent the entire home, so they contented themselves with a multiroom attic. William was an importer of lace, a small, passive man. Henrietta was petite, too, but powerful. Years later, family friend Irene Mayer Selznick described Henrietta’s eyes as “dark and menacing.” Like her family, the owners of the Heyman & Heyman department store, Henrietta was ambitious. She expected her husband’s business to...

    • CHAPTER 2 A Funny Little Man
      (pp. 17-22)

      Louis Burt Mayer was born Lazar Meher in the Ukraine in July 1884. He was never sure about the date because record keeping for Jews was haphazard in the reign of the anti-Semitic Alexander III. (Mayer later chose July 4, 1885, as his birthday, a salute to his adopted country.) To escape the czar’s persecution, Mayer’s family immigrated in 1887 to St. John, New Brunswick. By the time Mayer was in his teens, his father, Jacob, was a prosperous scrap-iron dealer and his mother, Sarah, was running a dry goods store. Mayer idolized his mother but had little use for...

    • CHAPTER 3 Three Shaky Little Stars
      (pp. 23-32)

      The Metro Pictures studio at 1325 Eleanor Avenue in Hollywood was eight miles from Louis B. Mayer’s Mission Road château. Thirteen miles from Mission Road, on Washington Boulevard in Culver City, was an even bigger studio, the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. Behind its Corinthian-columned, eight-hundred-foot façade was a forty-six-acre facility comprising six glass-walled stages, dozens of outdoor sets, a swimming pool, a three-story administration building, writers’ offices, editing rooms, screening rooms, dressing rooms, carpentry shops, lumber sheds, paint shops, and a restaurant. Goldwyn was located in Culver City and not in Hollywood because the city father, a real-estate developer named Harry...


    • CHAPTER 4 A Studio Style
      (pp. 35-43)

      The merger of the Metro, Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer companies became official on May 10, 1924, but long before the contract was signed, long before the dedication ceremonies, Irving Thalberg had been visiting the Goldwyn lot and cultivating its plant manager Joseph “J.J.” Cohn. “Unbeknownst to anyone out here,” recalled Cohn seventy years later, “I was making a deal with Irving Thalberg about leasing, about them coming in and renting space on a yearly basis. At the same time, back east, they were talking about the amalgamation, which no one knew anything about.” Louis B. Mayer had also been...

    • CHAPTER 5 Wicked Stepchildren
      (pp. 44-51)

      Metro-Goldwyn’s first year saw only two films in serious trouble: Erich von Stroheim’sGreedand Charles Brabin’sBen-Hur. Curiously, each had been adopted from Goldwyn, and each was the brainchild of scenarist June Mathis, the plump, petite powerhouse who had urged Rex Ingram to cast Rudolph Valentino in Metro’sThe Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The combination of her writing and Ingram’s direction had turned Valentino’s burnished physicality into gold. When Metro foolishly let Mathis go, Goldwyn grabbed her. When Thalberg fired Stroheim from Universal, Mathis told Abe Lehr to grab him, and the Goldwyn company seduced Stroheim, not with...

    • CHAPTER 6 A Business of Personalities
      (pp. 52-58)

      If 1924 was the year in which Irving G. Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer grabbed the brass ring, 1925 was the year in which they turned brass into gold. Their Mission Road origins were soon forgotten as Thalberg’s filmmaking and Mayer’s management pushed Metro-Goldwyn into the front ranks of the film industry. By the company’s first anniversary, ten of its films were in 1924’s top-grossing forty. “The average theater patron,” said Mayer, “now shops for screen entertainment instead of following the old habit of dropping into whatever theater is closest to home or most accessible in the downtown section. This...

    • CHAPTER 7 Top of the Heap
      (pp. 59-67)

      In early 1926, a roaring logo began to precede every Metro-Goldwyn film, but Leo the Lion, like the movies, was still silent. “Leo, our gentle friend, had not yet learned to roar,” recalled Norma Shearer. The lion’s real name was Jackie, and he resided at Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte. Just as audiences began to connect him with the two-name studio, it acquired a third name. Louis B. Mayer’s surname was added—both to the producing company’s name and to the distributing company’s. The Culver City studio became “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.” It was also called M.G.M. Eventually “M-G-M” became the more...

    • CHAPTER 8 “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven”
      (pp. 68-78)

      As Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer entered its fourth year, it inspired both admiration and envy. Paramount, struggling to regain first place, had no affection for the Culver City studio. Paramount’s production chief, B. P. Schulberg, “hated M-G-M and was jealous of its success,” recalled David O. Selznick. “He was eager to tell me and the rest of Hollywood that Paramount had more respect for independent opinion than did M-G-M.” When Schulberg said “M-G-M,” he meant Irving Thalberg, who was flanked by a brainy corps of executives. Films were no longer being supervised by Thalberg and Harry Rapf alone. There was a smoothly functioning...


    • CHAPTER 9 The Golden Silents
      (pp. 81-88)

      Nineteen twenty-eight greeted Irving G. Thalberg with the prospect of new projects and new profits. Before the year was over, the onslaught of the “new” would have him scrambling to keep up. He would face challenges not to his executive ability or his creative perception but to the cultural framework within which he worked. Three months after the premiere ofThe Jazz Singer, the film industry was still talking about the talking picture. Warners producer Hal Wallis had been there that night. “After the first musical number,” he reported, “the audience sprang to its feet and cheered. Every successive number...

    • CHAPTER 10 All-Talking, All-Singing, All Profitable
      (pp. 89-110)

      The decade known as the Roaring Twenties was coming to an end. “It was the flaming youth period, the jazz era,” wrote Joan Crawford. “We weren’t supposed to have problems. We didn’t rationalize that as an aftermath to war, old standards had broken down, that ours was a freedom our parents had never had…. We only knew that we were free and we wanted to try everything, do everything, have everything.” This attitude had set in motion the giddy cycles of consumerism, ballyhoo, and faddism that defined the “Era of Wonderful Nonsense.” By 1929, the genteel conversation of church socials...

    • CHAPTER 11 The Production Code
      (pp. 111-128)

      After the distractions, stress, and tumult of 1929, Irving Thalberg returned to his Culver City routine. Ahead of him lay a new year and a new decade. He had a child on the way and two years left to his Loew’s contract, yet he could not dismiss thoughts of mortality. “I’d settle for another ten years,” he confided to Albert Lewin in a reflective moment, and then, as usual, turned to the business at hand. He had to. Louis B. Mayer was spending a great deal of time away from the studio. In the spring of 1930 his daughter Edith...


    • CHAPTER 12 Visiting Royalty
      (pp. 131-160)

      Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer each began 1931 with a head cold. To most people, this would signify a psychogenic reaction to stress. To Shearer, Thalberg’s illness signaled something deeper. “After abusing his health outrageously,” Shearer recalled, “Irving would suddenly become worried. This was amusing—somewhat. After a grueling week, he would get conscience-stricken and crawl into bed. Then he would start feeling his pulse and reach for a pill. The doctor supplied Irving with a new kind and color of pill whenever he had a little ache or pain.” With Thalberg safely tucked into bed for the holidays, Shearer...

    • CHAPTER 13 New Morals for Old
      (pp. 161-184)

      Irving Thalberg’s career soared in an unbroken arc over Hollywood in 1932, even as the Great Depression grounded his competitors. Warner Bros. began the year $8 million in the red; RKO Radio Pictures, $5 million; Fox Film, a mere $3 million, thanks to its vast theater chain. Universal managed to stay in the black by periodically shutting down production. Paramount showed a profit, though it fell from $18 million in 1930 to $6 million in 1931. In a desperate attempt to cut overhead, Paramount began selling its heavily mortgaged theaters. This left fewer outlets for its product, which was a...

    • CHAPTER 14 The Right to Be Wrong
      (pp. 185-198)

      No one is infallible, not even a Boy Wonder. While Irving Thalberg was creating a catalogue of hits, he took several false steps. The first wasLetty Lynton. Grand Hotelhad just elevated Joan Crawford to the level of Garbo, Shearer, and Dressler, so Crawford was understandably miffed at losingRed-Headed Woman, and she began to watch Jean Harlow with no small interest. “To her tactlessly open jealousy of Norma Shearer, Joan added a rivalry with Jean Harlow, for whom she developed a controlled detestation,” wrote her then-husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Harlow added fuel to the fire by telling an...

    • CHAPTER 15 Hollywood Icarus
      (pp. 199-220)

      Like the mythical Icarus, who ignored his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun, Irving Thalberg was tempting fate. He was thirty-three, still a young man, but he continued to test his constitution by working seven days a week. He often brought Irving Jr. to work because there was no time to play with him at home. The reason for his schedule was obvious. M-G-M was straining to resist the depression. Because Louis B. Mayer was managing the Republican National Convention, Thalberg was forced to assume managerial duties. No one who had seen Thalberg in a hospital bed...


    • CHAPTER 16 The New Setup
      (pp. 223-244)

      The first weeks of 1933 were a tense time at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Irving Thalberg was out of immediate danger, but whether he would resume his post was an open question. Unable to consult with him, Louis B. Mayer took charge of the studio. He could not be omniscient like Thalberg, but he could be omnipresent. He came to every production meeting for Walter Wanger’sGabriel Over the White House. In his diary Wanger recorded meetings with Mayer on January 3 (by telephone), January 4 (in his office), January 6 (a “long session” in his office), January 13 (a screening of five...

    • CHAPTER 17 Honor with Credit
      (pp. 245-265)

      In early 1934 most Hollywood films had the logo of the National Recovery Administration superimposed over their credits. This was more than a nod to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; it was an affirmation of his success. In less than a year, the New Deal had slowed deflation and made it possible for almost every studio to stanch the flow of red ink. Film industry losses had totaled $55.7 million in 1932. In 1933—even with the severe March slump—losses were held at $4.9 million. The depression was not over, but fear was dissipating. At M-G-M, new policies were in...

    • CHAPTER 18 “To Hell with Art!”
      (pp. 266-292)

      Irving Thalberg needed to make big films in 1935. He was in the right place at the right time. M-G-M had ended 1934 with a profit of $7.5 million. The Great Depression was not over, but it was losing its grip on the cities where Loew’s had most of its theaters. Unemployment was down to 20 percent, and movie attendance was hovering around 80 million a week. Paramount, RKO, and Warners had rebounded, but Universal was still in the red, trying to placate its creditors. The Fox Film Corporation was hemorrhaging money, even though it had three ofFilm Daily’s...


    • CHAPTER 19 “Napoleon Thalberg”
      (pp. 295-314)

      Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer resumed their social routine in late 1935. The term “brunch” had been coined only a few years earlier but was already popular in the mansions along Santa Monica Beach. Thalberg’s schedule no longer required him to visit the studio on Sundays (much to the relief of his wife and mother), so he was able to enjoy brunch by his pool. When Sam Goldwyn or his next-door neighbor Douglas Fairbanks came to call, conversations did involve movies. When brunch was over and these friends had left, Thalberg would sit quietly under the striped awning at the...

    • CHAPTER 20 A Feverish Energy
      (pp. 315-334)

      Irving Thalberg was not one to do things by half measures. His successes of 1935 were big, complicated productions. Consequently, his 1936 projects would be bigger and more complicated. Their settings would include Renaissance Verona, Napoleon’s Waterloo, and China’s revolution. With Thalberg, of course, setting was secondary to story, and story to character. When there was a problem with a finished film, it was usually because his writers had been unable to resolve character. Tay Garnett refusedRiffraffbecause he felt the heroine could never be reconciled with the actress who was playing her. “A lot of people thought Jean...

    • CHAPTER 21 A Labor of Love
      (pp. 335-353)

      The idea of selling Shakespeare to the masses was not predicated on Norma Shearer’s whim. Since the advent of the Production Code, the public had been supporting films based on literary classics. Nostalgia for books read in school had made hits ofTreasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo,andA Tale of Two Cities. David Selznick was the most frequent purveyor of classics, and his were the most profitable;David Copperfieldgrossed $3 million. Of course Shakespeare was something else. Legend had it thatThe Taming of the Shrew,made in 1929 by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, had...

    • CHAPTER 22 The Gods Are Jealous
      (pp. 354-374)

      On Friday, September 4, Norma Shearer and Ralph Forbes were scheduled to promoteRomeo and Julieton Louella Parsons’s CBS radio show,Hollywood Hotel. The program would consist of two scenes between Shearer and Forbes (as Romeo), followed by the potion scene with Shearer, and concluding with scripted banter between the actors and Parsons. Irving Thalberg spent more than a week rehearsing the actors—even recording their rehearsals—so that the radio audience would hear a flawless performance. This was part of his quest for perfection. For the past twelve years, this quest had inspired, exhilarated, and rewarded him. In...


    • CHAPTER 23 Unfinished Projects
      (pp. 377-382)

      At Irving Thalberg’s funeral, one studio executive whispered to another: “They won’t miss him today or tomorrow or six months from now or a year from now. But two years from now they’ll begin to feel the squeeze.” It did not take two years. The squeeze was felt as soon as Louis B. Mayer reviewed Thalberg’s projects.

      Romeo and Julietwas completed, of course, but had not yet premiered in Los Angeles. In spite of the sadness permeating the studio, canceling or postponing the September 30 event was impossible. Stars arriving at the premiere were not asked to make a...

    • CHAPTER 24 Marie Antoinette
      (pp. 383-394)

      Mounting an Irving Thalberg production without Irving Thalberg posed a challenge. When Norma Shearer signed her contract,Marie Antoinettewas no more than a stack of scripts in the former Thalberg bungalow. Louis B. Mayer assigned it a temporary production number, 1185, so that it could take its place on the studio’s schedule. Whatever costs it generated would be billed to that number, not to a production unit that no longer existed. In deference to both Thalberg and Shearer, Sidney Franklin was assigned to direct. Since Albert Lewin was gone and David Lewis was inexperienced, Mayer accepted Shearer’s suggestion that...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 395-398)

    No two films better show the difference between Irving Thalberg’s M-G-M and L.B. Mayer’s M-G-M thanMarie Antoinette and Love Finds Andy Hardy. Both were released in July 1938.Marie Antoinettewas a painstakingly prepared star vehicle. It used character to create drama, and although it dealt in universal themes, its situations were unique to its story and too specific for a sequel.Love Finds Andy Hardywas the fourth entry in a series that began with the 1937 B pictureA Family Affair. The series consisted of a small-town family’s adventures, most of which centered on a rambunctious adolescent....

  12. APPENDIX: The M-G-M Films of Irving Thalberg
    (pp. 399-404)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 405-446)
    (pp. 447-462)
    (pp. 463-466)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 467-504)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 505-505)