Irving Thalberg

Irving Grant Thalberg(May 30, 1899 – September 14, 1936) was an American film producer during the early years of motion pictures. He was called "The Boy Wonder" for his youth and his extraordinary ability to select the right scripts, choose the right actors, gather the best production staff and make hundreds of very profitable films, includingGrand Hotel,China Seas,Camille,Mutiny on the BountyandThe Good Earth. His films carved out a major international market, "projecting a seductive image of American life brimming with vitality and rooted in democracy and personal freedom," states biographer Roland Flamini.:3He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and as a child was afflicted with a congenital heart disease that doctors said would kill him before he reached the age of thirty. After graduating high school he took night classes in typing and worked as a store clerk during the day. He then took a job as a secretary at Universal Studios' New York office, and was later made studio manager for their Los Angeles facility, where he oversaw production of a hundred films during his three years with the company. Among the films he produced wasThe Hunchback of Notre Dame.He then partnered with Louis B. Mayer 's studio and, after it merged with two other studios, helped create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). He was made head of production of MGM in 1925, at the age of twenty-six, and after three years MGM became the most successful studio in Hollywood as a result of his supervision. During his twelve years with MGM, until his early death at age 37, he produced four hundred films, most of which bore his imprint, and their production had adapted his innovations. Among those innovations were story conferences with writers, sneak previews to gain early feedback, and extensive re-shooting of scenes to improve the film. In addition, he introduced horror films to audiences and coauthored the “ Production Code ,” guidelines for morality followed by all studios. During the 1920s and 1930s, he synthesized and merged the world of stage drama and literary classics with Hollywood films.Thalberg created numerous new stars and groomed their screen images. Among those whose stardom was guided by Thalberg were Lon Chaney , Ramon Novarro , John Gilbert , Joan Crawford , Clark Gable , Jean Harlow , Wallace Beery , Luise Rainer , Greta Garbo , Lionel Barrymore , and Norma Shearer , who became his wife. He had the ability to combine quality with commercial success, and was credited with bringing his artistic aspirations in line with the demands of audiences. After his death, Hollywood's producers declared him to have been, despite his young age, "the foremost figure in motion-picture history" throughout the world. President Roosevelt wrote, "The world of art is poorer with the passing of Irving Thalberg. His high ideals, insight and imagination went into the production of his masterpieces." The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award , given out periodically since 1937, has been awarded to producers whose body of work reflected consistently high quality films.

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 Irving Thalberg's Early years




:5When he turned 18, he placed an ad with the local newspaper hoping to find better work:

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 Irving Thalberg's Career as producer

Universal Studios[edit]




Confrontation with Erich von Stroheim[edit]

Foolish Wives(1922). Biographer Roland Flamini notes that the film was Universal's most expensive "jewel" ever in production, and its director and star, von Stroheim, was taking the film way over budget. Thalberg, now Universal's general manager, was forced to have the director quickly finalize production before the studio's working capital was used up. Flamini describes the situation::30

The cost of that set alone had staggered Thalberg when he learned of it, but it was von Stroheim's obsessive spending on unnecessary detail that finally led to Thalberg's confrontation with the formidable director.


:32The result was that Thalberg soon after removed the cameras from von Stroheim's studio and took over editing. The uncut footage was pared down from five-and-a-half hours to three hours, to von Stroheim's deep dissatisfaction.

A similar problem developed with von Stroheim's next film,Merry-Go-Round. Although he had promised Thalberg to remain within budget this time, he continued production until it went to twice the agreed length and was not yet near completion. Flamini speculates why this happened:



:36The opinion was shared by director Rouben Mamoulian , who said that the "little fellow at Universal," in one bold stroke, had "asserted the primacy of the studio over the director" and forever altered the balance of power in the movie industry.:36

Effects of his young age[edit]

Thalberg, 1929

:37Novelist Edna Ferber responded the same way, writing that "I had fancied motion-picture producers as large gentlemen smoking oversized cigars. But this young man whose word seemed so final at Universal City . . . impressed me deeply.":9

The male actors in the studio had a similar reaction. Lionel Barrymore , who was nearly twice his age, recalls their meetings:


Dinner at Eight, various Marx Brothers films, and two George Gershwin plays, came from New York to meet with Thalberg. Afterwards he confided to his friend, Groucho Marx : "That man has never written a word, yet he can tell me exactly what to do with a story. I didn't know you had people like that out here.":189


His younger-than-normal age for a studio executive was usually mentioned even after he left Universal to help start up MGM. Screenwriter Agnes Christine Johnson , who worked with Thalberg for years, described his contribution during meetings:


:74Another assistant producer to Thalberg explains:

made at his suggestion. He had that uncanny ability.:59–60

:74Those opinions were also shared by producer Walter Wanger : "You thought that you were talking to an Indian savant. He could cast a spell on anybody."

As a result, he was never bored or tired, and supplemented his spare time with reading for his own amusement, recalls screenwriter Bayard Veiller , with some of his favorite authors being Francis Bacon , Epictetus , or Emmanuel Kant .

Film projects at Universal[edit]

Lon Chaney inThe Hunchback of Notre Dame(1923)




Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)[edit]

Thalberg (L) with wife, Norma Shearer, and Louis B. Mayer, 1932

:46Thalberg then received an offer from Hal Roach , but the offer was withdrawn because Thalberg lacked experience with slapstick comedy films. In late 1922, Thalberg was introduced to Louis B. Mayer , president of a small, but dynamic and fast-growing studio. At that first meeting, Thalberg "made a deep, immediate impression on Mayer," writes Flamini. Later that evening, after Thalberg had left, Mayer said to studio attorney Edwin Loeb: "Tell him if he comes to work for me, I'll look after him as though he were my son.":46

:47According to Flamini, Thalberg was hired because, although Mayer was an astute businessman, "what he lacked was Thalberg's almost unerring ability to combine quality with commercial success, to bring artistic aspiration in line with the demands of the box office.":47Mayer's company subsequently merged with two others to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), with the 24-year-old Thalberg made part-owner and accorded the same position as vice president in charge of production. Three years after the merger, MGM became the most successful studio in Hollywood.


Production innovations[edit]

Sid Grauman (L), Norma Shearer , Thalberg, 1932


:6Flamini explains that the equation for MGM's success depended on combining stars, a Broadway hit or popular classic, and high standards of production. This combination at the time was considered a "revolutionary approach" in the film industry, which until then assumed a star was all that was needed for success, regardless of the story or production quality. The other studios began following MGM's lead with that same formula.:6

Production techniques[edit]


. He therefore kept hundreds of back lot carpenters at work creating realistic sets, as he did for fifteenth-centuryRomeo and Juliet(1936), or withChina Seas(1935), to replicate the harbors of Hong Kong.:9

:8ForChina Seas, for instance, he described for the screenwriters, director and others, exactly how he wanted the film to appear on screen:

I'd like to open this sequence on a roaring gale at sea. . . . I think it might be better to open just prior to the storm—that awful calm before the storm . . . and the typhoon hits and they go through all that hell, and the terrific tiredness after the fight is over—the weariness of Gaskell [Clark Gable], and from behind him this China woman comes and their affair [begins].



Taking risks with new subjects and stars[edit]

in 1929 was also a gamble by Thalberg. When King Vidor , the film's producer and director, proposed the idea to Thalberg of a major film cast, for the first time, exclusively with African Americans, he told Thalberg directly, "I doubt that it will make a dollar at the box office." Thalberg replied, "Don't worry about that. I've told you that MGM can afford an occasional experiment.":105

Grand Hotel, later that same year. It had five major stars, including Garbo, Joan Crawford , John Barrymore , Lionel Barrymore , and Wallace Beery .:6"Before Thalberg," writes Vieira, "there was noGrand Hotelin the American consciousness.":7The film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1932.:167

Shortly after shooting began in late 1935, doubts of Rainer's acting ability emerged in the press.However, despite her limited appearances in the film, Rainer "so impressed audiences with one highly emotional scene" that she won the Academy Award for Best Actress .

(1937). For the part as a Chinese peasant, she was required to act totally subservient to her husband, being perpetually huddled in submission, and barely spoke a word of dialogue during the entire film. Rainer recalls that Mayer did not approve of the film being produced or her part in it: "He was horrified at Irving Thalberg's insistence for me to play O-lan, the poor uncomely little Chinese peasant.":142However, she again won the Oscar for Best Actress , becoming the first actress to win two consecutive Oscars, a feat not matched until Katharine Hepburn 's two Oscar wins thirty years later.

Grooming new stars[edit]

By doing so, he made stars of actors such as Lon Chaney , Ramon Navarro , John Gilbert , Greta Garbo , Joan Crawford , Clark Gable , Helen Hayes , Jean Harlow , Marie Dressler , Wallace Beery , John Barrymore , Lionel Barrymore and Luise Rainer .:7

Luise Rainer

The Good Earth(1937), her film career went into decline from being given a string of bad parts, and she gave up her film career. Rainer commented years later, "His dying was a terrible shock to us. He was young and ever so able. Had it not been that he died, I think I may have stayed much longer in films."

Greta Garbo

In 1925, a young Greta Garbo , then twenty, and unable to speak any English, was brought over from Sweden at Mayer's request, as he saw how she looked in still photos. However, she remained in New York for over six months without any word from MGM. She then went to Los Angeles, but another five weeks passed with no contacts from the studio. She was on the verge of returning to Sweden, and wrote to her boyfriend back home:

:71However, according to Norma Shearer, Garbo did not necessarily agree with his ideas:


Joan Crawford

Marie Dressler

Thalberg also realized that old stars few had heard of could be made into new ones. Marie Dressler , a fifty-nine-year-old early vaudeville star, was unable to get any roles in films. MGM screenwriter, Frances Marion suggested to Thalberg that she might fit well in a starring role for a new film, and was surprised when he knew of her prior successes. Thalberg approved of using her without a screen test and offered his rationale:


Getting audience feedback and reshooting[edit]


Bad decisions and missed opportunities[edit]

In 1927, after the successful release of the first full-length talking picture,The Jazz Singer(1927), he nevertheless felt that talking pictures were a fad. Thalberg likewise did not think that color would replace black-and-white in movies.:71

.:7Thalberg himself admitted to his obsession years later to a fellow producer: "You're behaving like I did with Norma. I knew positively that she could play anything. It's a kind of romantic astigmatism that attacks producers when they fall for an actress.":201

Important films at MGM[edit]

Ben Hur(1925)[edit]
Scene fromBen Hur(1925)

One of the first pictures he took charge of,Ben Hur, was inherited and already in production by another studio when MGM was formed. The film was turning into a disastrous expense with cost overruns already in the millions due to its lavish sets and location shooting in Rome. Most studio executives chose to terminate the film to cut their losses. Thalberg, however, felt differently, and thought the film would have an impact on movie audiences, due to its classic literary source, and would highlight MGM as a major new studio.


Mutiny on the Bounty(1935)[edit]

The film's other main stars were Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone . The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actor, and winning it for Best Picture. Thalberg accepted the award as producer from Frank Capra .Approximately six months later, Thalberg died at the age of 37.

Thalberg and Mayer partnership[edit]

At first, Thalberg and studio chief Louis B. Mayer got along famously well. However, they had different production philosophies. Thalberg preferred literary works, while Mayer preferred glitzy crowd-pleasing films. A clash was inevitable, and their relationship grew decidedly frosty. When Thalberg fell ill in 1932, Mayer took advantage of the situation and replaced him with David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger . When Thalberg returned to work in 1933, it was as one of the studio's unit producers, albeit one who had first choice on projects and MGM resources, including its stars, due to his closeness to Nicholas Schenck , who was then president of MGM corporate parent Loew's Inc. Schenck, who was the true power and ultimate arbiter at the studio, usually backed up Thalberg.

As a result, he helped develop some of MGM's most prestigious ventures, includingGrand Hotel(1932),The Barretts of Wimpole Street(1934 film starring his wife Norma Shearer ),Mutiny on the Bounty(1935),China Seas(1935),A Night at the Opera(1935) with the Marx Brothers ,San Francisco(1936), andRomeo and Juliet(1936).

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 Irving Thalberg's Personal life

With wife actress Norma Shearer , July 1936


Less than a year after he and Mayer took charge of the newly created MGM studios, and still only twenty-five years old, Thalberg suffered a serious heart attack due to overwork. Mayer also became aware of Thalberg's congenital heart problems and now worried about the prospect of running MGM without him. Mayer also became concerned that one of his daughters might become romantically involved, and told them so:


Thalberg, aware of Mayer's feelings, made it a point of never giving too much attention to his daughters at social events.

One of Thalberg's traits was his ability to work long hours into the night with little sign of fatigue. According to Vieira, Thalberg believed that as long as his mind was active in his work and he was not bored, he would not feel tired. Thalberg, who often got by with only five hours of sleep, felt that most people could get by with less than they realized:


To keep his mental faculties at peak, he would read philosophical books by Bacon, Epictetus, or Kant. "They stimulate me. I'd drop out of sight in no time if I didn't read and keep up with current thought—and the philosophers are brain sharpeners."

:309Thalberg stated his opinion:


Thalberg's wedding in 1927 to Norma Shearer, with his parents and her mother shown.

:310Within a few years. American film distribution was "choked off" in Germany. Led by Warner Brothers, all American studios eventually closed their German offices.:259

A few years after he joined MGM, Thalberg began dating actress Norma Shearer , and they married in 1927. The wedding took place in the garden of his rented home in Beverly Hills. Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin officiated the private ceremony, with Shearer's brother, Douglas Shearer , giving the bride away, and Louis B. Mayer acting as best man. After the wedding, they drove up the coast to Monterey to spend their honeymoon.

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 Irving Thalberg's Death

Thalberg and Shearer took a much-needed Labor Day weekend vacation in Monterey, California, in 1936, staying at the same beachfront hotel where they spent their honeymoon. A few weeks earlier, Thalberg's leading screenwriter, Al Lewin, had proposed doing a film based on a soon-to-be published book,Gone With the Wind. Although Thalberg said it would be a "sensational" role for Gable, and a "terrific picture," he decided not to do it:

andThe Good Earth. And now you're asking me to burn Atlanta? No! Absolutely not! No more epics for me now. Just give me a little drawing-room drama. I'm tired. I'm just too tired.:2909

:293"Work stopped and hundreds of people wept," writes Flamini. Stars, writers, directors, and studio employees, "all sharing a sense of loss at the death of a man who had been a part of their working lives.":271

:293The MGM studio closed for that day.


Thalberg is buried in a private marble tomb in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California , lying at rest beside his wife Norma Shearer Arrouge (Thalberg's crypt was engraved "My Sweetheart Forever" by Shearer).

:273Leading producers from the other studios also expressed their feelings in published tributes to Thalberg:



,MaytimeandRomeo and Juliet.Groucho Marx, star ofA Day at the Races, wrote, "After Thalberg's death, my interest in the movies waned. I continued to appear in them, but ... The fun had gone out of picture making.":379Thalberg's widow, Norma Shearer, recalled, "Grief does very strange things to you. I didn't seem to feel the shock for two weeks afterwards. . . . then, at the end of those two weeks, I collapsed.":379

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 Irving Thalberg's Legacy

:299Thomas describes some of his contributions:


Writers from the foreign press had also attempted to explain the essence of his career as producer. C. A. Lejeune , film critic of the LondonObserver, described her impressions of Thalberg:


editorial called him "the most important force" in the motion picture industry. The paper added that for the film industry, he "set the pace and others followed . . . because his way combined style, glamour, and profit." He is described by Flamini as having been "a revolutionary in a gray flannel suit.":4

Thalberg refused to take credit as producer, and as a result his name never appeared on the screen while he was alive. Thalberg claimed that "credit you give yourself is not worth having". His final film, released after he died, wasThe Good Earth(1937), which won numerous Academy Awards. Its opening screen credit was dedicated to Thalberg:


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 Irving Thalberg's In popular culture

The Last Tycoon[edit]

The Last Tycoon, a fictionalized biography of Thalberg, naming the protagonist Monroe Stahr to represent Thalberg. "Thalberg has always fascinated me," he wrote to an editor. "His peculiar charm, his extraordinary good looks, his bountiful success, the tragic end of his great adventure. The events I have built around him are fiction, but all of them are things which might very well have happened. . . . I've long chosen him for a hero (this has been in my mind for three years) because he is one of the half-dozen men I have known who were built on a grand scale.":8

Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli adds that Fitzgerald believed that Thalberg, with his "taste and courage, represented the best of Hollywood. . . . [and] saw Thalberg as a model for what could be done in the movies."Fitzgerald died before the novel was completed, however. Bruccoli writes of Fitzgerald's book:

Norma Shearer said that the Stahr character was not at all like her former husband.

In the 1976 film version , directed by Elia Kazan , Monroe Stahr was played by Robert De Niro . Kazan, in his pre-production notes, described the Stahr character as he saw him:


Fitzgerald also based his short story " Crazy Sunday ", originally published in the October 1932 issue ofAmerican Mercury, on an incident he witnessed at a party thrown by Thalberg and Shearer. The story is included in Fitzgerald's collectionTaps at Reveille(1935).

Thalberg was portrayed in the movieMan of a Thousand Faces(1957) by Robert Evans , who appropriately enough went on to become a studio head himself.

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 Irving Thalberg's Filmography



  • The Trap(1922)
  • The Dangerous Little Demon(1922)

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 Irving Thalberg's Awards

1923Photoplay AwardsMedal of Honor The Big Parade
1932 Smilin' Through
1934 The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Academy Awards[edit]

1927–28 Nominated Best Unique and Artistic Production The Crowd
1928–29 Won Best Picture The Broadway Melody
1928–29 Nominated Best Picture The Hollywood Revue of 1929
1929–30 Nominated Best Picture The Divorcee
1929–30 Nominated Best Picture The Big House
1930–31 Nominated Best Picture Trader Horn
1931–32 Won Best Picture Grand Hotel
1931–32 Nominated Best Picture The Champ
1932–33 Nominated Best Picture Smilin' Through
1934 Nominated Best Picture The Barretts of Wimpole Street
1935 Won Best Picture Mutiny on the Bounty
1936 Nominated Best Picture Romeo and Juliet
1937 Nominated Best Picture The Good Earth

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 Irving Thalberg's Notes

  1. ^abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzaaabacFlamini, Roland.Thalberg: The Last Tycoon and the World of M-G-M, Crown (1994)
  2. ^abcde"Hollywood’s Ultimate Honor Isn’t the Oscar. It’s the Irving." ,Tablet Magazine, Feb. 24, 2016
  3. ^abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzaaabacadaeVieira, Mark A.Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, Univ. of California Press (2010)
  4. ^abcd"I. G. Thalberg Dies, Film Producer, 37. 'Boy Wonder' of Hollywood Was Called Most Brilliant Figure in His Field.".New York Times. September 15, 1936. 
  5. ^Thomson, David.The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2002) pp. 867–868
  6. ^abcdefghijklmnopqThomas, Bob.Thalberg: Life and Legend, New Millennium Press (1969)
  7. ^abcdefVieira, Mark A.Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of M-G-M, Abrams, New York (2008)
  8. ^Higham, Charles.Merchant of Dreams: Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M., and the Secret Hollywood, Donald I. Fine, Inc. (1993)
  9. ^"Tantalizing Eyes Chief Appeal of Beautiful Luise Rainer" by Dan Thomas,Pittsburgh Press, October 28, 1935, p. 14
  10. ^abAffron, Charles, and Edelman, Rob.International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers,St. James Press (1997) pp. 997–999
  11. ^abVerswijver, Leo.Movies Were Always Magical, McFarland Publ. (2003) p. 142
  12. ^abSands, Frederick.The Divine Garbo, Grosset & Dunlap (1979) pp. 69–73
  13. ^Leider, Emily W.Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, Univ. of California Press (2011) p. 184
  14. ^abcFriedrich, Otto (1997).City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in 1940s(reprint ed.). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp. 16–17. ISBN   0520209494 . 
  15. ^abWiebe, Charles. "Mutiny on the Bounty: Irving Thalberg's Masterpiece",, May 11, 2016
  16. ^"Mutiny on the Bountywins the 1935 Academy Award for Best Picture"
  17. ^Schatz, Thomas.The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.Pantheon Books, New York, 1988
  18. ^abcBruccoli, Matthew J.Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1981) pp. 466–468
  19. ^Kazan, Elia.Kazan on Directing, Random House (2009) p. 229

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 Irving Thalberg's Books

  • Thalberg: Life and Legendby Bob Thomas (1969)
  • Thalberg: The Last Tycoon and the World of M-G-Mby Roland Flamini (1994)
  • Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-believe Saintsby Samuel Marx (1975)
  • Vieira, Mark A.Irving Thalberg's M-G-M. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008.
  • Vieira, Mark A.Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

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