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Irving Thalberg Poster

Biography

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Overview (5)

Date of Birth 30 May 1899Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA
Date of Death 14 September 1936Santa Monica, California, USA  (lobular pneumonia)
Birth NameIrving Grant Thalberg
Nicknames Boy Wonder
Wunderkkind
Height 5' 11" (1.8 m)

Mini Bio (1)

Thalberg was born in New York City of German immigrant parents. He had a bad heart, having contracted rheumatic fever as a teenager and was plagued with other ailments all of his life. He was quite intelligent with a thirst for knowledge but, convinced that he would never see thirty, he skipped college and became, at 21, a high-level executive at Carl Laemmle's Universal Studios, then the largest motion picture studio in the world. After hitting a career impasse at Universal (partly as a result of a failed romance with Laemmle's daughter), Thalberg jumped ship and enlisted with the relatively obscure Louis B. Mayer Productions overseeing its typically turgid yet profitable melodramas. While the two men shared a common vision for their company, they approached their responsibilities from radically different angles. Mayer was a macro-manager; like a chess master, he would typically engineer business moves far in advance. Given the opportunity, Mayer could've succeeded as CEO of any multi-national corporation. Thalberg was at heart, all about movies, literally pouring his life into his work, largely leaving the managerial duties of the studio to Mayer. Modest, he disavowed screen credit during his lifetime, decrying any credit that one gives themselves as worthless. This working partnership would keep Louis B. Mayer Productions consistently profitable and would extend into their heydays as masters of MGM but would lead to an acrimonious later relationship. By 1923 theater mogul Marcus Loew had a big problem. In an effort to secure an adequate number of quality films for his theatrical empire, he had merged Metro Pictures with his latest acquisition, Goldwyn Pictures only to discover his new super-studio had inherited a handful of projects (the Italian-based Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and Greed (1924)) that had spun wildly out of control. He soon discovered that his problems were magnified by inheriting an incompetent management team. He instructed his attorney to conduct a headhunting expedition with instructions to investigate Louis B. Mayer Productions --- which Loew had previously visited on one of his trips west. Mayer's east Los Angeles studio actually had few tangible assets --- most of his equipment was rented. Loew ended up paying a pittance for Mayer's company but offered both men (after initially rejecting Thalberg!) huge salaries and even more generous profit participation allowances. Answering to New York-based Loew's Inc., Mayer and Thalberg moved into the then-state-of-the-art Goldwyn lot in Culver City and, with Loew's deep pockets, set about creating the most enviable film studio in Hollywood, quickly eclipsing Thalberg's former employer, Universal. Greed was largely scrapped (Thalberg recognizing director Erich von Stroheim's vision of a 7-hour film was unmarketable, had it extensively edited) and written off after a truncated release, with Ben Hur being called home and re-shot with a new director. Saddled with an unfavorable contract and millions in the red, the film would ultimately benefit the new company from prestige more than net profit, despite drawing huge crowds. Mayer and Thalberg quickly moved past these inherited nightmares and created their dream studio. From 1925 through the mid-1940s there was MGM and then everyone else. It's roster of stars, directors and technicians were unmatched by any other studio. Indeed, to work for MGM meant that you had reached the top of your profession, whether it was front of or behind the cameras. Under Mayer and Thalberg, the studio refined the mechanics of assembly-line film production --- even their B-pictures would outclass the other major's principal productions (arguably MGM's only weakness was comedy). Their formula for quality made MGM the only major studio to remain profitable throughout the Great Depression (although a lesser studio, Columbia also did so, it achieved "major" studio status after 1934, ironically assisted by loaned out stars from MGM). Thalberg himself was a workaholic and his health, which was never good, suffered. In his position as production supervisor, Thalberg had no qualms about expensive retakes or even extensively re-working a picture after it had completed principal photography --- one such case was with King Vidor's The Big Parade (1925), where he recognized the modest $200,000 WWI drama was lacking the war itself and could be turned into a true spectacle with a few epic battle scenes added. These few additional shots cost $45,000 and turned the film into MGM's first major home-grown hit (and its biggest hit of the silent era), grossing nearly $5 million. If he micro-managed productions there was no one in Hollywood who did it more effectively. Thalberg fell into a deep depression after the mysterious death of his friend and assistant Paul Bern (the two had worked extensively together on the hit Grand Hotel (1932)) and he demanded a one-year sabbatical. Loew's Inc. head Nicholas Schenck (Marcus Loew had died in late 1926) responded by throwing more money at him --- more than Mayer himself was scheduled to earn for the year, alienating Mayer. This, to his ostensible boss was an insufferable insult, one that would drastically alter their relationship. Thalberg remained on the job but suffered a heart attack following a 1932 Christmas party. Mayer quickly engineered a coup of sorts, recruiting a new inner circle of producers (including David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger) to replace him. Thalberg recuperated in Europe with his wife Norma Shearer and returned to MGM in August, 1933 resuming his somewhat reduced duties as a unit production head. He continued to score hits, supervising The Merry Widow (1934), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), the rousing, definitive version of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and the lavish Marie Antoinette (1938) (released after his death). Thalberg also sought to rectify the studio's poor record in comedy films, signing the Marx Brothers, who had just been released from their contract at Paramount after string of flops. He felt the brilliant comedy team had been seriously mismanaged and ordered their MGM films to be shot in sequence and after their routines had been well tested on stage. The Thalberg-produced A Night at the Opera (1935) was a big hit but he wasn't infallible, stumbling with the critically well-received production of Romeo and Juliet (1936), which went on the books as a $1 million loss. Over Mayer's objections he delved into the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth (1937) but died of pneumonia on September 14, 1936 at age 37. The Good Earth (1937) was released soon afterward, MGM honoring him by providing him his only screen credit (Thalberg had always eschewed producer's credit on his films). He was survived by his widow Norma and their two children; Irving, Jr. and Katherine. After his death the Motion Picture Academy created the Irving Thalberg Award, given for excellence in production.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jack Backstreet

Spouse (1)

Norma Shearer (29 September 1927 - 14 September 1936) (his death) (2 children)

Trade Mark (1)

So often referred to solutions for complex problems as "a lead pipe cinch," it became his catchphrase.

Trivia (26)

The character of Monroe Stahr, the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald's final novel ("The Last Tycoon ) was based on him. Fitzgerald also based the story "Crazy Sunday", on a party he attended at his home.
One of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS)
Interred at Forest Lawn, Glendale, California, USA, in the Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Benediction, end of the hall, on the left hand side, the very last private room marked "Thalberg."
Brother-in-law of Douglas Shearer and Athole Shearer, son-in-law of Edith Shearer.
Before marrying Norma Shearer, he was romantically linked to Rosabelle Laemmle (daughter of film mogul Carl Laemmle), actress Constance Talmadge and socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce.
Had two children, Irving, Jr. and Katherine. As adults, Irving, Jr. became a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Katherine owned a bookstore in Colorado.
Owing to Thalberg's habit in his lifetime of not seizing the spotlight for himself, Hollywood's memorials to him after his death were relatively sedate, although heartfelt. MGM renamed their administration facility the Thalberg Building, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences created the Thalberg Award to acknowledge "Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production."
On the day of his funeral, MGM closed for the entire day, and every Hollywood studio shut down operations for five minutes of silence at 10:00 AM PST. Such honors were rare, but Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow received similar consideration.
Took a screen credit only once in his lifetime: He credited himself as "I.R. Irving" for the screenplay he wrote for The Dangerous Little Demon (1922).
After a preview of the Marie Dressler-Wallace Beery picture Tugboat Annie (1933), Thalberg asked director Mervyn LeRoy if a scene could be improved by making Beery's shoes squeak. LeRoy agreed, but detailed how it would be economically prohibitive to reshoot the scene as the sets had been dismantled and the cast had dispersed. Thalberg responded, "Mervyn, I didn't ask you how much it would cost, I asked you whether it would help the picture." The scene was reshot, an example of Thalberg's perfectionism.
After director King Vidor complained to Thalberg that he was tired of shooting pictures that played in theaters for just one week, he told him about a new kind of realistic war movie he had envisioned. Thalberg was enthusiastic about Vidor's vision, and tried to buy the rights to the hit Broadway play "What Price Glory?" co-written by Maxwell Anderson and World War I Marine veteran Laurence Stallings. Since the rights to the popular anti-war play had already been acquired, he hired Stallings to come to Hollywood and write a screenplay for the new, realistic war picture that Vidor had dreamed about making. Stallings came up with The Big Parade (1925), an anti-war film that dispensed with traditional concepts of heroism, focusing instead on a love story between a Yank soldier and a French girl. After Vidor completed principal photography, Thalberg took the rough cut and previewed it before live audiences in Colorado. Although the audiences responded favorably, Thalberg decided to expand the scope of the picture, as Vidor had created a war picture without many war scenes. He had Vidor restage the famous marching army column sequence with 3,000 extras, 200 trucks and 100 airplanes, adding about $45,000 to the negative cost of the film. After Vidor moved on to another project, Thalberg had other battle scenes shot by director George W. Hill. The result was a classic, a major hit that proved to be MGM's most profitable silent picture. "The Big Parade" was an example of Thalberg's perfectionism as a managing producer.
Contracted rheumatic fever at the age of 17, and the prognosis was negative. His mother, Henrietta, ignored the physicians' opinions and sent Irving back to high school to finish up and get his diploma.
Is portrayed by John Rubinstein in The Silent Lovers (1980)
The father of two daughters, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Vice President-Production Louis B. Mayer originally thought of Thalberg, his production chief, as a son, but Thalberg's ambitions and his view of himself as the man behind the success of MGM eventually brought them into conflict. After Thalberg's 1933 heart-attack forced the young executive to take a long vacation, Mayer introduced a producer system he likened to a college of cardinals to replace Thalberg as the central producer. When Thalberg returned to MGM, he became just an ordinary producer, albeit one who had first choice on projects and MGM resources, including its stars, due to his closeness to Nicholas Schenck, the president of MGM corporate parent Loews's Inc. Schenck, who was the true power and ultimate arbiter at the studio, usually backed up Thalberg. Some Hollywood observers believe that Mayer was relieved by Thalberg's untimely death, though he professed a great deal of grief publicly and likely was saddened by his former mentor's demise as Thalberg had been instrumental in building MGM into the greatest studio in Hollywood and the world.
Is portrayed by Robert Evans in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Was a notorious hard worker, often putting in 12-hour workdays. He was also notorious for running behind schedule with his appointments. Actors, directors, writers and others would wait days if not weeks on the bench outside of his office before finally meeting face-to-face with Thalberg. Writer George S. Kaufman once quipped about that famous bench that on a clear day you can see Thalberg.
He was reportedly the person who created the term "film editor" as opposed to simply "cutter." He first applied the term to Margaret Booth.
On the evening of his death, during the live performance of Lux Radio Theater, "Quality Street", Cecil B. DeMille announced of the passing of Irving Thalberg and offered 10 seconds of silence in tribute.
Writer Charles MacArthur said about him, "He's too good to last. The lamb doesn't lie down with the lion for long.".
Cousin of Louis M. Heyward.
Film writer Heywood Gould on Thalberg: "Perhaps only foreigners could have seen America through the worshipful, distorted prism of an immigrant's sensibility. Only an immigrant could idealize the homely fortitude of Tom Mix, the cherry pie goodness of Mary Pickford; only an outsider could be taken with a popular culture that many Amerians considered beneath contempt... The mixture of opulence , melodrama, intrigue, mass culture for the masses... It was Thalberg's personality, not his oeuvre, that created the legend. He had a retailer's mind and contempt for those who worked for him.".
Writer Budd Schulberg on Thalberg: "He had the accouterments of an artist; he was like a young pope.".
Critic Graham Greene n reviewing "Romeo and Juliet": "... not a producer of uncommon talents.".
Critic Dwight MacDonald on Thalberg: "... in the country of the blind, Schary and Thalberg were literate compared to others, were mistaken for Goethes... A Thalberg is to an actual movie what a hamburger is to an actual steak.".
Film historian Bob Thomas on Thalberg: He was a creative producer, etc., but he was determined to turn out 52 pictures a year.".
In her December 1972 interview to Leonard Maltin in Film Fan Monthly, Madge Evans gives the following testimony about Thalberg's methods: "The only time you really ever had any sense of rehearsal was in a Thalberg film. It wasn't that there were any advance rehearsals, but he would come on the set and watch rehearsals, and then there would be great conferences while the actors sat around. He was a very quiet man; he would confer with the director, then the director would come back and the scene would be redirected. One film I made that Thalberg did was 'What Every Woman Knows' with Helen Hayes. We'd been shooting for about six or seven days and he stopped production because he didn't like the wardrobe that Adrian had designed. Everything was thrown out and we all made clothes tests. Then we went home and when they were ready, they called us.".

Personal Quotes (9)

Credit you give yourself is not worth having. Thalberg would not allow his name on his pictures; the one exception being The Good Earth (1937), posthumously.
[Screenwriter Charles MacArthur, who was a close friend, commenting on why Thalberg never took a producer's credit on his films] Entertainment is Thalberg's god. He's content to serve him without billing.
[on bringing in director George W. Hill to shoot additional night battle scenes for King Vidor's The Big Parade (1925)] Movies aren't made, they're remade.
A story never looks as good as when the other fellow buys it.
If they don't want to come to the picture...you can't stop them.
[Instruction to the writers of the updated 'Camille', 1936] The problem of a girl's past ruining her marriage doesn't exist anymore. Whores can make good wives. That has been proven.
Hit a fellow in old clothes with a snowball and it won't mean a thing. But dress a man up in tails and a silk hat and then knock his hat off, and you'll get a laugh.
[to Louis B. Mayer, regarding Gone with the Wind (1939)] Forget it, Louis. No Civil War picture will make a nickel.
Novelty is always welcome, but talking pictures are just a fad.

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