Irving Thalberg was once described as ""a flimsy bag of bones held together by his creative zeal to making the greatest motion pictures in the history of the world", and this documentary tells his complete story both personal and professional from his infancy and the blue baby syndrome and later rheumatic fever that greatly shortened his life expectancy. Starting out as an office boy for Carl Laemmle at Universal, he was head of production there before he was old enough to sign employee checks. He helped Universal get out of the rut of being mainly just a factory for B westerns and pointed Universal in the direction of making prestige horror films. He then went to work for Louis Mayer's independent film company and then the prefabricated MGM studio as head of production, where he had a free hand there the first eight years of MGM's existence, 1924 - 1932.
Watching this you realize Thalberg caught almost every trend, had a great talent for storytelling, and knew what audiences wanted while at the same time delivering quality. The silents and the talkies he produced are still watched today by classic film buffs, and they really haven't aged that much. The one trend Thalberg didn't catch was the advent of sound or color. He thought the Jazz Singer was just a fad and thus MGM was the last major studio to convert to sound, making prestige silent pictures through 1929. However, once MGM went to sound they produced the first talking picture to win the Best Picture Oscar -"Broadway Melody".
Thalberg's story really is MGM's story, and although MGM reigned supreme at the box office until 1946 before it began its decline, many trace the beginning of MGM's demise to 1936, when Thalberg died at the age of only 37. It makes you wonder if Thalberg - had he been healthy - would have driven himself this hard and would he have seen the coming post-war trends of noir and competition from television that ultimately did in MGM.
One thing that the documentary omitted that I would consider almost as important as the stars Thalberg discovered was his choice of a head sound engineer in 1928 that on the surface looked like nepotism - Douglas Shearer, his brother-in-law. Shearer had quite the mechanical bent and his career at MGM spanned forty years and a multitude of Oscar wins and nominations for achievement in sound.
This TCM production is very well done with lots of film clips from the Universal and MGM films that Thalberg produced as well as many clips of interviews with people who knew Thalberg well including a particularly fascinating excerpt from the Dick Cavett show with Groucho Marx talking about his relationship with Thalberg. Highly recommended for anyone interested in film history.
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