"Irving Thalberg: Prince of Hollywood" is a look at the short life and career of one of Hollywood's great geniuses. Beating the odds from the time of his birth as a blue baby, he proved early on, first with Universal and then with MGM, that he had the midas touch.
The documentary gives insight into Thalberg's great gifts. He is responsible for the film preview and for the all-star cast; he made the first all-talking musical, "Broadway Melody"; he saved the careers of Marie Dressler and the Marx Brothers, helped make Clark Gable and Jean Harlow stars, and of course, nurtured the career of his wife, Norma Shearer. His uneasy relationship with Louis B. Mayer is discussed, as is his demotion at MGM from head of production to independent producer, his marriage to Shearer, and his frail constitution.
Most important of all, Thalberg's contribution to film is explored, his commitment to make the medium better than it had been and his commitment to character-driven stories. He disliked people with no imagination, because his was so great. Undoubtedly, this was because as a sickly, often bedridden child, he read a great deal. The point was made over and over that he understood power and its uses, and he wasn't afraid to make actors and directors toe the line. Perhaps the most interesting thing about him, and what made him most gifted, was his ability to spot the flaw in a film and change it, sometimes with the most minor adjustment, turning negative preview cards into positive ones. Examples of this were given in the films "The Champ," "Camille," "Red-Headed Woman," and "The Big House" - for this viewer, the most fascinating thing in this documentary.
Thalberg was a amazing and important man, and it would be difficult to make a bad documentary about him. But film lovers will be left with a great depression after it's over. Thalberg, it seems, was irreplaceable, because in 70 years, there hasn't been another. The Selznicks, the Thalbergs - the producers with a strong vision, a feeling for entertainment, a commitment to quality, with a strong imagination seem gone in the big studios today. Fortunately we have independent filmmakers who seem possessed by something of what Thalberg had and some brilliant directors. But it's always good to go back and see what made Hollywood great.
Thalberg's children are shown when they're small, and nothing else is said about them. Shearer and Thalberg's son, Irving Jr., died at the age of 58 in 1988 of cancer. He was a distinguished author and teacher of philosophy at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Their daughter, Katherine, was married to a former Mayor of Aspen, Colorado, and owned and ran the Explore Bookstore there until she died in 2006. She was known for her activism in various causes, including the anti-fur fight.
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