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Irving Grant Thalberg Edit Profile

film producer

Irving Grant Thalberg was an American film producer during the early years of motion pictures. He was called "The Boy Wonder" for his youth and ability to select scripts, choose actors, gather production staff, and make profitable films, including Grand Hotel, China Seas, Camille, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Good Earth.


Thalberg was born in Brooklyn, to German Jewish immigrant parents, William and Henrietta (Haymann). Shortly after birth, he was diagnosed with "blue baby syndrome," caused by a congenital disease that limited the oxygen supply to his heart. The prognosis from the family's doctor and specialists was that he might live to age twenty, or at most, age thirty.


During his high school years in Brooklyn, he began having attacks of chest pains, dizziness and fatigue. This affected his ability to study, though until that time he was a good student. When he was 17, he contracted rheumatic fever, and was confined to bed for a year. His mother, Henrietta, to prevent him falling too far behind other students, brought him homework from school, books, and tutors to teach him at home. She also hoped that the schoolwork and reading would distract him from the "tantalizing sounds" of children playing outside his window.

With little to entertain him, he read books as a main activity. He devoured popular novels, classics, plays, and biographies. His books, of necessity, replaced the streets of New York, and led to his interest in classical philosophy and philosophers, such as William James.

When Thalberg returned to school, he finished high school but lacked the stamina for college, which he felt would have required constant late-night studying and cramming for exams. Instead, he took part-time jobs as a store clerk, and in the evenings, to gain some job skills, taught himself typing, shorthand and Spanish at a night vocational school. When he turned 18, he placed an ad with the local newspaper hoping to find better work:

"Situation Wanted: Secretary, stenographer, Spanish, English, high school education, no experience; $15."


Thalberg began working in his maternal grandfather's department store, Heyman and Sons, as a clerk. He taught himself to type, and attended a private commercial school to learn Spanish and shorthand. Thalberg placed a newspaper ad describing his skills, and was soon hired by Taylor, Clapp and Beall, an import-export film. Within a short time, Thalberg was promoted to the head of the export department. He also wrote speeches for Morris Hillquit, a Socialist from New York. In 1918, Thalberg got a new job as a secretary at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. He had gotten the idea to work there when he met the studio's head, Carl Laemmle, while vacationing at his grandmother's cottage. Laemmle was her next-door neighbor. Laemmle found Thalberg working at Universal and made him his private secretary at a salary of $25 per week.

One of Thalberg's duties was transcribing and editing notes Laemmle made during screenings. Thalberg showed his talent by becoming adept at the process and adding his own insightful commentary. Laemmle was impressed with Thalberg's instincts. In 1920, he was invited to go with Laemmle to work at Universal City, Universal's movie lot in California. Thalberg was being groomed to become an executive. Laemmle tapped him to become Universal City's studio manager for a weekly salary of $60. For all intents and purposes, Thalberg was in charge of the studio when Laemmle was not there, though the young man was barely in his twenties. By the age of 21, Thalberg was also made production manager, in charge of Universal's slate of films. His goal was to improve the quality of Universal's releases, keeping in mind the opinion of the moving-going public, while keeping costs down.

Thalberg's mettle as a film executive was tested by Erich Von Stroheim, a director and actor with considerable power and a taste for extravagance. Thalberg wanted Universal's films to be produced on time and on budget, the exact opposite of Von Stroheim's working methods. Thomas Schatz wrote in Genius of the System, "Thalberg did not question Stroheim's skill as a director, writer, or actor …. But Thalberg was determined to rein in Stroheim's talent and increase the profit margin on his pictures, thus demonstrating that the pursuit of excellence was not a license for waste. And if one thing characterized Stroheim's film-making it was waste… . " The two men clashed during the making of Foolish Wives (1922). Von Stroheim wanted to build a replica of Monte Carlo. The film was cut down on order of Thalberg, and was successful at the box office. When Von Stroheim continued to spend money wildly during production of his next film, Merry-Go-Round (1923), Thalberg fired him and the director left Universal.

Thalberg put his ideas about production to the test with the big-budget motion picture, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). He took control of the project from inception to pre-production, from editing to marketing. Thalberg believed that good planning in pre-production and test marketing during final edits would give Universal a superior product. He seemed to be right, for the movie was a smash hit. Despite his accomplishments, Laemmle did not want to increase Thalberg's salary of $450 per week, nor give him any piece of Universal. There were rumors that the two disagreed creatively as well. In any case, Thalberg left Universal in 1923 for another company.

In 1923, Thalberg was hired by Louis B. Mayer Pictures as vice president and head of production at $600 per week. The following year, Louis B. Mayer Pictures merged with two other film companies, Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures Corp., to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Thalberg was named vice president and supervisor of production at the new company. His salary was increased to $2000 per week, with a guaranteed annual income of $400,000. Thalberg's work made the company a real power. His first order of business was a film which had started at Goldwyn and turned into a fiasco, Ben-Hur. The movie had had a problematic shoot in Italy, then California. Thalberg saved the project, though it meant exhausting himself to the point where he was viewing daily rushes from a hospital bed. Though Ben-Hur made no profit because of high production costs, the studio gained prestige by completing the quality project, defining the new concept of the "prestige picture."

The production of every movie made by MGM between 1924 and 1932 was supervised by Thalberg. He perfected the production methods he had developed at Universal, though this sometimes led to creative clashes with directors and others. One fight was with an old nemesis, Von Stroheim. The director had produced a film, Greed (1925) that was ten hours long and refused to cut it for release. Thalberg fired Von Stroheim from the project, and had the movie cut down to an acceptable time of two hours. Not all agreed with Thalberg's decision. Some critics and scholars thought the ten-hour version was a masterwork ruined by Thalberg's studio system. This system dictated that the director merely followed the blueprint set out by the producer, an employee of the studio.

Thalberg was not an ogre to all who worked on the creative side of film. He supported directors like King Vidor, who made one of the most profitable silent films, The Big Parade (1925). But Thalberg insisted on having input into every film, including this one. He added war scenes to the epic romance and changed its genre, making it a classic war film. Louis B. Mayer, the man who hired him, supported Thalberg's methods. Mayer took on the administrative and creative sides when necessary for Thalberg's benefit. Mayer had good reasons. When Thalberg was in charge, MGM was prestigious and profitable. In fact, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, MGM was the only studio that did not lose money.

Thalberg helped the career of established stars like Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Marie Dressler, John Gilbert, and Greta Garbo. He had MGM make several pictures for Garbo, including The Flesh and the Devil (1927) and Freaks (1932). Thalberg also nurtured new stars like Jean Harlow who appeared in the successful Red Dust (1932), and Clark Gable. One starlet he helped, Norma Shearer, became Thalberg's wife on September 29, 1927. They eventually had two children, Irving Jr. and Katherine. Thalberg guided his wife to an Academy Award in The Divorcee (1930). Another success of Thalberg's was the movie, The Broadway Melody (1929), MGM's first sound feature. This proved that all of his instincts were not right: Thalberg thought sound films were a passing fad.

Despite Thalberg's track record, his growing power was resented by Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg wanted more money and a cut of the profits. He also wanted MGM to maintain high production standards despite the Depression, which the company did not do. At the same time, Thalberg's personal life was taking a turn for the worse. A friend and employee, associate producer Paul Bern, killed himself. Thalberg's dedication to his work led to exhaustion and illness. He suffered from a severe case of influenza, then suffered a heart attack at the end of 1932.

Though Mayer and others tried to talk him out of it, Thalberg took several months off at the beginning of 1933 to rest and travel in Europe. In the meantime, Mayer took the opportunity to realign power at MGM. Mayer effectively eliminated Thalberg's position. In its place, he created so-called "unit producers" who were in charge of only a portion of MGM's productions. He hired two such producers, David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger, to head two of the units. When Thalberg returned to MGM in August 1933, he was made a unit producer as well. However, he still had greater privileges than the others on MGM's lot.

Despite the demotion, Thalberg continued to supervise hits for MGM like Riptide (1934), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), China Seas (1935), The Merry Widow (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), A Night at the Opera (1935) and San Francisco (1936). Mutiny on the Bounty won an Academy Award. Thalberg also revived the operetta genre with Naughty Marietta (1935), making stars of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Thalberg continued to service stars like Greta Garbo. She turned in one of her best performances in Camille (1936). Thalberg did make some questionable decisions. He insisted on adding songs and a romantic subplot to the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. He also told Mayer that MGM should not finance Gone with the Wind (1939).

Thalberg was doing pre-production work on what became A Day at the Races (1937) when he became seriously ill. In early September he caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia. Thalberg succumbed to the illness on September 14, 1936, in Santa Monica, California. He was only 37 years old. When The Good Earth (1937), the last important film Thalberg completed, was released, he received one of his only screen credits. The film was dedicated to him.

After his death, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences named an award after him, the Irving G. Thalberg Award. It was given to those who made a substantial contribution to the film industry. MGM named a building on their Culver City lot for him in 1937. As industry executive Will H. Hays said in The New York Times upon Thalberg's death, "The death of Irving Thalberg is an irreparable loss to the motion-picture industry. No one can take his place, though others may come to do his work."


During his few years with Universal while living in New York, Thalberg had become romantically involved with Carl Laemmle's daughter, Rosabelle. Still in his early twenties and later spending most of his time in Los Angeles, his feelings toward her were no longer as strong. Flamini suspects that this may have affected his position at Universal and partly caused his decision to leave the company. " The Laemmles prayed that Irving would marry Rosabelle," notes Flamini. "They wanted their sons to be educated and their daughters to marry nice Jewish boys.

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:

He's attractive. I don't want you girls getting any ideas in your heads, ever. . . . I don't want to have a young widow on my hands.

When others suggested that many Jews could die in Germany as a result of Nazi anti-Semitism, he replied that in his opinion "Hitler and Hitlerism will pass." On one occasion, Catholic Prince Lowenstein of Germany, who himself had almost been captured before fleeing Germany, told him: “Mr. Thalberg, your own people are being systematically hunted down and rooted out of Germany.” Thalberg suggested that world Jewry should nevertheless not interfere, that the Jewish race would survive Hitler.[1]:181[3]:310 Within a few years. American film distribution was "choked off" in Germany. Led by Warner Brothers, all American studios eventually closed their German offices.

A few years after he joined MGM, Thalberg began dating actress Norma Shearer, whom he 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. They drove to Monterey for their honeymoon.

After their second child was born, Shearer considered retiring from films, but Thalberg convinced her to continue acting, saying he could find her good roles. She went on to be one of MGM's biggest stars of the 1930s. Their two children were Irving Jr. (1930–1987) and Katherine (1935–2006).

William Thalberg

Henrietta (Heymann) Thalberg

Norma Shearer