You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Mogul Empire

Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince

By Mark A. Vieira

(University of California Press, 504 pp., $34.95) 

There are times of such chaos and promise, danger and daydream, when all of us hope for a superb and flawless leader. If he can swing it, we are off the hook. But he need not be a hero who turns into a tyrant. He is not necessarily strong, fierce, and Herculean. Indeed, it may add to his charm, to his magic, if he is slight, youthful, on the pretty side, and--better still--dying. He should be gentler than other leaders, more reliant on reason, calm, and explanation than those commanders who insist on being obeyed. In modern times, I can think of three such figures--Michael Corleone (Ivy League, good military record, the clean boy in the family), Irving Thalberg (the sickly genius who led MetroGoldwyn-Mayer in its great days), and Barack Obama, the once-marginal man who was so wise and so far-seeing that he believed he did not have to behave like an American politician to save America.

There is something religious in the way Irving Grant Thalberg appeared at the right moment--on May 30, 1899, just in time for the new age and its sensational light show. He was the son of a melancholy father, William Thalberg, German-Jewish, from near Coblenz, an importer of lace but such a failure that he had to rent a multi-room attic in Brooklyn. The mother, Henrietta Heyman, was made of sterner stuff. As one who knew her put it, “Rather unlovely physically, she was imbued with the American dream of wealth, success, and social status.” Her family was in the department store business, and she was determined that Irving was going to defy every doctor’s warning that he was frail, a likely invalid, with a heart problem. Since it was the general estimate that the boy would not live to see thirty, his mother decided that he had no time for college.

She did much more. She nursed him. She kept him in bed whenever infection was in the neighborhood. She talked to him, gazed upon him, and urged her ambition and her desire for knowledge into his slender frame. Irving was never more than five-foot-six and 122 pounds. He had padded shoulders put in his suits. But he was angelic--this book uses his face on the jacket as if he were a romantic star. He read widely; he studied languages and shorthand; he absorbed philosophy and fiction, and he began to develop not just an analytical mind but also a rigorously pragmatic attitude to life. He resolved to be effective. He never seems to have been inspired to write stories himself, but he could take a story, deconstruct it, and improve it--as if it was a bicycle or an automobile.

By the time he was eighteen, he was beautiful: dark wavy hair, large, sympathetic pools for eyes, a wide brow, and a maturity in the way of human empathy. Older people with more worldly success encountered him and were not just impressed; they were also calmed and reassured, and they waited for him to suggest what they might do. In 1919 he got a job as secretary to Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Pictures. The movies were still an infant form, noisy, lawless, crazed, and largely improvised by gamblers, gangsters, and would-be artists. As a business it was clearly the new rage--there were fortunes to be made and stolen. As an art, it might have the power to usurp literature itself, for here were stories for those who could not read. But the whole thing was in the hands of uneducated escapees from Eastern Europe and the rag trade, people who had blundered into the new business of nickelodeon arcades and “theaters,” and wondered what films they could show.

Used to being in bed and examining the evidence, Thalberg revealed an astonishing way of making decisions. His lack of credentials or physical heft meant very little when he could play with the idea for a film as if it was a coin, tossing it and turning it until he knew “heads” from “tails.” Whether it was a trick or a lucky way of seeing things, all he had to do was call it as if he were right. It led to astonishing promotion. Just twenty, he was put in charge of production at Universal Studios. He stood up to Erich von Stroheim (the spirit of the Hun, the man you love to hate) and actually fired him from his film Merry-Go-Round, because Stroheim was going recklessly over budget and schedule. At twenty-two, Thalberg was invited to join the company of Louis B. Mayer, and two years later, when Mayer rose in the merger of M, G, and M, Thalberg became head of production at the new outfit. He was not quite twenty-five, the age at which Orson Welles got to make Citizen Kane. There might be a fascinating argument as to which of them was the more precocious--but Welles looked as strong as a bull (and as dangerous), while Thalberg was everyone’s idea of a weakling. When Mayer studied his own production head, he dreamed for a moment that Irving might be a perfect match for one of his daughters. But then he sighed, recollecting the common wisdom that the kid wouldn’t see past thirty.

Well, Thalberg lasted until September 1936. There had been heart attacks earlier in the ’30s, and convalescences that kept him away from his studio, but he made it through the worst years of the Depression. Then he got a chill in Monterey, revisiting the site of his honeymoon, and he never recovered. His fragile heart had over the years worked the longest days in town and treated pressure with a faint, superior smile. He had married Norma Shearer, despite some earlier fears that he might not be able to sustain sexual intercourse (not the worst cover for womanizers in that harem community), and had two children. One of his last remarks was to inquire about the latest grosses on Romeo and Juliet.

About that film, the answers were disappointing: Romeo and Juliet was a forlorn swan song with the lovers Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, who were thirty-nine and thirty-six. It hardly mattered. Thalberg (and Mayer) had guided MGM through steady years of profit and distinction. After the coming of sound in 1927, Thalberg’s position was eroded by illness and by political rivalries within the studio. But his reputation had not suffered. His death was regarded as an irreplaceable loss, and there were those who predicted the downfall of MGM, as well as the loss of taste and artistic daring at that studio. The truth, I think, is far more complicated. But the truth is a very difficult thing to establish in the case of Irving Thalberg.

It is seventy-three years since the man died, after a career in which he took pains to keep his name off the product. He was modest, or he was confident. We know there were certain films that he cared about. We know the reputation--that Thalberg could sit in a script conference and make the one suggestion that made the project cohere; or that he could look at an untidy cut and propose a few minutes out here and a few minutes in there--and suddenly the show was streamlined. Alas, a biographer has a hard time finding such moments or decisions, making the legend live. So it’s all the more tempting to go to The Last Tycoon, the unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald that has muddled the reality of Thalberg.

Even in its broken state, The Last Tycoon is among the best books half-written about Hollywood. Its protagonist, Monroe Stahr, is someone very like Irving Thalberg: intelligent, cool, in charge of production, and attempting to balance profit and adventure in the studio’s program. Fitzgerald knew Thalberg--he had been hired and fired by him, and had been a guest at the Thalberg home. Above all, Stahr is the antithesis of the other widespread legend--of the crude showmen who could hardly read and write, who veered between crying and bullying. But it is important to remember that Stahr is a fiction, and it is quite possible to suppose that the character owed as much to Darryl Zanuck, David O. Selznick, or Hal Wallis, considerable mogul figures in their own right.

What makes the Stahr-Thalberg equation so clinching is the stress on Stahr as a manager. By far the best thing in The Last Tycoon is an account of a day in Stahr’s life that follows him around the lot solving one problem after another. That is the passage where he tries to teach Boxley, a stuffy English novelist, about the way movie stories work. So Stahr makes up a hook for Boxley until the grudging novelist asks, “What happens next?” The point, of course, is that this is the essential dramatic and literary dynamic of the movies, the question that keeps you in your seat.

There have been books in this area before. In 1975, Samuel Marx (an assistant to Thalberg) published Mayer and Thalberg, which is still the source of most of the stories and the facts, and which grasps the duality that ran the studio. After all, Mayer hired Thalberg in the first place. He always earned more (and Thalberg was anxious about money). He was neither as educated nor as articulate as Thalberg. Their minds did not work in the same way. Mayer became jealous of Thalberg, but he clearly loved and worshipped him, too. Alas, we have virtually no paper record of how they worked together, in great part because they did most of their work talking. Or leaving anecdotes behind.

Mayer could be a bully and a beast. He was intimidating as a father, and very cunning in business. He was said to be the best and most chronic actor at that studio of stars. Thalberg, by contrast, flinched from showiness, melodrama, and acting out. There is a lovely story told by Marx. Thalberg’s first child has just been born. Irving drives back to the studio from the hospital, and a gang of employees is waiting to greet and to congratulate him. “How is the boy?” the question goes. To which Thalberg replies, “The doctors say he has the brains of a three-week-old baby!” It’s a whimsical remark from a man always being praised by others for his smarts yet wise enough to realize how little he knew--a Cary Grant line, if you know what I mean. Which suggests that very likely half the crowd waiting didn’t get the joke in 1930.

Mark Vieira writes with great verve and enthusiasm, and he has a flair for narrative movement that suits these exponents of the new storytelling. He has researched far and wide, which means that he has been able to use the notes kept by Bob Thomas, who wrote the first Thalberg biography in 1969, as well as the draft of an unpublished memoir by Norma Shearer. He says he has been on the book eighteen years, but a lot of the sources go much further back. And some are hard to account for: in dealing with Greed, for example, the von Stroheim movie begun at Goldwyn but finally Thalberg’s problem, because of the merger, Vieira says that as the studio removed the film from von Stroheim, it was cut down by Joe Farnham and Howard Hawks. This may be so, but the source notes to this book do not provide a basis for the claim, and Todd McCarthy’s very thorough biography of Hawks seems unaware of the possibility.

That is a small but fascinating surprise. On the other hand, there are omissions in Vieira’s book that are startling. All along, there was a wary but respectful relationship between Thalberg and David Selznick, no matter that Selznick was Mayer’s son-in-law and a candidate for replacing Thalberg. The men might have been natural enemies. But a friendship developed, and nothing proves this more than the fact that, when Selznick formed his independent company with Jock Whitney (the company that would make Gone with the Wind), both Thalberg and Norma Shearer became shareholders in the company, at $100,000 each. This fact is fairly well known, and important, but Vieira never mentions it.

The hardest thing of all to track in this story is the daily relationship between Mayer and Thalberg. Were they good cop and bad cop? Did they realize how far each played off the other to create his own status at the studio? Consider the invention of Greta Garbo. It was Mayer who “discovered” Garbo. On a famous family trip to Europe, he identified the Swedish director Mauritz Stiller as a likely talent for Hollywood, so he hired him and then added Garbo to the deal. Then, at Culver City, it was Thalberg who fell out with the sophisticated Stiller and instead developed the star image of Garbo. But it was Mayer who secretly negotiated a new contract whereby she got profit participation (one of the first such deals). Was this smoothly handled, or was it a story of constant interference and jealousy? Granted their natures, Mayer was the more likely to become angry and envious. So maybe the conflict that came was inevitable. And yet they were a team--and it was together that they saved and rehabilitated Ben-Hur (the first version) so that it became one of MGM’s most celebrated spectacles.

You had to be there, perhaps, taking daily notes. And no one did, except Fitzgerald, who then made it up. The paperwork from MGM was trashed a long time ago, before the studio perceived that it might have value. So Vieira’s book raises many questions about exact proceedings--and I wish there were more thorough notes. Still, it is an excellent narrative of those years, well written and extensively researched.

What did Thalberg achieve? Well, the short answer is that as a manager he identified and laid down a factory system, based on contract participation, so that writers, cameramen, sound stages, and editing rooms were employed as steadily as actors and actresses. He preferred efficiency in a creative world where confusion, jealousy, and bad planning could ruin everything. (This meant that once you started a picture, you could not throw it out and start again--though that is bad for masterpieces.) And for twelve years, from 1924 until Thalberg’s death, his studio grew, stayed profitable, and employed some of the great names of motion pictures. He also supervised a business system in which the profits went to Loew’s (the parent company and the distribution arm) and not to the participants--and it was that changeover that would throttle the movies. He beat back the advances of the trade unions. He kept the stars confined to acting, though he paid them fabulously well.

Was Thalberg a genius? Well, Vieira has him announcing that sound would be just “a fad.” Wrong. Yet a little later, with justice, Vieira sees that Thalberg had recognized how far sound had transformed and accelerated the naturalism of all films, and the human depth that it permitted. Brilliant--and the soil for Thalberg’s knack of coming up with a line that bloomed as it was spoken. So he made the studio’s program work as no one else ever did, and he came out of it all heroic, saintly, self-sacrificial, a lot richer, and leaving Louis B. Mayer as the repository for all the vulgar stories about uncouth Hollywood moguls.

In his epilogue, Vieira tries to make a final assessment. He points to Marie Antoinette and Love Finds Andy Hardy, both from 1938, as exemplary of Thalberg’s studio and Mayer’s. Marie Antoinette was a vehicle for Norma Shearer, a wish honored after Thalberg’s death, and Love Finds Andy Hardy was a cookie-cutter staple full of righteous sentiment and shallow exuberance. He then leaves us to conclude that one system took over from another: “After Thalberg’s death, Mayer brought M-G-M ten supremely prosperous years, but the studio’s output became predictable. The thoughtful, quirky, innovative cinema of Irving Thalberg died with him.”

With respect, I think that’s nonsense, and a misreading of what Thalberg achieved. Marie Antoinette is a bad stately film, ponderous with production values in the manner of Romeo and Juliet, and fatally short on vitality or energy. Its stars are too mature to be wild kids--and it may be that, resting so much, Irving had lost his own youth. Romeo and Juliet lost nearly $1 million. Marie Antoinette lost half that amount. You can argue that Thalberg had succumbed at the end to sentimentality or “class,” but sumptuous respectability--dullness--is the real enemy. And there is dullness aplenty in the Thalberg oeuvre.

With the best will in the world, if asked to pick the films from Thalberg’s MGM that have lasted best, I would list King Vidor’s The Big Parade (the first smash hit for MGM); Garbo in The Temptress, Love, and Flesh and the Devil; The Crowd; The Wind; The Unholy Three; Freaks (a real departure, not explained in this book or any other); Mutiny on the Bounty (if you can see it without singing along); A Night at the Opera; and Camille. I would have to add that Thalberg did damage by taking the Marx Brothers out of their Paramount era and taming their movies with love stories and songs. Although his studio functioned better than any other, its record of individual films is not that impressive, or lasting. The MGM record certainly does not challenge that of Warners or Paramount.

On the other hand, if you reckon that the era of Mayer on his own began only in 1938 (and lasted until his firing in 1951), then this is the record: Ninotchka; The Wizard of Oz; The Philadelphia Story; The Shop Around the Corner; Woman of the Year; Mrs. Miniver; An American Romance; Gaslight; Meet Me in St. Louis; The Clock; The Postman Always Rings Twice; Act of Violence; Adam’s Rib; On the Town; The Asphalt Jungle; An American in Paris. I don’t mean to say that Mayer “made” all those pictures or chose them. But MGM after Thalberg is far from a wasteland of conformity.

Incidentally, I omitted Gone with the Wind from the Mayer list, because it was a Selznick project on which Mayer won the distribution rights in a very shrewd but fiercely family deal. In fact, Gone with the Wind kept MGM prosperous for years, and it was only because Selznick, having made that epic, turned out to be a disastrous and emotional businessman, of the sort that would have made Thalberg wince. In the end, Selznick had a desperate need to express himself, to be glorious. Thalberg was completely immune to all that. And he had a kind of instinctive common sense that might have helped Selznick live longer and be far more productive. (Ironically, Selznick was married to a Thalberg. His wife Irene--quoted as much as anyone in Vieira’s book--was Louis B. Mayer’s daughter, but her blood ran as cool and steady as Irving’s. For a few years she kept her David under some kind of control, but then he went astray, with drugs, gambling, neurotic mania, and the insane urge to better Gone with the Wind.)

So why does Thalberg’s legend endure? The reasons are many. There is The Last Tycoon; and the neat and tidy way in which MGM became an emblem of Hollywood; and the intriguing smile on his watchful face. But basically his legend is owed to our longing for people like him--for managers with oddly clean hands, for effective compromisers who betray very little that matters. The latest research makes it quite clear that successful multi-tasking--the essence of Stahr and Thalberg and of our political leaders--is wishful thinking. That mounting panic we all know--“I’m being asked to do too much”--is absolutely confirmed by the scientific evidence. We have our limits. We need to concentrate. No one has the superior ability to be in charge of everything. Yet wise men are elected to the presidency, say, and given a lunatic power of decision over a vast range of issues.

Is it possible, then, that Thalberg blundered around the studio, getting some things right (Garbo) and others wrong (sound)? Was his saving grace the knowledge that all he had to do to command respect was to take every decision decisively, as if to quell any threat of confusion? So he gambled, and trusted that people would remember his wins and forgive his failures? In fact, Thalberg was better than that. He knew that to run the studio he needed a corps of producers and executives that he had trained, and who shared his broad attitudes. At MGM, he enlisted such people--Paul Bern was one of them (the husband found dead in Jean Harlow’s house--nobody’s perfect), Bernard Hyman, Albert Lewin, Hunt Stromberg, David Lewis, and some others. He delegated, and he seems to have trusted the delegates. The greatest insanity is to delegate and then second-guess those people--which is how Selznick made Gone with the Wind, perhaps the signal achievement of Hollywood the madhouse.

We do not have studios any longer. They have been followed by networks or operations called NBC, CBS, ABC, and even HBO. Talent counts at those places, if the people in charge are willing to trust the talent they have hired. And, generally speaking, those businesses--network TV or cable--can thrive for that great first run when the game is new. That’s what saved MGM: the fact that from 1924 to 1951 it wasn’t terribly difficult to do well making movies. You had the audience, you see. They would watch anything. HBO faces the same glory now and I’m sure it has been led by smart people, or by people who believe in trusting the talent that conceives and produces creative work.

In other fields--in politics, for instance--moguls do less well (unless they have armies at their call and wars that can be set in motion). You can call it our spirit of democracy, or the vain hope of idiots, but how is it that we continue to believe that one person can effectively multi-task all that? The answer is that the person must be so unlike us, so removed, so alien, that we may believe he has magical powers. Otherwise it is very hard not to notice that the wheelchair is running downhill at mounting speed. And uninsured.

Making movies and struggling with the future are not the same. But they may pose the same dilemma as between common sense and craziness. Thalberg wanted the movies to be a sensible business, and he came close. But he coincided with the apogee of the form, when nothing could keep the public away. It was also a deranged thing to do--this shaping of a movie, let alone the plan to make a lifetime business out of it. Of course, movie-making is a voluntary process, whereas somebody has to be president. For much of the time, alas, our experience suggests it hardly matters who. Idiots complete their term the same as noblemen. But it may be up to us to whisper to an Irving to get his hands dirty, to go for broke and make Freaks or cast his wife as Juliet. Never kid yourself that it’s all under control.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. The enlarged and updated fifth edition will be published by Knopf in the fall.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.