Irving Thalberg (1899-1936)

Irving Thalberg
Irving Thalberg

Irving Thalberg was an immensely talented figure, a producer of films for MGM during the early years of Hollywood movies, he became one of the individuals responsible for the creation of the Hollywood movie industry.

He died tragically young and in his short life he became known as the "Boy Wonder" for his ability to make hugely successful and profitable films by selecting the right scripts, the right performers and the best production staff. He was one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


He was born Irving Grant Thalberg on May 30, 1899, in Brooklyn, New York to German Jewish immigrant parents. He had a heart defect due to rheumatic fever, and his parents were told that he probably would not live past thirty. He needed a lot of bed rest, but he was a very bright student and read voraciously during his many periods of convalescence, unconsciously assimilating story ideas which would serve him well in later years. His health slowly improved and his mother ignored the advice of his doctors and sent Irving to high school as soon as he was able, to get his diploma.

Universal Studios 1920

After graduating from High School he decided to skip college, workin as a store clerk during the day and to gain some job skills took a night class in typing. Through family connections he found a job in New York as personal secretary to Carl Laemmle, the founder and boss of Universal Studios, then the largest film studios in the world. He had found his niche and he worked hard and well.

His rise to prominence within Universal was rapid. During his three years with the company, through a combination of financial acumen, native intelligence and an uncanny instinct for popular taste, he quickly came to understand and control the movie creation process. By the astonishingly young age of 21 he had risen to the post of production executive at Universal City, the studio's Hollywood production site where he was responsible for the production of around one hundred films.

He introduced production methods which soon became standard for the industry, making the producer the prime mover in any production instead of the director as hitherto. He fought and ultimately fired the popular and successful director, Erich von Stroheim over the length of 'Foolish Wives' in 1922 and after this victory he had complete control over every aspect of production.

MGM 1923

After 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' in 1923, aged 24, he left Universal, partly due to a failed romance with the daughter of Carl Laemmle, and joined Louis B. Mayer Productions, becoming head of production when it merged with Goldwyn Pictures and Metro Pictures Corporation to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

He and Mayer had completely different personalities, and approached the business of picture making from opposite directions, with Mayer doing the business management and Thalberg taking charge of making the 'product', but together they made a formidable combination. Their partnership over the next decade made MGM the pre-eminent Hollywood studio and one of the few studios to remain profitable through the years of the Great Depression.

When MGM was formed Mayer and Thalberg inherited two movies, 'Greed', and 'Ben Hur' which, due to management incompetence had become money guzzling nightmares.

Thalberg scrapped most of 'Greed', shortening it from an impossible seven hours to a more marketable two hours and he re-shot 'Ben Hur' with a new director and released it in 1925. In the same year he release 'The Big Parade', directed by King Vidor, his first major success at MGM, and its bigest hit of the silent era.

Hit followed hit, with 'Flesh and the Devil' in 1926, 'The Broadway Melody of 1929' in 1929, 'The Divorcee' in 1930, 'The Champ' in 1931 and 'Grand Hotel' in 1932. With Mayer and Thalberg at the helm, MGM went from strength to strength. No other studio could match the quality or quantity of its performers, technicians and directors. Thalberg was a perfectionist and a workaholic who was quite prepared to re-shoot scene after scene and spend hours editing to achieve the quality desired.

Heart Attack 1932

The relationship between Thalberg and Mayer gradually cooled and became acrimonious when Thalberg was offered a pay rise, taking his salary to more than Mayer, his ostensible boss. Thalberg's phenomenal work-rate and sickly frame began to take their toll and his health finally broke in 1932 when he had a heart attack and he took six months off to convalesce in Europe.

When he returned to Hollywood in August, 1933, he found that Mayer had used the time to usurp his position and effectively demote him to the position of one of several unit production heads. He continued to work hard and produced more hit movies such as 'The Merry Widow' and 'The Barretts of Wimpole Street' in 1934, the Charles Laughton/Clark Gable version of 'Mutiny on the Bounty' the following year and the Marx Brothers' 'A Night at the Opera', also in 1935.


As a young bachelor, Thalberg was romantically linked to a number of beautiful Hollywood actresses and New York socialites such as Constance Talmadge and Peggy Hopkins Joyce and for a time he was very close to Rosabelle Laemmle, daughter of his boss, Universal head, Carl Laemmle.

After he joined MGM in 1923, Thalberg met and began to date Norma Shearer. They married in 1927, after Shearer had converted to Judaism, and they went on to have two children, Irving Junior in 1930 and Katherine in 1935. Thalberg encouraged his wife to continue her acting career and she became one of MGM's biggest stars of the decade.

In the Fall of 1936 Thalberg went on a business trip to Monterey. Shortly after returning he was diagnosed with pneumonia. His condition deteriorated quickly and he died on September 14, 1936, in Santa Monica, California. He was aged 37 years.

He is buried in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. His crypt has the engraving from Norma Shearer, "My Sweetheart Forever".

Irving Thalberg was one of the true geniuses of movie making with an intuitive grasp of simple storytelling and talent spotting. He was told as a child that his time on this earth was limited and he lived his life accordingly, packing in a great deal and achieving more in a few short years than most people in a lifetime. He was one of the greatest achievers in a land of great achievement.

Irving Thalberg Filmography (As producer)

Foolish Wives
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
His Hour
He Who Gets Slapped
The Unholy Three
The Merry Widow
The Tower of Lies
The Big Parade
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
La Bohème
Brown of Harvard
The Road to Mandalay
The Temptress
Flesh and the Devil
Twelve Miles Out
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
London After Midnight
The Crowd
Laugh, Clown, Laugh
White Shadows in the South Seas
Show People
West of Zanzibar
The Broadway Melody
The Trial of Mary Dugan
Voice of the City
Where East Is East
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney
The Hollywood Revue of 1929
His Glorious Night
The Kiss
Anna Christie
The Divorcee
The Rogue Song
The Big House
The Unholy Three
Let Us Be Gay
Billy the Kid
Way for a Sailor
A Lady's Morals
Trader Horn
The Secret Six
A Free Soul
Just a Gigolo
Men Behind Bars
The Sin of Madelon Claudet
The Guardsman
The Champ
Private Lives
Mata Hari