Irving Thalberg (1899-1936)

Irving Thalberg
Irving Thalberg (1899-1936)

Irving Thalberg was a producer of films for MGM during the early years of Hollywood movies and he became known as the "Boy Wonder" for his his uncanny ability to make extremely successful and profitable films by unerringly 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.

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Irving Thalberg 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.

After graduating from High School he decided to skip college and, through family connections, he found a job 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. Through a combination of financial acumen, native intelligence and an uncanny instinct for popular taste, Thalberg quickly came to understand and control the movie creation process at Universal and 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.

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 foughtand ultimately fired the popular and successful director, Erich von Stroheim over the length of 'Foolish Wives' in 1922 and after this victory had complete control over every aspect of production. 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 picure 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 Louis B. Mayer Productions merged with with Goldwyn Pictures and Metro Pictures Corporation to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer it gave Mayer and Thalberg, two inherited movies, 'Greed', and 'Ben Hur' which, due to management incompetence had become money guzzling nightmares.

Thalberg scrapped most of 'Greed', shorening 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 biggest hit of the silent era.

Hit followed hit, with 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' in 1925, '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 workahholic who was quite prepared to re-shoot scene after scene and spend hours editing to achieve the quality desired.

The relationship between Thalberg and Mayer gradually cooled and became acrimonious when Thalberg was offered a payrise taking his salary to more tham 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 unit production head. 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.


Thalberg was romantically liked to a number of beautiful Hollywood actresses and in September 1927 he married Norma Shearer in the Hollywood wedding of the year. They had two children, Irving Junior in 1930 and Katherine in 1935. Before they were married Shearer converted to Judaism so that she could marry him.

Irving Thalberg died on September 14, 1936, of pneumonia 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, "My Sweetheart Forever" by Shearer.

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 great achievers in a land of 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