On September 14, 1936, Irving Thalberg – the “Boy Wonder” of Hollywood; the producer who, while still in his 20s, turned MGM into Hollywood’s most successful moviemaker – died. He was 37 and had lasted seven years longer than doctors told him, as a child, he could expect. He may have been not just the most talented producer in the industry, but also the most loved and admired.
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Irving Grant Thalberg was born on May 30, 1899, at the Brooklyn apartment of his German-Jewish parents, William Thalberg and the former Henrietta Heymann. Early on, he was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, and his parents were told he could well be dead by age 20, certainly by 30.
Growing up, Thalberg was sickly and spent a year in high school in bed with rheumatic fever. Knowing his time was limited, when he graduated school he decided to skip college and plunge into the business world. Having learned basic office skills, and with the help of family connections, in 1919 he became secretary to Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, in his New York office.
So impressed was Laemmle with Thalberg’s talents that, by 1920, he had made him production head at Universal’s new complex in Los Angeles. Everyone who encountered Thalberg was taken with his creativity, confidence and ability to solve problems. That reputation only grew after the 24-year-old Thalberg (he looked even younger) took on and then fired the imperious and imposing Erich von Stroheim in 1923, after the director-actor had gone way over budget with two films in a row.
After three years at Universal, Thalberg – who had professional disagreements with Laemmle, and had split with the boss’ daughter, Rosabelle – moved to Louis B. Mayer Pictures. When Mayer’s company was merged, in 1924, with the Loew’s-Metro and Goldwyn studios, Thalberg became vice-president in charge of production, and made part-owner of the new company.
In the 12 years remaining before his death, Thalberg helped turn Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer into the world’s biggest and most profitable studio, overseeing production of some 400 movies, including “Ben-Hur” (1925), “Mata Hari” (1931), “Grand Hotel” (1932), “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935) and “A Night at the Opera” (1935). He was authoritative, but a good listener who brought out the best in people; he had a legendary ability to identify and fix script problems, and a knack for picking future stars; and he invented the “sneak preview” device, used to fine-tune films on the eve of commercial release.
After a heart attack in 1932, Thalberg went to Germany to convalesce, a period that Louis Mayer took advantage of to reorganize the studio. When he returned to the United States, Thalberg was no longer the head of production, but rather one of a group of producers.
While in Germany, he had witnessed an attack on a Jewish couple, and tried, unsuccessfully, to intervene. On his return, writer Kyle Crichton asked him about the situation of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. Thalberg said flatly, according to biographer Mark Vieira, that “a lot of Jews would die.” When Crichton suggested that the Nazis might murder them all, Thalberg responded, “No, not all of them. Hitler and Hitlerism will pass. The Jews will still be there.”
Some historians have cited this line as evidence that Thalberg was indifferent to the fate of European Jewry. But he helped organize the LA Jewish Community Council, which in the 1930s quietly funded efforts to expose Nazi activity in America, and he was active in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.
Thalberg was also one of the industry’s more openly Jewish executives; when he married actress Norma Shearer, a Catholic, in 1927, it was only after she had undergone conversion to Judaism. They had two children.
Thalberg died at his home in Los Angeles, shortly after contracting pneumonia. His funeral was held at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple on September 16, outside of which some 8,000 people crowded to pay their last respects.
In his memory, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, given intermittently to producers judged to have a body of outstanding work.