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Irving Thalberg
Thalberg-portrait-LATimes.jpg
Irving Thalberg, c. 1930s
Born
Irving Grant Thalberg

(1899-05-30)30 May 1899
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Died September 14, 1936(1936-09-14) (aged 37)
Cause of death Pneumonia
Resting place Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California
Nationality American
Occupation Film producer
Years active 1921–1936
Spouse(s)
Norma Shearer (m. 1927)
Children Irving Thalberg, Jr. (1930–1987)
Katherine Thalberg (1935–2006)

Irving Grant Thalberg (May 30, 1899 – September 14, 1936) 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. His films carved out an international market, "projecting a seductive image of American life brimming with vitality and rooted in democracy and personal freedom," states biographer Roland Flamini.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and as a child was afflicted with a congenital heart disease that doctors said would kill him before he reached the age of thirty. After graduating high school he worked as a store clerk during the day and to gain some job skills took a night class in typing. He then found work as a secretary with Universal Studios' New York office, and was later made studio manager for their Los Angeles facility. There, he oversaw production of a hundred films during his three years with the company. Among the films he produced was The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In Los Angeles he partnered with Louis B. Mayer's new studio and, after it merged with two other studios, helped create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). He was made head of production of MGM in 1925, at the age of twenty-six, helping MGM become the most successful studio in Hollywood. During his twelve years with MGM, until his early death at age 37, he produced four hundred films, most of which bore his imprint and innovations, including story conferences with writers, sneak previews to gain early feedback, and extensive re-shooting of scenes to improve the film. In addition, he introduced horror films to audiences and coauthored the “Production Code,” guidelines for morality followed by all studios. During the 1920s and 1930s, he synthesized and merged the world of stage drama and literary classics with Hollywood films.

Death

Thalberg and Shearer took a much-needed Labor Day weekend vacation in Monterey, California, in 1936, staying at the same beachfront hotel where they spent their honeymoon. A few weeks earlier, Thalberg's leading screenwriter, Al Lewin, had proposed doing a film based on a soon-to-be published book, Gone With the Wind. Although Thalberg said it would be a "sensational" role for Gable, and a "terrific picture," he decided not to do it:

Look, I have just made Mutiny on the Bounty and The Good Earth. And now you're asking me to burn Atlanta? No! Absolutely not! No more epics for me now. Just give me a little drawing-room drama. I'm tired. I'm just too tired.

Besides, Thalberg told Mayer, "[n]o Civil War picture ever made a nickel". Shortly after returning from Monterey, Thalberg was diagnosed with pneumonia. His condition worsened steadily and he eventually required an oxygen tent at home. He died the following morning at the age of 37.

Sam Wood, while directing A Day at the Races, was given the news by phone. He returned to the set with tears in his eyes and told the others. As the news spread "the studio was paralyzed with shock," notes Thomas. "Work stopped and hundreds of people wept," with stars, writers, directors, and studio employees "all sharing a sense of loss at the death of a man who had been a part of their working lives," states Flamini.

His funeral took place two days later, and when the services began the other studios throughout Hollywood observed five minutes of silence. Producer Sam Goldwyn "wept uncontrollably for two days" and was unable to regain his composure enough to attend. The MGM studio closed for that day.

The passing of Irving Thalberg is the greatest conceivable loss to the motion-picture industry, and I say that absolutely without qualification. There are hundreds of executives but only about six men with the genuine genius for making motion pictures and Mr. Thalberg was the greatest of those. I have long considered him the most competent and inspired producer in the business.


director and producer Cecil B. DeMille

Services were held at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple that Thalberg had occasionally attended. The funeral attracted thousands of spectators who came to view the arrival of countless stars from MGM and other studios, including Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, Al Jolson, Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, among the stars. The ushers who led them to their seats included Clark Gable, Fredric March, and playwright Moss Hart. Erich von Stroheim, who had been fired by Thalberg, came to pay his respects. Producers Louis B. Mayer, the Warner Brothers, Adolph Zukor and Nicholas Schenck sat together solemnly as Rabbi Magnin gave the eulogy.

Thalberg is buried in a private marble tomb in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, lying at rest beside his wife Norma Shearer Arrouge (Thalberg's crypt was engraved "My Sweetheart Forever" by Shearer).

Over the following days, tributes were published by the national press. Louis B. Mayer, his co-founding partner at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, said he had lost "the finest friend a man could ever have," while MGM president Nicholas Schenck stated that "Thalberg was the most important man in the production end of the motion-picture industry. Leading producers from the other studios also expressed their feelings in published tributes to Thalberg.

David O. Selznick described him as "beyond any question the greatest individual force for fine pictures." Samuel Goldwyn called him "the foremost figure in the motion-picture industry . . . and an inspiration . . . ." M. H. Aylesworth, Chairman of RKO, wrote that "his integrity, vision and ability made him the spearhead of all motion-picture production throughout the world." Harry Warner, president of Warner Brothers, described him as "gifted with one of the finest minds ever placed at the service of motion-picture production." Sidney R. Kent, president of Twentieth Century Fox, said that "he made the whole world richer by giving it the highest type of entertainment. He was a true genius." Columbia president Harry Cohn said the "motion picture industry has suffered a loss from which it will not soon recover. . .". Darryl F. Zanuck noted, "More than any other man he raised the industry to its present world prestige."

Among the condolences that came from world political leaders, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote, "The world of art is poorer with the passing of Irving Thalberg. His high ideals, insight and imagination went into the production of his masterpieces."

Legacy

One of the greatest friends a man could have; one of the greatest creative minds the world has ever produced; the greatest leader our industry has ever had. No words can express either my own personal grief, nor the grief that I know all of us who owe so much to him can express.
I can think of no one in our industry who does not owe Irving Thalberg a deep debt of gratitude. I can can think of no one in the world to whom his passing is not a loss.

Thalberg's legacy to the movie industry is "incalculable," states biographer Bob Thomas. He notes that with his numerous production innovations and grand stories, often turning classic literature and Broadway stage productions into big-screen pictures, he managed to keep "American movies supreme throughout the world for a generation." Darryl F. Zanuck, founder of 20th Century Fox, said that during Thalberg's brief career, he had become the "most creative producer in the history of films.

Most of MGM's major films in the 1930s were, according to Flamini, "in a very real sense," made by Thalberg. He closely supervised the making of "more pictures than any other producer in Hollywood's history," and was considered the "archetype of the creative producer," adds Flamini. Upon his early death at age 37, a New York Times editorial called him "the most important force" in the motion picture industry. The paper added that for the film industry, he "set the pace and others followed . . . because his way combined style, glamour, and profit." He is described by Flamini as having been "a revolutionary in a gray flannel suit."

Thalberg refused to take credit as producer, and as a result his name never appeared on the screen while he was alive. Thalberg claimed that "credit you give yourself is not worth having". His final film, released after he died, was The Good Earth (1937), which won numerous Academy Awards. Its opening screen credit was dedicated to Thalberg:

To the Memory of Irving Grant Thalberg – we dedicate this picture – his last great achievement.

In 1938, the new multimillion-dollar MGM administration building in Culver City was named for Thalberg. The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, also named for him, awards producers for consistently high production achievements.

Producer

  • Reputation (1921)
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
  • Merry-Go-Round (1923)
  • His Hour (1924)
  • He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
  • The Unholy Three (1925)
  • The Merry Widow (1925)
  • The Tower of Lies (1925)
  • The Big Parade (1925)
  • Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
  • Torrent (1926)
  • La Bohème (1926)
  • Brown of Harvard (1926)
  • The Road to Mandalay (1926)
  • The Temptress (1926)
  • Valencia (1926)
  • Flesh and the Devil (1926)
  • Twelve Miles Out (1927)
  • The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927)
  • London After Midnight (1927)
  • The Crowd (1928)
  • Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
  • White Shadows in the South Seas (1928)
  • Show People (1928)
  • West of Zanzibar (1928)
  • The Broadway Melody (1929)
  • The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929)
  • Voice of the City (1929)
  • Where East Is East (1929)
  • The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929)
  • The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)
  • Hallelujah! (1929)
  • His Glorious Night (1929)
  • The Kiss (1929)
  • Anna Christie (1930)
  • Redemption (1930)
  • The Divorcee (1930)
  • The Rogue Song (1930)
  • The Big House (1930)
  • The Unholy Three (1930)
  • Let Us Be Gay (1930)
  • Billy the Kid (1930)
  • Way for a Sailor (1930)
  • A Lady's Morals (1930)
  • Inspiration (1931)
  • Trader Horn (1931)
  • The Secret Six (1931)
  • A Free Soul (1931)
  • Just a Gigolo (1931)
  • Menschen hinter Gittern (1931), German-language version of The Big House (1930)
  • The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931)
  • The Guardsman (1931)
  • The Champ (1931)
  • Possessed (1931)
  • Private Lives (1931)
  • Mata Hari (1931)
  • Freaks (1932)
  • Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
  • Grand Hotel (1932)
  • Letty Lynton (1932)
  • As You Desire Me (1932)
  • Red-Headed Woman (1932)
  • Smilin' Through (1932)
  • Red Dust (1932)
  • Rasputin and the Empress (1932)
  • Strange Interlude (1932)
  • Tugboat Annie (1933)
  • Bombshell (1933)
  • Eskimo (1933)
  • La Veuve Joyeuse (1934) French-language version of The Merry Widow
  • Riptide (1934)
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
  • The Merry Widow (1934)
  • What Every Woman Knows (1934)
  • Biography of a Bachelor Girl (1935)
  • No More Ladies (1935)
  • China Seas (1935)
  • Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
  • A Night at the Opera (1935)
  • Riffraff (1936)
  • Romeo and Juliet (1936)
  • Camille (1936)
  • Maytime (1937)
  • A Day at the Races (1937)
  • Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937)
  • The Good Earth (1937)
  • Marie Antoinette (1938)

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