Irving Thalberg (1899-1936)

Irving Grant Thalberg, the son of German-Jewish immigrants, considered a career as a merchant and a lawyer before using kinship and ethnic networks to secure an entry-level position in the U.S. film industry.

Updated: August 28, 2014

Introduction

Irving Grant Thalberg (born May 30, 1899 in Brooklyn, New York; died: September 4, 1936 in Santa Monica, California), the son of German-Jewish immigrants, considered a career as a merchant and a lawyer before using German-Jewish kinship and ethnic networks in mid-1918 to secure an entry-level position in the U.S. film industry. In just two years, the driven and ambitious Thalberg had risen to film studio production head at the remarkably young age of twenty. From the early 1920s to the mid-1930s—as the U.S. film industry matured into a vertically and horizontally integrated mass entertainment industry of international scope—Thalberg came to define the role and persona of the Hollywood production chief, first at Universal Studios and then at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Hailed variously as “‘the boy wonder,’ ‘the Miracle Man,’ a genius of motion pictures,” he was among the most powerful and high-profile members of early Hollywood’s significant German émigré and German-American community.[1] He helped to “revolutionize the approach to [film] production, and to raise the standards of production.”[2] For example, he pioneered the star-studded feature film and emphasized the importance of the screenplay and writers as well as previews and audience research to produce film. For Thalberg, a successful film was one that appealed to a mass audience and generated positive critical commentary. He also served as a key public figurehead for a U.S. film industry seeking cultural and political legitimacy in its early years. For example, he helped to create and revise regulatory guidelines for film content to forestall state and federal regulation and censorship; he helped to build a company union and thwart grassroots union organizing; he supported early efforts at film preservation and the elevation of film to an art form. Due to a congenital heart condition, Thalberg lived with illness and the looming reality of his own mortality; as he once wrote, “there is always the chance of my own health failing.”[3] Though this “most brilliant of all producers” lived long past the dire predictions of doctors at his birth, he fell ill in September 1936 and his “death came . . . in the fullness of his power” at only the age of 37.[4] In his eighteen years in film production (1918-1936), he would make significant and lasting contributions to the film industry—including guiding the career of his movie star wife Norma Shearer. His career parallels and offers great insight into the rise and triumph of the classical Hollywood studio system in which the mass production, distribution, and exhibition of U.S. film was perfected by a handful of U.S. movie corporations.

Family and Ethnic Background

Irving Grant Thalberg was born on May 30, 1899, in the Brooklyn apartment of his German immigrant parents William Thalberg and Henrietta Heyman Thalberg.  Both his parents came from the German merchant class, and their families used immigration to expand their business enterprises and networks across the Atlantic, though with very different results.  Born in Wetzlar, Germany, William Thalberg was born into relatively comfortable circumstances due to his grandfather Jakob’s successful textile enterprise.  As a young man, William was dispatched to 1880s Brooklyn to seek his fortune.  He arrived neither penniless nor friendless and benefited from immigrant and kinship networks to establish a very modest New World business.  The mild-mannered William set up an import business for his family’s textiles. Always a mediocre businessman, his enterprise would fail decisively once the United States entered World War I, leaving Irving the primary breadwinner for his immediate family thereafter. 

William’s future wife, Henrietta Heyman, emigrated from Hamburg, Germany with her family as an infant. Her father was tasked with opening a Brooklyn branch of the family’s successful Hamburg department store.  Until the birth of a much younger brother, the ambitious and savvy Henrietta had been groomed as her accomplished father’s successor at Heyman and Sons.  Thereafter, she trod a more conventional path with marriage to William—a pairing most viewed as a mismatch in terms of temperament, long-term goals, and social status and ambitions.  Society expected the driven and ambitious Henrietta to retreat quietly to the private sphere while William would determine their fortune and status in the public sphere.  His mediocrity as a businessman and public person was a great disappointment to his wife who focused her considerable energies on the well-being, prospects, and accomplishments of her only son. 

In 1899, Irving Grant Thalberg came into the world with cyanosis due to congenital heart problems.  Doctors questioned whether he would make it through infancy and childhood; at best they forecast a shortened lifespan of twenty or thirty years.  Henrietta devoted herself to ensuring that her firstborn (a daughter Sylvia was born in 1900) would not only survive but also thrive.  She used all of the resources at her disposal to ensure that he enrolled in and excelled at school.  Thalberg’s formal education, however, was frequently disrupted by illness and confinement to his bed.  Teachers and tutors were brought in, and Irving read voraciously and was a gifted student.  His precarious health meant that he spent much of his childhood and adolescence as an isolated observer, frequently confronting his own mortality, all of which would make him a very serious and driven individual—an “old head on young shoulders.”[5]

Despite his medical problems, he graduated from high school.  At the age of seventeen, he contemplated his options, always aware of his very real physical limitations and under pressure—from himself and his mother—to make his mark soon and early.  In many ways, the “ill health . . . [that] plagued him from boyhood” drove his meteoric rise in the early U.S. film industry.[6] 

Business Development

Despite the considerable health challenges he faced, Thalberg completed high school with great success around 1916.  While he “had aspirations toward the law” and considered law school, financial need dictated otherwise.[7]  He decided to take business courses at New York University and other metropolitan-area schools; his choice of study reflected the concurrent emergence of business as a discipline in the academy.  While doing so, Thalberg worked as a clerk at Heyman and Sons for his maternal grandfather who served as “his inspiration, his ideal.”[8]  Next, Thalberg sought full-time work, starting as a stenographer at first one New York import-export firm and then another.  His “nimble brain,” work ethic, and shrewd management skills would lead to rapid promotion and early success.[9]  As World War I neared its end, paternal relatives in Germany took note of this ambitious and talented young man and expressed interest in his return to his parents’ devastated homeland to help run the family business.  Yet Irving chose a different path from his German mercantile forebearers.  He threw in his lot with a new kind of product—moving pictures—that many first- and second-generation immigrants embraced as a career in the New World in the opening decades of the twentieth century.

Thalberg’s mother and affluent maternal grandmother socialized in well-to-do German-Jewish émigré circles, especially at his grandparents’ Edgemere, Long Island summer home where the community included the very wealthy Laemmle family.  Family patriarch and Universal Film Manufacturing Company Pictures founder and CEO Carl Laemmle had emigrated from Laupheim, Germany to the United States in the 1880s, following a similar path to William Thalberg.  Unlike William Thalberg, Laemmle became an unqualified success, rising from bookkeeper to nickelodeon owner to the head of Universal.  In the late 1910s, film industry leaders, like Laemmle, were still struggling for social and cultural legitimacy as this new form of mass amusement sought to shake off its origins as a working-class, urban, immigrant amusement.  In doing so, they sought to secure a native-born, white, affluent, middle- and upper-class audience and appease worried social reformers.  The German origins of Laemmle and other industry personnel only made the bid for legitimacy in the midst of World War I that much more challenging.  Thus Thalberg’s initial employment in mid-1918 as a secretary at Universal was no guarantee of future glory, but was a safe harbor for a German-American in the midst of the fierce anti-German sentiment that prevailed in the United States as World War I came to a close. 

Thalberg seized this opportunity stemming from his German-Jewish kinship network to enter a young, vibrant, and growing industry in which he could see that fortunes and reputations could be made rapidly.  Laemmle was notorious in the early film industry for his nepotistic employment practices—and for the sometimes-negative impact hiring unqualified family members and German-Jewish friends had on Universal’s fortunes.  That would not, however, be the case with the gifted and driven Thalberg; it would be “Laemmle who first appreciated the showman’s instinct possessed by Thalberg.”[10]  While Thalberg’s personal connections may have secured him the job as “an office boy for Carl Laemmle,” he proved to be a tireless and skilled worker.[11]  Indeed, this promising young employee quickly became Laemmle’s personal assistant.

In mid-1919, Thalberg accompanied Laemmle to Universal City, the studio’s lavish four-year-old Los Angeles production center. The vast Universal City, opened in 1915, provided an excellent training ground for the mass production of film for the ambitious and hard-working Thalberg.  What began as a West Coast business trip became a new job and new home: Laemmle decided that his trusted and talented assistant should remain behind in the growing Hollywood film colony to assess the structure and functioning of production, management, and leadership at Universal City.  Thalberg’s move was part of an industry-wide migration of production facilities and personnel to take advantage of Los Angeles’ inexpensive and abundant land, fiercely anti-union politics and welcoming city boosters as well as the varied topography and Mediterranean climate conducive to year-round location shooting.  However, the business offices of the major studios remained headquartered in New York, thus providing a spatial manifestation of the growing divide between the industry’s creative and financial leadership.  By the mid-1920s, “Hollywood” had come into being as the U.S. film production center and colony as well as a powerful metaphor and guiding myth for the industry, at home and abroad.  

Settling into Universal City, Thalberg discovered a wildly factionalized and underperforming studio.   Universal was notorious in the industry as a mismanaged, nepotistic, inefficient operation, lacking a clear business plan or management hierarchy—in large part because Laemmle wanted it that way to maintain control.  As a bicoastal operation, Universal also lacked coordination between the New York and Los Angeles operations, further contributing to the disarray.  By the time Thalberg arrived at Universal City, employee turnover and dissatisfaction ran high after years of failed and ineffective leadership.  Film quality, timely completion, and box-office receipts were down.  Laemmle was ready to make some changes.  Thalberg proposed the creation of the position of general manager in charge of all production.  Laemmle agreed, but, as usual, diluted the power of such a job by proposing three men share the duties, Thalberg included.  Thalberg, however, swiftly eliminated his competition through a combination of his work ethic, tireless ambition, and favored status with Laemmle.  He became production chief of a major studio just shy of his twenty-first birthday in spring 1920.

Thalberg’s mandate to rationalize, streamline, and overhaul operations at Universal reflected trends happening in the Hollywood production facilities as part of a wider organizational revolution sweeping the nation’s workplaces.  The principles of scientific management reigned supreme to develop a more efficient workplace to increase worker productivity and the pace and scale of mass production.  In the film industry, Thalberg and others standardized the film production process through cost accounting via the continuity script. In so doing, the locus of power shifted from the director to the producer.  Though initially “too young to sign checks legally,” at his new post, Thalberg quickly consolidated his power and imposed new standards and structures on Universal employees with relative ease, due to a combination of charm, hubris, hard work, and skill.[12] 

Not all directors embraced this downsized role; for Thalberg, celebrated Austrian émigré and actor/director Erich von Stroheim posed a considerable challenge.  In 1919, Stroheim emerged as a Universal star who garnered favorable reviews and excellent box office for his film Blind Husbands, which had gone wildly over-schedule and over-budgetOn his next film Foolish Wives (1922), Stroheim spent a full year shooting until Thalberg intervened and demanded Stroheim wrap the production; Stroheim refused and publicly challenged Thalberg’s authority.  In response, Thalberg shuttered the set.  Despite all the behind-the-scenes controversy, the film was yet another triumph for Stroheim.  Thalberg and Stroheim made peace and collaborated on Stroheim’s next film. Merry-Go-Round (1923) would be the first of Stroheim’s directorial efforts in which he would not star—a fatal miscalculation since it made him much more dispensable, a change orchestrated by Thalberg in project development.  Stroheim quickly reneged on his commitment to stay on schedule and within budget.  As general manager, Thalberg fired Stroheim in October 1922 and asserted in a very dramatic and public way the supremacy of producer over director.  In dismissing Stroheim, Thalberg charged, “In spite of the fact that you have occupied a position of trust, dignity and confidence on the lot, you have time and time again demonstrated your disloyalty to our company, encouraged and fostered discontent, distrust and disrespect for us in the minds of your fellow employees, and have attempted to create an organization loyal to yourself, rather than the company you were employed to serve.”[13]  This public controversy demonstrated Thalberg’s own power and ruthlessness at the tender age of twenty-three.  His victory was a victory for himself as well as for the emerging classical Hollywood studio system.  And in Thalberg the system had a remarkable—and relatively rare—combination of an executive who combined an eye for the bottom line with an eye for prestigious and high-quality mass productions.  His accomplishments at such a young age built his legendary status as the “Boy Wonder” and “Producer Prince” of early Hollywood.

Like other executives before him at Universal, Thalberg would clash repeatedly with Laemmle who resisted sharing his power.  Laemmle also resisted the industry-wide embrace of feature-length films and theater chain ownership.  He refused to shift the focus of his operations to feature-length films; instead Universal continued to offer its standard mixed slate of genre films and shorts for rural, small-town, second-run theaters.  Laemmle had sold off his theater holdings years before and did not want to re-enter the exhibition side of the business although the other major studios were expanding their theater holdings in the early 1920s.  Yet Thalberg could see that the future to great success in the film industry was the star-driven, prestigious, feature-length film—and the theater chains to exhibit them in.  He produced such a film at Universal despite Laemmle’s resistance: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) would make Lon Chaney a star and give Universal a critical and box office hit.  Thalberg reshot the film and went over budget to produce the highest quality product.  The considerable time and energy put into Hunchback ensured that the film received the special release and promotion that Thalberg wanted and that Laemmle was forced to concede—after production had wrapped—made the best business sense to maximize exposure and profits.  Thalberg’s strategy and subterfuge worked, but left Laemmle annoyed and intransigent rather than ready for further innovation.  And Thalberg was left frustrated and wanting more as he knew that quality films required previewing, editing, and reshooting.  His romantic relationship with Laemmle’s beloved daughter Rosabelle also complicated his position at Universal.  Marriage would bring the financial stake in the company that Thalberg desired and position him as heir apparent.  But Thalberg was not yet ready to commit to that wife or that company.  Instead,  he began to field offers from other studios in late 1922.  He would be gone from Universal before Hunchback was released to great acclaim in fall 1923.

In February 1923, headlines read, “Thalberg Quits Universal.”[14]  Thalberg then entered into what would become one of the most storied and successful partnerships in the history of Hollywood.  Alongside Louis B. Mayer, Thalberg helped to build MGM, the crown jewel of the classical Hollywood studio system.  Mayer, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, began his career in the salvage business but transitioned to film exhibition in the 1910s, the era of the nickelodeon.  In 1915, Mayer formed his eponymous New York production company.  He made the move to Los Angeles in late 1918, shortly before Thalberg relocated to the West Coast.  Mayer shared Thalberg’s ambitious visions for the future of American cinema and hired him as vice president in charge of production at Louis B. Mayer Productions.  Together they were “planning to do some very big things.”[15]  Mayer was an excellent administrator who built a balanced and talented team; he excelled at contract negotiation and promotion and was a dramatic extrovert who knew how to manage talent.  He was also “the diplomat, the man of connections.”[16]  Thalberg was the intense introvert with the ability to produce high-quality films that also scored at the box office.  His curious, well-formed, and active intellect as well as his tenure at Universal, including Laemmle’s mentorship, taught him how to produce appealing and artistically sophisticated fare for a mass audience.  At MGM, he perfected the balancing of high-, middle-, and low-brow cultural influences in the construction of this new art form. 

Hollywood took note of this promising new production team as they began to hire the best available talent and develop film projects.  In May 1924, Louis B. Mayer Productions merged with the Loew’s-Metro and Goldwyn companies to create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio.  This corporate consolidation was the foremost example of industry-wide reorganization via vertical and horizontal integration. By the late 1920s it gave rise to a mature oligopoly of several major and minor studios that collaborated to control the U.S. film market and produce a standardized product as well as sites and patterns of consumption, known as the classical Hollywood studio system.  This merger mania left a few major corporations handling the bulk of the production, distribution, and exhibition of mid-century American film. In the MGM merger, Mayer and Thalberg also negotiated a lucrative profit-sharing arrangement that would make both men very wealthy. 

With Thalberg as production chief, MGM focused its energies on producing first-run, prestige films as opposed to shorts and genre films.  Thalberg’s profit-sharing revenue was contingent upon producing at least fifteen films per year; by 1928, MGM had fifty-six films on its yearly schedule.  With some of the best talent in the industry in front of and behind the camera as well as in the executive offices, MGM became the most successful studio in the industry with highest profits of $6.4 million ($78.8 million in 2010 USD), only two years after the merger.[17]  And Thalberg played a central role in this success.  He worked long and punishing days and emphasized the importance of post-production work: reediting, rescoring, recasting (if necessary), and reshooting.  At this stage of his career, he devoted his life to producing a slate of successful films and elevating Hollywood filmmaking to an art.  He expected the same work ethic and dedication from his colleagues and employees, especially the coterie of producers who directly assisted him.  These associate producers, whom Thalberg affectionately referred to as “the boys,” were once called “the principal cogs through which Irving Thalberg causes MGM’s wheels to spin.”[18]  Thalberg famously came to use studio screenings and advance audience previews to test films.  For him, the rough cut of a film was perhaps the midway point, not the end, of the production process.  While he had the final say, his production process was also an intensely collaborative process, with Thalberg soliciting and heeding input from a wide variety of sources.  Beginning with the script, he usually asked multiple writers to work on the same project, with a shooting script always a work in progress.  The anteroom to his office was one of the most important and bustling sites on the MGM lot, night and day.  As actress Marion Davies remembered: “Everybody went to his office; I don’t know how he ever got through his work.”[19]  He was always over-extended and those needing to see him could expect to wait hours and even days for an audience with the “Boy Wonder” whose charm, drive, and skill generally won over the most aggravated of petitioners and neutralized the largest of egos.

One of Thalberg’s great strengths as a producer and employer was a healthy, strong ego and will coupled with the ability to collaborate and redirect when necessary.  Indeed, part of his personal philosophy was to “expect help from no one,” but not to “hold an unassailable opinion.”[20]  A perfectionist, Thalberg could spend years and considerable resources, financial and otherwise, to achieve the final cut he thought would bring both critical and financial success.  An excellent example was the film Ben-Hur, which Thalberg inherited in the 1924 MGM merger.  The troubled production had already been filming for several months on location in Italy, beset by cost overruns and lackluster footage.  While Thalberg’s forte was the character-driven drama, he recognized that this historical spectacle, if successful, would help the new company establish its viability and importance as a profitable, standard-setting enterprise.  Over the course of two years, Thalberg moved the production to the MGM lot, built new sets, revamped the costume design, retooled the script, and replaced the director as well as the star of the film.  In a brilliant promotional move, he built massive new Ben-Hur sets on the MGM lot and invited Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, to come view the pivotal and elaborate chariot race scenes.  The rigors of this production, alongside the over thirty MGM films released in 1925, taxed Thalberg’s always-precarious health.  In November 1925, he had a heart attack, but quickly bounced back and finished the editing of Ben-Hur from his sickbed, to the amazement of all.  In December 1925, Ben-Hur was released to great acclaim with the lion’s share of the credit going to the relentless Thalberg.  Indeed, Nicholas Schenck, president of MGM’s parent company Loew’s and Thalberg’s boss, wrote to Thalberg: “Well Kid you were repaid last night for all the hard work you put in on Ben Hur.  It was the most magnificent opening I ever witnessed.”[21]  And so his legend grew.

Thalberg’s reputation and track record were augmented by a growing number of MGM stars and hit films in the late 1920s; MGM could rightfully claim to have “more stars than there are in heaven” with a roster that included Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford.  The 1932 release of Grand Hotel marked another innovation by Thalberg: the star-studded extravaganza, or as he told the New York Times, “a number of prominent players in the cast.”[22] Conventional wisdom held that a film should feature only one or at most two star performers—otherwise the successful producer risked overexposure and over-expenditure.  Thalberg challenged this standard practice with great success: Grand Hotel boasted a storied cast led by Garbo and Crawford who worked alongside theater-turned-film stars (and brothers) John and Lionel Barrymore. 

Thalberg did not pioneer every film world innovation, but he always came to embrace change that promised greater profits and critical accolades.  In the transition to sound in the late 1920s and early 1930s, MGM notably was not a leader.  Thalberg considered the “talkies” a fad and novelty that would likely go out of fashion and cautioned against succumbing to “this panic over the talking pictures.”[23]  In 1929, aesthetic as well as financial and structural concerns left him unconvinced that sound film was the only future of film and continued to hedge his bets.  He announced that “a decided majority of our talking pictures will have complete silent versions.”[24]  When it became clear that, for once, his instincts and production schedule were wrong-headed, Thalberg took swift and decisive action.  He hired expert personnel, quickly had a “special studio under construction for the making of talking pictures,” tested and coached MGM performers, and otherwise facilitated to the transition to sound film.[25]  Here was another hallmark of Thalberg’s success: his flexibility, his nimbleness, and his ability to listen to others, acknowledge a mistake, and adjust swiftly.  After his initial reluctance, Thalberg committed to sound in a major way.  He produced The Broadway Melody, a backstage revue that would win the 1930 Academy Award for best film, making it the first sound film to win an Oscar. 

In the same year that MGM began its transition to sound, Thalberg (as well as Mayer) would be blindsided by the March 1929 announcement that Fox Film Corporation, headed by William Fox, was taking over Loew’s, the parent company of MGM.  Schenck, Loew’s president, had secretly orchestrated the merger and stood to make a fortune in the takeover.  Thalberg did not know what place he would have in such a reconfigured organization.  However, a serious car accident and then the October 1929 stock market crash undermined Fox’s physical and then financial well-being.  Also Mayer, who had become an important player in national Republican circles and had access to President Herbert Hoover and his administration, used his newly acquired political capital to help ensure a Justice Department antitrust investigation began into the proposed Fox/Loew’s-MGM merger.  The merger failed, and the status quo held at MGM.  The same year, Thalberg faced serious tax evasion charges from the IRS; Mayer again stepped in and used his political influence to settle the case with only a cash payment from Thalberg—no court case, no jail time, no excessive fine.  While Mayer’s growing power and influence worked to Thalberg’s advantage in 1929, tensions between the two men would escalate over the next few years.

Thalberg’s successes and innovations as well as his integrity and peerless work ethic meant that he was granted considerable leeway in terms of film budget and process; for many years, Mayer ensured that Thalberg had all the necessary resources at his disposal.  Thalberg also aggressively pursued a more lucrative compensation package throughout his tenure at MGM.  With the 1924 MGM merger, Thalberg’s yearly salary was $33,800 ($431,000 in 2010 USD), plus a very lucrative 4 percent of MGM profits, based upon a minimum production order of fifteen films per year.  A little more than a year later, after protracted negotiations with Schenck, Mayer, and the New York office, his yearly base salary was increased to $104,000 ($1.3 million in 2010 USD)—a clear affirmation of his value to MGM.  For the next seven years, Thalberg would make annual demands for salary increases as well as a more lucrative profit-sharing agreement.  While Mayer and Schenck met his demands, tensions grew.  Over time, this financial wrangling as well as disparate personalities and increasingly divergent personal and professional goals undermined Mayer and Thalberg’s once close and harmonious partnership.  While Thalberg remained focused on producing a slate of impressive films and MGM’s day-to-day operations, Mayer prioritized maintaining the favor of MGM’s New York office and securing national political power.  And what Mayer and Schenck could give, they could also take away, given their power and status in the MGM corporate hierarchy.  Ultimately Thalberg was their employee and a producer with an important title that could (and ultimately would) be taken away.

1932 marked a key turning point in Thalberg’s career.  In December, Fortune published a lead article on “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” asserting that in “the past five years, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has made the best and most successful moving pictures in the United States.” The feature charged that “everyone in Hollywood believes” Thalberg to be the key reason for MGM’s success.  The first half of the article was devoted exclusively to Thalberg who was characterized as a “genius” for whom film was “an avocation, a new language, a necessity.” The second half of the article tried to complicate this narrative of Thalberg as the heroic individual who “is what Hollywood means by MGM” by asserting that “MGM is neither one man nor a collection of men.” Mayer, who had been only namelessly and demeaningly alluded to as “a Polish immigrant who sometimes makes $500,000 a year and once . . . spent the weekend at the White House,” in the first half of the article, came under discussion in the second half.  He was called “probably the most distinguished personage in Hollywood,” but the article also went on to suggest that he “does not spend more than half his time” on MGM because of his political work and aspirations.  Schenck and Mayer grew alarmed at what this portrait meant for the studio, their professional reputations, and especially for Thalberg’s ego and his constant financial demands. Ultimately they would take action to ensure that the “corporation is bigger than the sum of its parts,” especially in light of Thalberg’s ongoing health problems.[26] 

In December 1932, the same month that the Fortune article appeared and described Thalberg as “a pale and flimsy bag of bones,” he had a very serious heart attack.[27]  The publication of the Fortune article coinciding with Thalberg’s most serious health crisis in years underscored for MGM’s leadership the real dangers of an over-reliance on Thalberg and the need to curtail his power and influence. After his heart attack, rumors circulated that “Thalberg may have to retire from all activity for a time, which proved to be true.”[28]  This health crisis necessitated an extended leave for Thalberg.  While he was convalescing and then traveling in Europe through the first half of 1933, Schenck and Mayer reorganized MGM.  While Thalberg was furious and “dismayed” and “disapproved of” all of “the drastic changes that have taken place,” he was powerless to stop them.[29]  Thalberg was stripped of his title of vice president in charge of production. When he returned to MGM in August 1933, he was only one producer—albeit very successful and respected—among many at MGM, a clear demotion.  This change at MGM also reflected wider changes in the industry as the major Hollywood studios transitioned away from a single production chief structure to the central producer system, in which a group of producers oversaw various units.  With this reorganization, control over a studio’s slate of films was no longer concentrated in the hands of a single production executive—a change that consolidated power in the hands of the studios’ financial leadership.

As one of several MGM producers, Thalberg developed and released an enviable slate of films, including Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), A Night at the Opera (1935), and Romeo and Juliet (1936)While his output remained peerless, Thalberg deeply resented Mayer and Schenck’s betrayal and took this opportunity to begin development of the I.G. Thalberg Production Company—a longtime dream—where he could regain the power, control, and prestige that had been his as MGM production chief.  The terms of his MGM contract meant that Thalberg was not free to form a production company until January 1939.  Meanwhile he laid the groundwork and planned: 1. to retain the services of a select group of MGM personnel, including performers, writers, and directors; 2. to have Loew’s distribute his films; and 3. to be in complete charge.  Had his plans come to fruition, Thalberg would have once again been at the forefront of a major structural shift in the industry as producers, directors, and actors increasingly sought independence from the major studios through the establishment of independent production units.

In addition to his producing and plans for the future, Thalberg also engaged in behind-the-scenes politicking in the mid-1930s.  With regard to his personal politics, Thalberg had worked as a Socialist party organizer in his teens; by the time he was working at MGM, he shared the moderate, pro-business Republican politics common to many film industry executives, including Mayer.  Fundamentally Thalberg was a pragmatist when it came to his political activity, motivated by the need to promote his own well-being as well as that of the industry he loved.  He also did so to curry favor with Mayer and other Republican power brokers in the industry: their financial and professional assistance would be necessary to make his production company a reality.  In the infamous 1934 California gubernatorial election, the muckraking writer and intellectual and Socialist-turned-Democrat Upton Sinclair mounted a real challenge to the Republican incumbent Frank Merriam. In what is widely considered to be one of the ugliest U.S. political campaigns of the twentieth century, Sinclair was wrongly smeared as a free-love advocate, Communist, and atheist.  He was defeated.  Sinclair’s End Poverty Campaign in California (EPIC) plan greatly worried film industry leaders, especially its proposed changes in personal and corporate tax structures.  Thalberg, produced staged “newsreels” designed to scare Californians into voting against Sinclair—work  he never publicly acknowledged. 

From 1934 to 1936, Thalberg also played a central role in undermining union activism in the film industry.  In this period, the Screen Writers Guild (SWG), as well as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), began to organize in Hollywood in earnest.  At MGM, Thalberg staged a dramatic intervention and blocked the formation of the SWG, ruthlessly using the long-term relationships and goodwill he had developed with writers over the years to squelch union activity.  He called upon allies like media mogul William Randolph Hearst to use his considerable resources to undermine the ability of “writers . . .  [to] coerce employers into any sort of deals they desire.”[30]  Thalberg’s actions deeply disappointed and alienated many formerly close friends and colleagues like writer Charles MacArthur.  Thalberg, however, would not be around by the time the SWG finally achieved recognition in 1938 Hollywood. 

Social Status, Networks, Family, and Public Life

Thalberg mentors and industry founders Laemmle and Mayer represented a first generation of immigrant entrepreneurs who struggled to achieve cultural, social, economic, and political legitimacy for themselves and their product, born of poor and working-class, urban, immigrant neighborhoods.  Conversely, Thalberg was emblematic of a second generation of assimilated, native-born, educated young film executives who understood themselves as Americans and expected equality, access, and respect from the wider world for themselves and their industry. 

Thalberg, an accomplished and gifted student, was a high school graduate who pursued some post-secondary business training.  He read widely and was conversant with and appreciative of high-, middle-, and low-brow culture.  His films would reflect these catholic tastes developed during Thalberg’s youth when he was often isolated from his peers as a frequent convalescent who found solace and escape in his books and studies.  Growing up in Brooklyn, Thalberg led a life bounded by family, routine, and duty. This would change with his move to Los Angeles.

With his 1919 relocation to Hollywood, Thalberg’s social world and experiences expanded beyond his immediate family.  He began to develop a cosmopolitan cohort of male industry friends, including silent film idol John Gilbert whose path to stardom was orchestrated by Thalberg.  While Thalberg began to indulge in evenings of drinking and carousing, it was always in moderation.  He saved his exertions for the workplace unlike, for example, his good friend Gilbert whose drinking would bring a premature end to his career and then his life by the mid-1930s.  Thalberg also embarked on his first romantic relationship with Rosabelle Laemmle, daughter of Universal’s CEO and Thalberg’s first film industry employer and mentor.  Rosabelle and Irving had known each other in New York, but they did not begin dating until 1921, shortly after he was named general manager at Universal City.  Only then had he become a suitable escort for the boss’s daughter.  The two dated on and off for several years, but Thalberg increasingly attracted considerable female attention in the film colony.  His charm, boyish good looks, and considerable power and influence in the industry made him a sought-after escort. The same year Thalberg began to date Laemmle, he also moved his parents—whom he had supported financially since the failure of his father’s textile business in the late 1910s—from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. With his mother once again head of the household and overseeing his health and well-being, Thalberg was able to devote his energies to work and was freed from the need to establish an independent household of his own through marriage.

Beginning in early 1926, one of his frequent escorts was the Canadian-born actress Norma Shearer.  Thalberg and Shearer both began working at Metro Pictures in early 1923 and were colleagues who developed an excellent working relationship.  Indeed, Shearer was among the group of performers whose rise to stardom was orchestrated by Thalberg at MGM; others included Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo.  As an MGM insider, Shearer understood and respected Thalberg’s work ethic as well as his financial and emotional responsibilities to his parents; she too was an immigrant and the primary breadwinner for her family.  After much rumor and speculation, “Irving Thalberg formally announced, and Norma Shearer smilingly admitted” their engagement in August 1927.[31]  On September 29, 1927, he and Shearer, a convert to Judaism for the wedding, married in true MGM style: Mayer served as best man and his daughters Edith and Irene as well as MGM star Marion Davies were bridesmaids.  Their marriage cemented a personal and professional partnership that turned Shearer into the “Queen of MGM” as the star of a series of critical and box office successes.  Though Shearer would put her career on hold during Thalberg’s periodic health crises, she continued to work, with her husband’s full support.  To the rest of the world, she would be forced to justify her status as a working wife and then mother. In one movie fan magazine interview, she justified her choices thusly, “It almost seems to me that I should continue with my work, so as to keep an active interest in his.”[32]  Work brought them together; as a couple, they achieved even greater success.  The rabbi who married them would later declare that “[t]heir relationship together stands as a demonstration to the world” of fidelity and stability.[33]

1927 was a notable year for Thalberg on the personal as well as the professional front.  In addition to getting married, Thalberg emerged as an ambassador for Hollywood in its ongoing struggle for cultural and political legitimacy.  Industry leaders faced a renewed groundswell of criticism of film content and film world morals from the outside as well as union agitation from within the industry.  They took action on several fronts to bolster their power and control and forestall federal regulation and/or censorship.  The handsome, articulate, young family man made for an excellent film world representative to allay fears and inspire confidence.  That year, Thalberg and other industry leaders established the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to serve several purposes.  AMPAS would work to legitimize film as an art form through its annual Academy Awards (which would come to be popularly known as the Oscars) as well as early film preservation and archival efforts.  AMPAS was also organized as a company union at a time when Thalberg and others feared the growing appeal and inroads of grassroots union organizing among industry personnel; this preemptive action did help stave off widespread unionization until the mid-1930s. 

Also in 1927, Thalberg, as a representative and member of the all-powerful industry trade organization the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), co-authored “The Don’ts and the Be Carefuls,” film production guidelines designed to appease industry critics and forestall film censorship.  While industry leaders adopted the guidelines with great fanfare, the MPPDA lacked the ability to enforce them.  Indeed, co-author Thalberg famously ignored and repeatedly violated the very code he helped to design.  Again in 1930, Thalberg would be called upon to revise the guidelines, which were renamed the Production Code, revised again, and finally truly implemented with the creation of the Production Code Administration (PCA) under the auspices of Joseph Breen in 1934.  For the rest of his producing career, Thalberg would frequently tangle with the PCA and struggle to balance appeasing critics, producing high-quality films, and maintaining mass appeal.  Thalberg would later serve on the advisory for the Museum of Modern Art’s fledgling film library and preservation efforts, at a time when film’s status as an art was very much contested.  Thalberg always believed in film as a new art form and dedicated his life to fulfilling its potential.  Indeed, he would be remembered as someone who “had given ‘of his money and his strength . . . to every cause of good in the city, in this nation . . . and in other nations’”[34]

At MGM, Thalberg surrounded himself with a team of accomplished and trusted producing associates, many of whom hailed from elite social, intellectual, and economic circumstances.  He actively fostered working relationships with writers, intellectuals, and artists.  Unlike many of his peers in Hollywood’s executive offices, Thalberg did not disdain their talents and insights. Rather he sought to harness and adapt their artistic skills and aptitudes—especially writers’—to improve the quality of MGM’s films.  He had an enduring appreciation of good writing, developed from his childhood sickbed.  He understood the value and importance of a quality script as the key to a successful film.  Early on, he recognized that screenwriting was a “specialized profession,” which meant it required identifying “promising younger writers . . . and train[ing] them in the technique of the screen.”[35]  Thus he cultivated a deep and talented pool of MGM writers, which would include—at various times—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anita Loos, Frances Marion, and playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.  While widely reported to be the “biggest and most expensive writing staff in Hollywood,” it was also the most storied and respected and was central to MGM’s good fortunes and success.[36]  Frances Marion would later remember that Thalberg “had elevated us [the writers] to positions of considerable power, but it was a power contingent upon Thalberg’s support and good will.”[37]

“The Boy Prince” of Hollywood became a father with the birth of Irving Jr. on August 25, 1930.  With this life-changing event, Thalberg and Shearer moved from the Beverly Hills mansion they had shared with his parents for the almost three years since their marriage into a home of their own.  And what a home it was.  The Thalbergs built a palatial oceanfront “cottage” in Santa Monica, with a private pool as well as soundproofing and air conditioning to create a quiet and healthy environment for Thalberg to live and work in.  Shearer, like her husband’s mother, was always vigilant when it came to safeguarding his health and orchestrating a stress-free environment in which he could work and play.  The Thalberg and Shearer marriage existed in a relentless and sometimes punishing spotlight, and both parties worked hard to build a successful partnership.  Shearer was, by all accounts, a devoted wife who deftly negotiated her husband’s close, if fractious, relationship with his opinionated and ever-present mother.  Indeed, the Thalbergs had a weekly dinner with his parents and his sister Sylvia and her family.  As for his father William, Thalberg provided financial support and saw him regularly at family gatherings, but also subjected a man Shearer remembered as a “shadowy figure” to “‘affectionate insults.’”[38] Their family grew on June 13, 1935, when their daughter Katherine was born. 

The Thalbergs’ work did not end when they finished up at the studio for the evening. They lived in the midst of a Santa Monica beachfront film community that included Mayer, producer Samuel Goldwyn, actor/producer Douglas Fairbanks as well as actress Marion Davies, and her companion William Randolph Hearst.   The Thalbergs entertained a mixture of industry colleagues, local and visiting notables, artists, and intellectuals. Unlike his parents’ German-Jewish kinship networks of the New York metropolitan area, Thalberg’s professional and social worlds were far more wide-ranging though both included members of Hollywood’s significant German émigré community. Thalberg’s relationship to his German-American identity was always ambivalent.  He came of age in the United States in the midst of World War I; like many of German descent, he was reticent about claiming his heritage.  For example, Thalberg would publicly acknowledge Spanish as a skill he acquired through his schooling, but never discussed his German language skills.   His wife would later remember that his father’s “loyalty to the ‘Fatherland’ drove Irving crazy.”[39]  Yet Thalberg would also travel to Germany several times and employed as well as socialized with prominent members of the Los Angeles German émigré community.  MGM producer/director Paul Bern was the German émigré who figured most prominently in Thalberg’s life, personal and professional.  They worked closely together and spent considerable time outside the studio together as well.  Bern committed suicide under mysterious circumstances in 1932, an event that left Hollywood whispering and Thalberg devastated by the loss of a man he considered a mentor.  As a director at MGM, Ernst Lubitsch collaborated very successfully with Thalberg and was also included in dinners at his Santa Monica home.  Writer/actress Salka Viertel, who served as the hostess of an L.A.-based salon for German intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, worked for Thalberg at MGM.  Her experiences were decidedly mixed: as a female writer, she sometimes felt patronized and marginalized, as an SWG activist she felt Thalberg’s wrath.  But she also appreciated Thalberg’s seriousness of purpose and dedication to his craft.  Thalberg was certainly open to hiring German émigrés if he believed they could contribute to the production process.  For example, Viertel served as an intermediary when Thalberg entered into ultimately failed negotiations for the German composer Arnold Schoenberg to write the score for The Good Earth (1937).

Thalberg was also an important part of Los Angeles’ Jewish community as a member of Hollywood’s Wilshire Boulevard Temple, headed by the charismatic, secularizing, reform-minded Rabbi Edgar I. Magnin.  Sadly, Magnin would officiate at both Thalberg’s wedding and his funeral.  Thalberg was less conflicted about his Jewishness than some of his older film industry mentors and openly acknowledged and practiced his religion.  Yet he too struggled with anti-Semitic stereotypes and discrimination.  For example, the otherwise glowing 1932 Fortune profile of Thalberg and MGM made repeated reference to Thalberg’s Jewishness and that of other industry leaders, an early example of the anti-Semitic founding myths about Hollywood.  Thalberg was cast as “a small, finely-made Jew” versus “the old régime of fur peddlers, secondhand jewelers” and other “somber . . . Jews.”[40]  While he was presented as an “improvement” over other Jewish studio executives, Thalberg was still stereotyped as a “small” and “nervous” Jew who was somehow apart from mainstream America. 

Thalberg made several trips to Germany as an adult.  He and Shearer spent part of their honeymoon there in early 1928, visiting Heidelberg as well as Berlin.  While in Berlin, the couple paid a “formal and ambassadorial visit to the UFA studios,” the center of German filmmaking.[41]  They returned to Europe again in 1931 with their infant son not only to fulfill some professional duties, but also for Thalberg to receive treatment at the renowned spa and heart health clinic at Bad Neuheim.  Thalberg would return to Bad Neuheim in 1933 to recuperate from a series of heart attacks; treatment included removal of his tonsils to improve his heart health.  On this 1933 trip, he and Shearer would experience Nazi repression firsthand: in a very fraught atmosphere, they saw anti-Semitic graffiti at the clinic, witnessed an assault on a Jewish couple, and observed Nazi rallies.  Privately, Thalberg despaired of finding a “solution . . . [to] the Jewish problem in Germany” due to “hatred toward the Jew” and the Nazi willingness to exploit and fuel anti-Semitic sentiment.[42]  In March 1934, Thalberg helped form the Community Relations Council (CRC) to monitor and counter anti-Semitism as printed and broadcast by L.A.-area Nazi sympathizers.  These film industry executives also pressured news media leaders to refrain from giving a platform for such views.  Thalberg and other Jewish leaders in Hollywood remained convinced that Hitler’s national socialism remained an important bulwark against the spread of communism and Soviet influence and aggression.  And, perhaps most importantly, U.S. film executives, including Thalberg, were reluctant—but not ultimately unwilling—to sacrifice the very lucrative foreign market in Germany for Hollywood films.  In spring 1936, Thalberg also supported the newly formed Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, an organization that would draw support from across the political spectrum in Hollywood, and address concerns about Nazi leadership and the plight of the German Jews through rallies, talks, radio broadcasts, and its own newspaper.   

Conclusion

On Labor Day weekend in 1936, Thalberg spent a working holiday at a Monterey resort where he fell ill.  Though he took a few days off, he seemed to recover and resumed his usual punishing schedule.  Then his cold turned to pneumonia.  On the morning of Monday, September 14, Thalberg died in his Santa Monica beachside home with family and friends by his side.  His funeral made national and international headlines and was attended by Hollywood’s luminaries; President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a message of condolence.  The tributes poured in lamenting the “irreparable loss” of “a true genius” and celebrating the life and work of “the most brilliant young man in the motion picture business.[43]

MGM had to regroup and complete the many projects Thalberg had in various stages of production: those films included Camille (1937), Marie Antoinette (1938), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and Pride and Prejudice (1940).  The Good Earth (1937) was dedicated to Thalberg’s memory and nominated for five Academy Awards; it received two, including a best actress win for Luise Rainer.

His early death, at the height of his artistic powers, solidified the legend of the “Boy Prince.”  In 1938, AMPAS, of which he was a founding member, presented the first Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to producer Darryl Zanuck for a body of work of “consistently high quality.”  Over the years, the Thalberg Award has been given to a range of distinguished film producers, including Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola.  The 1941 publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon further burnished the Thalberg legend as he was the acknowledged inspiration for Tycoon’s doomed, romantic protagonist producer Monroe Stahr.

Thalberg’s career spanned the rise and triumph of the classical Hollywood studio system and the trajectory of his career illuminates many of its major institutional and industrial developments from the late 1910s to the mid-1930s.  At Universal in the late 1910s and early 1920s, he served as an effective manager and efficiency expert, streamlining the production process.  He was a major player in the merger that resulted in MGM: the studio that would perfect the star-driven, feature-length film; remain financially solvent through the crisis of the Great Depression; and embody the most successful film corporation in the classical era of horizontal and vertical integration that resulted in an oligopoly of several major and minor film studios.  Thalberg emerged as the very model of the 1920s and 1930s production chief who oversaw the dazzling output of silent and then sound film in early Hollywood.  He was a gifted filmmaker and studio executive who achieved much in a sadly shortened life—the son of German immigrants who far exceeded his parents’ achievements, a native-born son mentored by German and other immigrant film industry founders who left behind an indelible legacy as well as a romantic legend.

Notes

[1] Dorothy Herzog, “How to Be a Producer,” Photoplay 24:5 (April 1926): 66.

[2] Reminiscences of David O. Selznick, (September 1958), on p. 9 in the Columbia Center for Oral History (hereafter CCOH).

[3] Thalberg to Mary Pickford and Sam Goldwyn, Feb. 7, 1936, Box 1, Folder 19, Irving G. Thalberg and Norma Shearer papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, Ca. (hereafter Thalberg/Shearer papers).

[4] Louella O. Parsons, The Gay Illiterate (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1944), 64; "Thalberg's Rise to Fame Won Title of ‘Boy Wonder,’" Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1936.

[5] Mourdaunt Hall, “Pola Negri Seen at Work,” New York Times, July 26, 1925.

[6] "Thalberg's Rise to Fame.”

[7] “Mr. Thalberg Returns from Europe,” New York Times,May 13, 1928.

[8] Malcolm Stuart Boylan, "Great Executive Job Held by a Boy of 22," Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1922.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “A Word or Two with Mr. Thalberg,” New York Times, February 26, 1928.

[11] Reminiscences of Louella Parsons (June 1959), on p. 109 in CCOH.

[12] “I.G. Thalberg Dies,” New York Times, September 15, 1936.

[13] Thalberg to von Stroheim, October 6, 1922, Box, 4, Folder 53, Erich von Stroheim papers, Herrick Library.

[14] “Thalberg Quits Universal,” Los Angeles Times, January 31, 1923.

[15] Grace Kingsley, "Flashes," Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1923.

[16] “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” Fortune 6 (Dec. 1932): 118.

[17] All current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present," MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index. (accessed February 2012).

[18] Thalberg to Mayer, March 23, 1928, Box 1, Folder 7, Thalberg/Shearer papers; “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” 64. 

[19] Marion Davies, The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975), 104.

[20] "Great Executive Job.”

[21] Schenck to Thalberg, telegram, December 31, 1925, Box 8, Folder 56, Ruby Behlmer papers, Herrick Library.

[22]“Producer Discusses Pictures,” New York Times, May 3, 1931.

[23] Dorothy Manners, “The Boy Wonders: The Juvenile Jove, Irving Thalberg, Eyes the Talkies Askance,” Motion Picture 37:5 (June 1929): 94.

[24] “Plan Silent Versions of Metro Talkies,” New York Times, April 18, 1929.

[25] Mourdaunt Hall, “Winter in Illusion,” New York Times, July 29, 1928.

[26] “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” 51, 52, 116, 52, 116, 51, 118, 116, 54.

[27] “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” 54.

[28] “Irving Thalberg Very Ill,” New York Times, January 9, 1933.

[29] Thalberg to Schenck, Feb. 6 and 8, 1933, Box 2, Folder 27, Thalberg/Shearer papers.

[30] Thalberg to Hearst, May 13, 1936, Box 1, Folder 4, Thalberg/Shearer papers.

[31] “Norma Shearer Engaged,” New York Times, August 18, 1927.

[32] Dunham Thorp, “The Love Interest,” Motion Picture Classic 26:4 (Dec. 1927): 79.

[33] “Services are Held for I.G. Thalberg,” New York Times, September 17, 1936.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Producer Discusses Pictures.”

[36] “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” 51.

[37] Frances Marion, Off With Their Heads! A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 145.

[38] Norma Shearer Arrouge, “Norma Shearer Arrouge Memoir Notes.”  Unpublished document, private collection as quoted in Mark A. Vieira, Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 273.

[39] Ibid.

[40] “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” 54, 118, 64.

[41] Dunham Thorp, “In Love and Incog,” Motion Picture Magazine 36:3 (October 1928): 98.

[42] Thalberg to Dr. David Perla, April 24, 1933, Box 1, Folder 10, Thalberg/Shearer papers.

[43] “I.G. Thalberg Dies.”

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Irving Thalberg." (2014) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved September 23, 2014, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=58

Chicago Style

Feeley, Kathleen A.. "Irving Thalberg." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, edited by Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. Last modified August 28, 2014. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=58

MLA Style

"Irving Thalberg," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2014, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 23 Sep 2014 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=58>

Irving Thalberg Portrait, 1927

  • Irving Thalberg on the MGM Studio Lot, 1930
  • Wedding of Norma Shearer to Irving Thalberg
  • Irving Thalberg Dining with William Randolph Hearst
  • Paul Bern with his wife Jean Harlow

See more images »

TOP