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Prodigy in Pictures

When films were movies, Irving Thalberg was the (young) man to see in Hollywood.

Jan 18, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 17 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Irving Thalberg

Prodigy in Pictures

Boy Wonder to Producer Prince
by Mark A. Vieira
California, 528 pp., $34.95

Early one morning in 1970, at my desk at the now long defunct Chicago publishing firm called Quadrangle Books, the receptionist called to say that a man had arrived with a manuscript he would like to leave with me. The man, smallish, handsome, with delicate features and light red hair, entered without saying a word, set on my desk a manuscript in black binders, with the title Enigmas of Agency on a white label on its front cover. I opened it to the first page, where I noted the author’s name. I looked up. “Yes,” the man said, “I am his son.”

His name was Irving Thalberg Jr., and the manuscript was a work of technical philosophy. He was, I now realize, 40 years old, and taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Look,” he said, “I’m not trying to buy you off or anything of the kind, but if you want to publish this book, and the cost of publication is a problem, I have a fund out of which I can defer the expenses. But only, you understand, if you really want to publish the book.”

No one at the firm, it turned out, thought the book was for us—it was eventually published in England by Allen & Unwin—but I have always regretted not having invited its author out for coffee or a lunch. So many things I should have liked to talk with him about. His mother was Norma Shearer, a great beauty and one of the few movie stars to make the transition from silent to talking movies with her popularity increased. Irving Thalberg Jr. died of cancer, in 1987 at 56, living 19 years longer than his father, who pegged out at 37 in 1936, the most famous and by all odds the most talented producer in the history of American movies.

What exactly it is that a producer does has never been altogether clear. As much as he can get away with is, I suppose, one answer. For the producer usually represents “the money,” and money, as the saying has it, talks, too often ignorantly and vulgarly—that is, if one is to listen to directors and writers. The problem is that, without producers, movies don’t get made, nothing gets done, and all one is left with is the sound of no hands clapping to the accompaniment of a chorus of vastly overpaid and highly articulate bitching.

No ordinary producer, Irving Thalberg was the man on whom F. Scott Fitzgerald modeled Monroe Stahr, the hero of his final and uncompleted Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon. Fitzgerald was among the scores of writers Thalberg hired while chief of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Ardently though Fitzgerald wanted to succeed at the job—he needed the money and, down on his luck, was looking for a victory of any kind—he couldn’t bring it off. As a screenwriter, he saw words when pictures were wanted; he wrote dialogue when action was called for. But he also saw in Irving Thalberg a genius of a rare kind, a high-level artist who produced no art of his own but bent all his efforts at releasing and orchestrating the talent of others. Beyond counting are the number of movies Thalberg helped get made, improved, burnished from pure dross to high and entertaining gloss and, sometimes, a little more than mere entertainment.

While alive Irving Thalberg never allowed his name to appear in the screen credits for a single film. He may not have craved fame as it is usually packaged, but he was far from self-effacing. “I, more than any other single person in Hollywood,” he declared, “have my finger on the pulse of America. I know what people will do and what they won’t.” Making decisions was for him never a problem. He told Fitzgerald that “when you’re planning a new enterprise on a grand scale, the people under you mustn’t ever know or guess that you’re in any doubt, because they’ve all got to have something to look up to and they mustn’t ever dream that you’re in doubt about any decision.” He never bullied anyone under him but was not to be fooled with.

The word “filmmaker” has been much bandied around in recent decades, usually applied to directors sufficiently modest to eschew the more pretentious “auteur.” But in the history of American movies, there may have been only one true filmmaker: a man whose hand and mind were there from inception through conception of hundreds of movies, seeing to each detail and without whose behind-the-scene participation the movie would fail to exist—and that man was Irving Thalberg. 

Born in 1899, growing up in a period before people wasted four to six years going off to acquire so-called higher education, Thalberg began young. His first job was with Universal City, where, by the time he was 20, he was made general manager, at a respectable salary of $450 a week, with the -responsibility of running daily operations. He was small—5'6", 122 pounds—but from the first possessed of a quiet authority. When he attempted to hold the line on Erich von Stroheim’s outrageous spending on a movie, von Stroheim, with characteristic modesty, said: “Since when does a child instruct a genius?” Not long thereafter, Thalberg fired von Stroheim, an act, according to David O. Selznick, that “took guts and courage,” and it also changed power relations in movie-making forever, with the producers now being understood ultimately to rank above the directors of films.

Courage, confidence, cool executive ability of the highest order, none of this, for Irving Thalberg, was in short supply. What was in short supply was time. From a very early age, he knew he was going to die young. He was a “blue baby,” born having a poor supply of oxygen to the blood and given a medical prognosis calling for him not to last much beyond the age of 30. The dark prospect of early death, some say, gave Thalberg especial clarity about his own life and what he wished to do with it of a kind unavailable to those who wait until 80 to begin to believe that there is an odd chance they could possibly die. He had a strong mother; his father, like that of George Gershwin, another contemporary Jewish genius, seemed, as the old joke about Jewish husbands has it, not to have had a speaking part. Henrietta Thalberg, Mark A. Vieira, Thalberg’s excellent biographer, writes, “had given her son a sense of self—his poise, his impatience with mediocrity, his need to achieve success within a limited time.”

Vieira’s Irving Thalberg, Boy Wonder to Producer Prince is the third biography of Thalberg, and far and away the most thoroughly researched, comprehensive, and penetrating. The book follows from, and carefully fills out, the biographical essay that Vieira wrote for his sumptuous but serious coffee-table book called Hollywood Dreams Made Real, about Thalberg and the rise of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In the new work Vieira recounts what Thalberg accomplished, how he was able to achieve what he did, and over whose live bodies he brought it all off. This book is as close to definitive as any biography of Irving Thalberg is likely to get.

On the first page of The Last Tycoon, the novel’s female narrator remarks of the Stahr/Thalberg hero that “not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.” (The Whole Equation is the title that the English movie critic David Thomson gave to his recent history of Hollywood.) Thalberg quickly picked up on the equation, and could manipulate it brilliantly. He thought, really, of little else but movies; on his wedding day, while dressing, Vieira reports, he was discussing scripts.

What Thalberg understood is that movies are not merely primarily but entirely about storytelling, and, though he could not himself write stories (or movie scripts), he had a fine understanding of why some stories worked—and quite as important, why others did not. Every good movie requires at least one unforgettable scene, he held. Character is key, he held. Thalberg it was who came up with the notion that the Marx Brothers would be a lot funnier if they played their exhuberant zaniness off rigid social institutions: the opera, the university, diplomacy, thoroughbred racing, high society. He never wrote any of the Marx Brothers scripts, but without this central idea, the genius of the Marx Brothers would never have come to the glorious fruition that it did.

One of Thalberg’s obsessions was to try to comprehend, as one of his screenwriters put it, “why some films could tune into an audience and others could not.” He once told Charles McArthur that his own “tastes are exactly those of the audience. What I didn’t like, they won’t like.” He was enormously patient, prepared to have scenes shot and reshot as often as required. Movies are not made, he held, but remade. He was a surgeon, one of his screenwriters remarked, “who cut to heal.” One of his sub-producers, Lawrence Weingarten, remarked: “Thalberg directed the film on paper, and then the director directed the film on film.” Here, in a single sentence, is Irving Thalberg’s philosophy of filmmaking: “The difference between something good and something bad is great, but the difference between something good and something superior is often very small.” That small but crucial difference was, of course, a large part of the whole equation.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the sign of high intelligence resides in the ability to keep two contradictory ideas in one’s mind at the same time and still function. Thalberg seems to have been able to keep as many as 50 movies in his mind at once, and through subtle but firm indirection, also keep any number of egomaniacs on the job, fend off the Hays Office on censorship, satisfy a difficult Louis B. Mayer and money-minded partners in New York—in short, keep an entire studio functioning without ever seeming in the least ruffled.

Only a monomaniac could bring this off, a man with a wide but deeply grooved, single-tracked mind. Ben Hecht, who worked with Thalberg and whose abiding, sometimes hyperbolic, cynicism about the movies is never wholly out of order, wrote of him: “He hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on anywhere in the world except in his office. He lived two-thirds of the time in the projection room. He saw only movies. He never saw life. He had never noticed life. He was a hermit. He hadn’t the faintest idea what human beings did—but he knew what their shadows should do.”

Irving Thalberg was the founding father of the studio system, a movie-making assembly line that made it possible to turn out as many as 50 or so movies a year. This system, responsible for so much trash and not a few gems, required the regular turnover of what nowadays would be called product: Movies to feed the many movie chains—MGM had a partnership with Loews—during a time when more than three-fifths of Americans saw at least one movie a week. So good was Thalberg at running this monster machine that, during 1932, the worst year of the Depression, MGM showed a profit of $8 million.

The studio system was famously hell on talent, especially literary talent. Among the more glittering literary names Thalberg brought to MGM were Anita Loos, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, James M. Cain, P. G. Wodehouse, George S. Kaufman, Sidney Howard, and S. N. Behrman. In The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald has Monroe Stahr remark that he hires good writers, “but when they get out here, they’re not good writers—so we have to work with the material we have.” Thalberg worked writers in pairs; sometimes, as Fitgzerald has Stahr say, “I’ve had as many as three pairs working independently on the same idea,” without one set knowing what the others are doing.

Individual talent never came close to taking precedence under the old studio system, with the exception only of actors, whom Thalberg largely considered a species of children. Thalberg was excellent at choosing, cultivating, and caring for stars. He wrote:

In pictures, the actor, even more than the play, is the thing. He, more than the author, even more than the director, must hold the mirror up to life. By his ability to convey the author’s and the director’s ideas to the screen and to the people out front, he must transport his audience into a dream world.

Thalberg was not without his blind spots. Vieira notes that he was initially wrong about sound movies, thinking they would not soon (if ever) fully replace silent movies. He was wrong, too, about technicolor, and had to be pushed into it. He was not without standard Hollywood greed, though this can be explained by his understanding that, in Hollywood, you are finally measured by what you are paid. Nor was he above engaging in ego wars with Louis B. Mayer.

Thalberg began as Mayer’s golden boy. In time, though, Mayer seems to have been made nervous by the younger man’s mania for control. The two men’s tastes in movies differed widely, with Mayer’s running to the sentimental and prudish, never crossing the line of the middlebrow. He also did not appreciate that Thalberg made sure that he received the salary and rewards coming to him, every penny and every perk. Thalberg’s wanting control and money, too, was, according to Vieira, the cause of the breakdown between them. At one point, Mayer brought in his son-in-law David O. Selznick to undermine Thalberg’s authority. Eventually Thalberg’s empire at MGM was broken up, leaving him in charge only of something called “the Thalberg unit,” no longer the entire studio, and feeling, as he told colleagues, betrayed. As Vieira wrote in Hollywood Dreams Made Real: “Mayer wanted to be appreciated. Thalberg wanted to make films his own way. Neither would acknowledge the other’s needs.” In the end, Mayer won because he, with his partners in New York, controlled the money—and in Hollywood, then as now and now as forever, the money wins.

The theme of Irving Thalberg’s life, in Vieira’s recounting, goes beyond the extraordinary level of his odd gifts for organization, the freakishness of his youthful accomplishments. The theme of Thalberg’s life was his pure love for making movies. He was always ready to spend more money to get things right; MGM in his day was known as “Retake Valley.” He was not opposed to experiment in movies, and thought it good for the industry. No matter how many poor movies were made, he insisted on emphasizing the good ones. He devoted himself to legitimizing movies in the mind of the American public. Behind all this was Thalberg’s belief that movies, surpassing the stage, the novel, and all else, were “the greatest form of expression yet.”

He was, alas, wrong in this judgment, but far from wrong in trying to raise the level of movies as the great American—and eventually global—art form. In a scene in The Last Tycoon, Monroe Stahr is walking the beach near an oceanfront home he is building, when he encounters a black man collecting grunion. They get into conversation, and the man asks Stahr what he does. When he tells him that he works for “the pictures,” the man replies that he never goes to the movies—“There’s no profit” in them, he says—and he tells Stahr that he “never lets his children go, either.” The following day, when he returns to his office, Stahr tells himself that the black man was wrong, and determines that “a picture, many pictures, a decade of pictures, must be made to show him he was wrong.” Stahr straightaway cancels four borderline movies he has in the works, and puts back on the front burner a difficult movie he earlier decided not to do. “He rescued it,” Fitzgerald writes, “for the Negro man.”

Fitzgerald did not get far enough with his novel to bring Monroe Stahr/Irving Thalberg to his death. Life, as the physicians of his infancy had promised, took care of that detail, when Thalberg’s heart, after a number of earlier attacks, gave out in 1936, at the age of 37. “Thalberg Dead!” ran the headlines on the day he died.

Thalberg’s deft hand made possible many swell movies—Mutiny on the Bounty, Grand Hotel, The Good Earth, Marie Antoinette, A Day at the Races, A Night at the Opera, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and several more—and many entirely forgettable ones among the roughly 400 he worked on. His heritage, in Mark Vieira’s view, is in his aspirations for movies as popular but still complex art, movies that could be quirky, took chances, were made without formula, and for grown-ups. Through the painstaking working-out of detail, Irving Thalberg more than anyone else before or since was able to pry magic from film—the same magic that keeps many of us going back to the movies week after week, even though by now we should know that the odds against our finding more of that same magic are considerable.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. His third collection of short stories, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff, will be published this year.

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