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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. 

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