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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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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.

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