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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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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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