Sunday, August 25, 2013

Irving Thalberg: boy wonder to producer prince by Mark A. Vieira

Irving Thalberg who died in 1937 at age 38 was a trailblazer in the film industry and helped build MGM into the successful film corporation that it is.  His fragility, his work ethic and eye for quality set him apart from the other producers in the formative years of Hollywood. His ability to lead effectively and his innate modestly put him in a different league to the extent that Louis B. Mayer sought to strip him of his power.

Irving Thalberg was not expected to live beyond twenty years old because he was diagnosed with a weak heart - a blue baby.  His mother determined to prove the doctors wrong oversaw his successful childhood, raised a voracious reader. Thalberg did not go to college,however, he was better read than most graduates.  Knowing perhaps that his life would be cut short, he accelerated his plans to produce over 400 movies.  He was unstoppable, putting in long hours in determining each project.  He was responsible for the concept of the "Star" celebrity and created and nurtured the careers of such famous personas as Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and his wife Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, and Clark Gable etc.  When the world had enough of the humor of the Marx brothers and were considered 'has beens', it was Thalberg who reinvented them and gave them their profitable hit movie "A Night at The Opera".

Groucho Marx explained the difference and the trouble he and his brothers were having.  Their humor and previous movies were similar to their zany vaudeville acts that lacked a story line.  After two movies that flopped, Thalberg approached them to make a movie on his terms.  He told them that a movie is a vehicle to tell a story and not just a series of gags.  The brothers signed a contract but were not used to being subservient to anyone.  On one occasion when the Marx brothers were waiting for Thalberg in his office over an hour for a scheduled meeting, the brothers stripped and roasted marshmallows in Thalberg's fireplace.  Although appalled by their behavior, Thalberg was never late again!  Groucho marveled at Thalberg's ability to understand what was funny without laughing!  He convinced the brothers the need of a story line with a romance and that formula created the hit of "Night at the Opera" and revitalized their career.

Thalberg observed Germany in the 1930's and had strong opinions against Hitler but not fascism.  He hated communism.  He was convinced that Hitler, although brutal as he was would pass.  When confronted with the possibility of the destruction the Jewish people, Thalberg almost with prescience responded that the Jews will survive not matter what happens to them.

This book is a contribution to the history of Hollywood during its formative years.  It shows that the producer had complete control over a film.  Thalberg was never interested in his name on the credits because his ego did not require "stardom".  In this regard he was modest in not promoting himself. His ego, however, required him to dominate others so that his productions reflected his imprint.

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