Irving Thalberg's meteoric rise and early demise is stuff of legend

What is it about Irving Grant Thalberg that lingers? After all, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Irving Thalberg Memorial Award is given away to people who have never attempted his job, let alone kept it together for 10 years or so.

We don’t have heads of production at studios anymore; we don’t even have studios such as Thalberg led, let alone the small army of contract artists who waited on his decisions. We don’t have that factory — the constantly occupied sound-stages, the editing rooms abuzz with activity, the writers’ building, the community — where Thalberg could pass like a small dark angel, correcting so many projects, saving this career and handing that deadbeat director his forgotten jacket.

What was it about that slender, shy, self-effacing maestro? It comes to this: Louis Burt Mayer — blunt, brutal, egomaniacal — was in the habit of writing himself and everyone else clean out of the competition by asserting that Thalberg was a genius, a brilliant man, a different kind of executive, a clear mind surveying and guiding pictures such as no one else possessed. A mind — to quote Scott Fitzgerald on Monroe Stahr, hero of “The Last Tycoon” — that made him “a marker in industry like Edison and Lumiere and Griffith and Chaplin. He led pictures way up past the range and power of the theater, reaching a sort of golden age, before the censorship.”

If Mayer was able to live with Thalberg’s astonishingly greater brightness — and it’s plain in history that he ran out of that tolerance — it was for one reason only: Mayer felt he had the guarantee that Thalberg would be gone soon. Dead. Out of the reckoning, yet an angel with which to beat all subsequent sinners.

And, of course, Thalberg came through. He lived up to his part of the awful bargain. Just as if organizing intelligence was indeed an unnatural, inhuman, un-Hollywood quality, he paid for it in the most drastic manner in September 1936. Having made the George Cukor “Romeo and Juliet” (neither organized nor intelligent), he gave up the ghost and settled for one slow fadeout from 707 Ocean Front, the home he shared with Norma Shearer.

Mayer’s surrogate son

The first time Thalberg was invited to the Mayer household, it was with warnings all round. Yes, Irving would be like Mayer’s son, the one he never had, but that was in the nature of the deal, for Irving “was borrowed. The gods would have him back … his doctors had warned my father that he could go at any time, and there was no chance of his living beyond the age of 30.” That’s Irene Mayer speaking, as the Irene Mayer Selznick she would be, in 1983, when she wrote the book “A Private View.”

I suspect that she had a crush on Thalberg that first time they met; she was 17 and he was 25; she longed to be her father’s son; she and Thalberg were alike in their cool admiration for intelligence as opposed to showmanship and self-dramatization; and because she always recalled how her father had warned, “Don’t fall for the kid.”

So Mayer found David Selznick, who was inspirational instead of lucid, and burning instead of cool, and far more of a handful because he reckoned he’d live forever, despite 80 cigarettes a day. That’s another story, but the two (Thalberg and Selznick) are part of the unending Hollywood cliche that the people in charge are crazy and brilliant, or chilled and wise.

By the night of that first family dinner, Thalberg’s destiny was as clear-cut as his favored scenarios. He was born May 30, 1899, in Brooklyn, the son of a German-Jewish importer of lace. He was also a congenital heart patient, thus the talk of not getting past 30. And truly he ailed. He experienced the sixth grade at home in bed because of a bronchial infection, but all that taught others was that he could get through a grade in a few weeks in bed — so why not work that way forever?

The legend is that his mother, Henrietta, took exaggerated care of him, but how are we to sustain that myth when she chose the movies over the law for his future? And so it was that the sickly, blue-cast boy became private secretary to the bouncy, fun-loving Carl Laemmle at Universal. It was there that he was promoted to run that studio, at which point Hollywood hurriedly decided that all future private secretary jobs should be occupied by women.

It was a job where the sickly boy handled monsters: He made Lon Chaney’s career and humbled that of Erich von Stroheim. He applied simple lessons of economy and restraint to von Stroheim’s project “Foolish Wives,” and served notice that vainglorious directors who respected no limits were setting themselves up for a clash with boy wonders of Economics 101 (Thalberg had been to Columbia for a time). Here was a sign that the first age of wanton directing was about to be reined in (it would return).

Far more indicative was the merger of Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer, the event that brought Thalberg to the Mayer house as a guest, a prize and a lesson to the Mayer girls in innate, sickly sensitivity.

Perfecting the studio system

What did Thalberg do at MGM? Well, he presided over success, and kept the new enterprise together. He was instrumental in setting out the factory system of work — so that assets were not wasted for long. He created a legend of distinguished, tasteful adult entertainment, in which directors and their new watchdogs, producers, made for the most effective broadcasting of the star system, the culture of happiness and a good-looking world. It was called the “studio system,” yet in truth it all looks and feels like a pioneering model for a TV network.

In many ways, it now fosters the Thalberg mystique in that he allowed his name on pictures as seldom as possible. But I think it’s just as apparent from observation of his career and from a reading of “The Last Tycoon” that he aspired to a kind of professional smoothness that had no character — or rather, one that avoided the essential outbreak of Thalbergian personality, having a heart attack.

Those attacks came, in the 1930s. By then, Thalberg was feeling the pressure of being caught up simultaneously in two neurotic triangles: Mayer-Thalberg-Nick Schenck and Mayer-Thalberg-David Selznick. Like someone raised to avoid stress, he did all he could to remove himself: He believed Mayer and Schenck deserved each other; and he was smart enough to see that Selznick needed to be on his own. So Thalberg and his wife, Shearer, were early investors in Selznick Int. But his being married to one Metro star (and not the hottest) cannot have made it easier for him to regulate the lives of the others. And, by the early ’30s, Metro was suffering the retractions in the business that hit every other studio and corporation in America.

Paradise lost

Thalberg had money troubles, too: He was never sure about the best way to profit from MGM. Then, in 1930, Shearer declared a pregnancy. Was the invalid line to be passed along? Could Thalberg’s heart stand the strain of expectancy? The child was born, Irving Thalberg Jr. (a daughter came five years later). But in August 1930, driving back to the studio from the delivery hospital, Thalberg got off the one great joke credited to him. Pausing at the gate to pass on the happy news, he said, “The doctors say he has the intelligence of a 3-week-old already!”

He hung on. He had reached 30 in 1929 — the rest was hanging around.

He had his pursuits: He adored Charles Laughton; he had this daft idea of putting songs and restful passages in Marx Brothers films; he did permit “Freaks” as well as “Romeo and Juliet.” He brought “The Good Earth” into being as well as “Mutiny on the Bounty.” With the best will in the world, you can only say that when he concentrated he made rather hollow, pretty pictures. But when he had run the whole show, well, he introduced Hollywood to the idea of what the show could be.

Creating the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award did nothing to guarantee that his old show would sail on. You can argue that it was over within a few years of his death. Indeed, the smooth, effective business of movies lasted not much more than 15 years and there’s scarcely anyone left alive now to remember it. By the 1950s, even widow Shearer was certain that Bob Evans was born to play Thalberg (in “The Man With a Thousand Faces”), whereas the Bob Evanses of our world know that they were born to have a ball, to create chaos — and to live forever.

David Thomson is the author of the newly revised “New Biographical Dictionary of Film.”

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