Although Hollywood is hardly renowned for long memories or appreciation of the past beyond remaking it, there’s much to be learned from this TCM docu on Irving Thalberg, whose brief life and career span a dazzling and vital stretch in studio history. From virtually inventing the practice of shooting and testing alternate endings to his antagonism toward unions and guilds, Thalberg’s legacy still resonates in far more ways than the Oscar that bears his name, down to grasping and shaping the very power dynamics of the business.
Discovered by U’s Carl Laemmle at 21 and later hired by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who eventually demoted him out of sheer jealousy, Thalberg nearly died as a child, became a voracious reader and proceeded to attack the movie business as if he were living on borrowed time. Along the way, he shifted authority from auteur directors to producers, championed stars as varied as Garbo, Gable and the Marx Bros. and famously clashed with director Erich von Stroheim.
Writer-producer-director Robert Trachtenberg’s film is by no means a complete valentine, acknowledging, for example, that Thalberg vowed not to let the guilds take root and was late to recognize the importance of sound, though once he dove into talkies the results were impressive.
Narrated by Stanley Tucci, the brisk production nimbly mixes film clips, home movies and interviews, such as editor Margaret Booth explaining how Thalberg could “save” a movie in post-production when other studios couldn’t. “They didn’t know how to correct ’em. We did,” she says flatly.
Focusing mostly on Thalberg’s career, the narrative makes the occasional detour to chronicle his marriage to actress Norma Shearer and visits to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon estate. For the most part, though, pic is unsentimental, ending rather abruptly after the producer’s death at 37.
Yet for those to whom Thalberg’s name means little more than the cue for a lengthy speech during the Oscar ceremony, this docu is a more than appropriate way to kick off TCM’s monthlong Academy Awards promotion, featuring a mix of Oscar-winning films and performances, including 11 associated with Thalberg.
In a broader sense, as other channels drift away from their roots, petrified that “classic” correlates with “old,” Turner Classic Movies has become a true commercial-free haven for movie buffs. Indeed, the Thalberg documentary will air twice on its debut night, bookending the 1935 “Mutiny on the Bounty,” in which Thalberg had to arm-twist Clark Gable to star.
Don’t bother trying to adjust the dial, kids. It really is in black-and-white.