Darryl F. Zanuck won the first one in 1937 and two thereafter. Walt Disney won it. So did Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, and, a rare outsider, Ingmar Bergman. Steven Spielberg got it eight years before he won an Oscar. George Lucas got one too, the only Academy Award he’ll ever need. Oscars are a dime a dozen but, in the 79 years since Zanuck took one home, only 39 of these babies have been awarded. Honored in 2010, Francis Ford Coppola was the last to receive it.
It is the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award—Hollywood’s ultimate self-tribute given to those “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” Not an Oscar statuette, the trophy is a bust of Thalberg, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s legendary head of production, the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, and the movie industry’s greatest secular saint.
Irving Thalberg (1899-1936) was the lone movie mogul with a true movie-star aura, personifying in death (and perhaps even in life) Hollywood’s presumed Golden Age. Animating spirit of the dream factory, he legendarily labored seven days a week and hobnobbed with Hollywood royalty every night. Thalberg’s home was an extension of M-G-M—his living room was among the first to include a projection booth, with an 8×10 screen that rose majestically up from the floor. So was his bedroom; married to Norma Shearer, Thalberg was the only mogul with a movie-star wife.
Was the elusive, enigmatic Thalberg a businessman with the soul of a poet or vice versa? His portrait emblazoned on the cover of Mark A. Vieira’s 2010 biography, this sickly, doomed workaholic, who suffered his first heart attack at age 26 and died of pneumonia a decade later, meets our gaze with a Giaconda smile.
As if obeying the biblical commandment against graven images, Thalberg never gave himself an on-screen credit, even on his personal productions. Those were for mortals: In Hollywood mythology, Saint Irving was something close to divine. “Thalberg’s bungalow was the ‘Holy of Holies,’ ” according to Rosalind Russell who appeared in one of Thalberg’s last projects, China Seas (1935). “Going in was almost like going into church.”
Frail and slight, Thalberg shrank from physical contact. Robert De Niro’s understated impersonation in the 1976 movie of The Last Tycoon is an arresting blend of cool confidence and touching vulnerability. Although the screenwriter Anita Loos found Thalberg a “pathetic figure,” all screening-room pallor and over-padded shoulders, his contemporaries mainly regarded Thalberg as unique. “You thought that you were talking to an Indian savant,” onetime M-G-M producer Walter Wanger remembers. “He could cast a spell on anybody.”
“Everyone loved him,” according to onetime M-G-M star Marion Davies, although, given that she was the consort of publisher William Randolph Hearst, one might assume that Thalberg was especially nice to her. Daring to question the terms of an M-G-M contract, Edward G. Robinson encountered the contempt beneath Thalberg’s surface affability.
“Irving was a sweet guy, but he could piss ice water,” recalled fellow M-G-M producer Eddie Mannix—another way of saying that he was all business. One famous Hollywood anecdote has Thalberg audibly continuing a story conference in the midst of silent star Mabel Normand’s funeral.
The son of a lace importer and grandson of a minor department store magnate, Thalberg was born in Bushwick, the now hipsterfied but then genteel German-Jewish enclave in New York City’s newly incorporated borough Brooklyn. Irving was a cyanotic “blue baby,” considered likely to die in his twenties.
Nurtured by a fiercely protective mother—who would live with him for years after his marriage—the sickly boy spent his childhood reading. But however bookish, Thalberg was considered too fragile for college; instead his mother managed to find him a job as secretary to Carl Laemmle, the founder of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, whose Long Island vacation cottage was next door to that of Thalberg’s maternal grandparents.
Barely 19, Thalberg went to work for Laemmle for $60 a week; by the time he was 20, his salary had increased seven-fold and he was managing Universal’s studio in the San Fernando Valley. It was there that the young screenwriter Lenore Coffee encountered him. “I was not prepared for the slender body, the delicately boned and strikingly Italianate face. I thought immediately of how he would look as a Renaissance prince.”
Princeling or not, Thalberg understood how to exercise power. He rationalized Universal’s production in part by enshrining the screenplay as the manifestation of the producer’s authority. Writers appreciated him more than the directors who were thus reined in; Thalberg’s most celebrated battle of wills was waged against the formidable and notoriously profligate Erich von Stroheim, whom he accused of corporate disloyalty and fired—the first time, it is said, that a director had ever been discharged.
Thalberg himself left Universal in 1923, in part because he declined to marry Laemmle’s daughter, finding another, more dynamic mentor in Louis B. Mayer, the hyper-emotional junk dealer’s son who parlayed the second-run rights to The Birth of a Nation into the studio that would eventually bear his name. Mayer hired Thalberg as the future M-G-M’s vice-president in charge of production at $500 per week and, although only 15 years his senior, treated him—at least initially—as a surrogate son.
Notable from its first production, Swedish director Victor Sjöstrom’s sadomasochistic Lon Chaney vehicle He Who Gets Slapped (1924), M-G-M ascended with remarkable rapidity, thanks to Mayer’s business acumen—notably his alliance with the powerful theater chain created by Marcus Loew, not to mention the Chase National Bank—and Thalberg’s drive. (Thalberg won a rematch with Stroheim during his first year at M-G-M when he took control of, and reedited, the filmmaker’s multihour masterpiece Greed.)
With endless story conferences, extensive rewrites, and late night editing sessions, Thalberg pushed himself to his physical limits; the ultimate hands-on producer, he served as story editor on every M-G-M production and, in some years, personally supervised half of these. Revisions and retakes were common, often based on the reaction of preview audiences. (“Movies aren’t made. They’re re-made,” Thalberg is said to have said.) “By the company’s first anniversary, ten of its films were in 1924’s top-grossing forty,” Vieira notes in his biography. Thalberg’s heart gave out the following year, he was given a 50 percent chance of survival but, even while recuperating, he supervised editing sessions from his sick bed.
“By the end of 1926—less than three years after its founding,” per Vieira, M-G-M was “the most lucrative studio in Hollywood.” It was also the studio that proclaimed Ars Gratia Artis for a motto, an aestheticism justified by Sjöstrom’s two Lillian Gish vehicles, The Scarlet Letter (1927) and The Wind (1928); King Vidor’s dynamic spectacles The Big Parade (1925) and The Crowd (1928); as well as the sensational of succession of grotesque dramas Chaney made with Tod Browning.
Mainly, however M-G-M defined Hollywood glamour. Thalberg fetishized the production values used to showcase “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” and M-G-M’s roster of celluloid luminaries including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Lon Chaney, Ramon Novarro, John Gilbert, Mae Murray, and Shearer, whom Thalberg married in 1927, the same year the upstart Warner Bros. opened The Jazz Singer.
Adept as he was at producing silent pictures, Thalberg was not at all prescient with regard to the coming of sound: “Novelty is always welcome, but talking pictures are just a passing fad,” he sagely opined. By early 1929, M-G-M had slipped to third place behind Warners and Paramount, mainly because of Thalberg’s resistance to talkies and Mayer’s indifference. Engrossed with Republican Party politics, the studio boss left Thalberg to solve the problem of sound and cope with the fall-off in business brought by the Great Depression.
M-G-M did create a sensation with Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie (1930), and reversed its fortunes a year later, thanks to a combination of rowdy family comedies like Min and Bill, jungle spectacles (Trader Horn, Red Dust, Tarzan of the Apes), and a succession of sexy melodramas pairing the hot new heart-throb Clark Gable and the studio’s most popular star, Joan Crawford, making the best of Shearer’s leftovers. (As the de facto queen of M-G-M, Mrs. Thalberg had her choice of roles, which included Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Marie Antoinette and, at age 34, Shakespeare’s Juliet.) Thalberg also recognized the potential of the original ultra blonde sex-bomb comedienne Jean Harlow.
Marc Vieira considers 1932 as Thalberg’s apotheosis, unique in Hollywood history: “No producer had made so many innovative films, so many quality films, or so many hits in one year,” not to mention the bizarre circus drama Freaks which famously sent members of one preview audience screaming from the theater. (Although Thalberg quickly re-cut and distanced himself from this one-of-a-kind horror film, it is tempting to see it as project with which Hollywood’s great anomaly might have identified.)
Thalberg’s career soared even as the Depression ground down his competitors. M-G-M was the lone major studio to turn a profit in 1932. There were no austerity measures imposed on him; he was free to pioneer the prestige picture, usually a literary adaptation, and the all-star film (an unprecedented, almost ostentatious, conflation of star power, Grand Hotel featured Garbo, Crawford, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery). Meanwhile, his relations with Mayer deteriorated.
A few days after Christmas 1932, Thalberg suffered another heart attack, and Mayer took charge; he slashed salaries in half and vainly attempted to persuade Darryl Zanuck to leave Warners before signing his son-in-law David O. Selznick as Thalberg’s replacement. Selznick’s first production, the all-star tragicomedy Dinner at Eight is the best movie Thalberg never produced.
Thalberg returned to action as a unit producer during the summer of 1933, but things were not the same. He made a succession of money-losing pictures and continued to argue with Mayer. Like the American economy, Thalberg enjoyed something of a recovery in 1935-36 with the popular hits China Seas, Mutiny on the Bounty, and the Marx Brothers’ comedy A Night at the Opera, but the end was approaching.
Major characters die in many of Thalberg’s last productions (Romeo and Juliet, The Good Earth, Camille, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Marie Antoinette). Thalberg himself was preparing to leave M-G-M when he departed this world in September 1936.
Was Thalberg a self-effacing mason on Hollywood’s great cathedral? Howard Dietz, the lyricist who wrote “Dancing in the Dark,” maintained the one thing that saved Thalberg from “being the usual Hollywood monstrosity was his lack of interest in personal publicity.” Perhaps—or perhaps it was that, as brilliant as he was, Thalberg invented a new sort of publicity.
Long before the December 1932 Fortune piece that, appearing only weeks before Thalberg’s second heart attack, anointed him M-G-M’s secret weapon and guiding force, as well as Hollywood’s resident genius, he had cultivated the legend of the Boy Wonder. Thalberg’s powers of concentration were held near-miraculous—he never grew bored or became tired, and, remarkably, “he even liked to read books for his own amusement,” per playwright turned screenwriter Bayard Veiller.
By his existence alone, Thalberg justified an insecure industry of intellectual parvenus. He was conversant with Kraft-Ebbing, told a childhood friend that Freud helped him understand himself, and sent Sam Goldwyn’s wife Frances a copy of William James’ What Is Pragmatism; between story conferences, he was said to relax with his favorite authors, namely Bacon, Epictetus, and Kant. Colleagues recited his aphorisms for years although those could be dull even for platitudes: “An audience will always reach for quality. Don’t make them stoop for it.”
In the land of the lowbrow, the middlebrow is king. Thalberg had absolute confidence in his taste—or rather his sense of other people’s taste. He was devoted to the Broadway theater but when reigning Broadway actress Helen Hayes complained that her first M-G-M picture, an adaptation of Sir James Barrie’s What Every Woman Knows, had been vulgarized, Thalberg explained why: “Helen, it isn’t what you’d like or what I’d like. It’s what will please those people in Huntington Park and get them to watch the rest of the picture.” His apparent reticence should not be confused with false modesty. When the screenwriter Allen Rivkin contrived a running gag for Mutiny on the Bounty , Thalberg nixed it, telling him that “I, more than any single person in Hollywood, have my finger on the pulse of America. I know what people will do and what they won’t.”
This paternalism carried over into Thalberg’s politics. The studio autocrat was fond of recalling his flaming youth. In the days before the United States entered World War I, Thalberg had been a boy orator for the Socialist Party; by the early ’30s, he was fervently anti-Communist, although more practically anti-labor: “These writers are living like kings. Why on earth would they want to join a union, like coal miners or plumbers?” he wondered at one story conference. (Thalberg’s issues with the Screen Writers Guild are a subplot in The Last Tycoon.)
Having once banned Upton Sinclair from M-G-M, Thalberg, like most the Hollywood moguls, was involved in the campaign against the novelist when he ran for California governor on a Socialist platform; very few of his colleagues were as sanguine as Thalberg with regard to Hitler, whom he regarded, like talkies, as a passing fad.
Thalberg had a reputation for treating writers with respect—although not all writers found him so respectful—particularly as he institutionalized competition and anxiety by habitually assigning scripts to multiple, mutually unaware scenarists. In 1931, four years after Thalberg and Fitzgerald dined together as equal Jazz Age celebrities, Thalberg hired Fitzgerald to co-write the racy Harlow vehicle Red-Headed Woman. After submitting a draft, Fitzgerald found himself rudely replaced by the reliable Anita Loos. “Scott tried to turn the silly story into a prose poem,” Thalberg later explained—although the extent script suggests something far worse than that. Left-wing screenwriter John Howard Lawson mocked the producer as a lightweight: Handed a scene written for Garbo, “Thalberg read every word slowly and then spoke with genuine surprise: ‘There’s an idea in it.’ ”
Thalberg’s M-G-M produced some of the strongest American movies of the silent period, but the M-G-M of the 1930s, studio of glossy star vehicles and pre-sold literary properties, is, film for film, a far less interesting entity than either Paramount, where Ernst Lubitsch was for a time the head of production, or Warner Bros.—and once Zanuck went out on his own, M-G-M was eclipsed by 20th Century Fox as well. The two great mythic blockbusters of the ’30s, King Kong and Gone with the Wind, were produced by Thalberg’s rival David O. Selznick.
The 30-odd talkies Thalberg personally oversaw are a mediocre lot, even in the context of M-G-M’s other productions. His vaunted adaptations of Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, and Pearl S. Buck are inferior to the raucous entertainments starring the likes of Harlow, Gable, and Beery. Notable for its stars, M-G-M was notably weak in the great cycles of the early sound era—musicals, gangster films, screwball comedies—and, despite Thalberg’s cadre of solid technicians and versatile hacks, employed few of the period’s major directors.
Fitzgerald was hardly deluded in seeing Thalberg as a second Gatsby—an unhappy success, pining for a Daisy Buchanan who, in this case, embodied the promise of the movies—and, had the novelist lived to complete The Last Tycoon, he might well have produced a second Gatsby. Thalberg too was planning a second act. He intended to form his own company and become an independent producer. Had he lived another decade, the Boy Wonder might have emerged from Hollywood’s wartime boom as eminent as those canny vulgarians Goldwyn or Selznick (two early Irving winners), or perhaps the machine he helped design would have ground him down to the ranks of Hollywood’s secondary producers—six out of his last 11 personally supervised features lost money.
To read more of J. Hoberman’s film criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.