Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Born Today May 30: Irving Thalberg


Famed and highly influential early movie producer Irving Grant Thalberg was born on this day in Brooklyn, New York.  At birth he was diagnosed with what was then called "Blue Baby Syndrome" which turns out to be a congenital heart problem.  His doctors told his parents that Irving would be lucky to live to age 20, never mind to 30.  He started experiencing difficulties with the condition while in high school, and to make matters worse, he contracted rheumatic fever when he was 17.  This confined him to bed for a year; insatiably reading everything he could get his hands on became his past time. Lacking the health to enroll in college, he then took a series of part-time jobs; he also taught himself a set of skills that would hopefully help him find better work, they included: typing, short hand and Spanish--he also attended night school.  At the age of 18, he placed an ad in a newspaper touting what experience he had and simply stating "situation wanted"--what he wound up with was a secretarial job at Universal Pictures' New York office!  He quickly worked his way up the ladder to become the personal secretary to the studio's founder Carl Laemmle.  One of his duties was to transcribe Laemmle's notes that he had taken during screenings of films--before long he was making helpful suggestions to Laemmle, offering keen insights, which clearly impressed his boss.  It was not long before Thalberg was issued an invitation to the Los Angeles production studios, where he was given an unofficial management position.  When Laemmle returned to the studio he asked for Thalberg's notes on the goings on in his absence and what sort of action should be taken to correct the problems that Thalberg had carefully described to him.  Amongst Thalberg's recommendations was that a new management position needed to be established at the facility--Laemmle reportedly said "All right, you're it," to which Thalberg supposedly replied "I'm what?!"  So, at the age of 20 he was put in charge of the studio on the west coast, with Laemmle going back to the east coast.  Two years later, he started work as a producer; with Reputation (1921) reportedly being the first film that he had a hand in producing, but went uncredited.  Despite his frail and slight stature and his extreme youthful look (he looked around 15 years of age), Thalberg quickly established himself as a force to reckon with.  His managerial style was to intervene when he saw excesses that directors were taking.  He had a legendary battle with director Erich von Stroheim, whom he would go on to fire out right: a move that utterly shocked the movie industry.  He even got David O. Selznick's attention for the move.  Despite this, he was repeatedly taken for a office boy by those who only knew him by name and not by sight. The first film that he received a production credit for came in 1923 with Merry-Go-Round; though he already had two writing credits to his name from 1922, the first of which was The Dangerous Little Demon.  He was one of the movers and shakers early on in the production of the Lon Chaney Sr. classic vehicle The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923).  It was not long before other studios began to take a long hard look at attempting to hire him away from Universal.  The person that succeeded in doing so was Louis B. Mayer, who hired him outright as vice-president in charge of production at his Louis B. Mayer Productions.  The first film that he produced in his short lived position with that company was His Hour (1924).  When Mayer Productions became one of "M's" in MGM, 24 year old Thalberg was made part owner of the newly merged company.  In his time there, he over saw the production of literally hundreds of film.  Funnily enough he would wind up one of the major producers on Stroheim's Greed (1924); which was the second film that he produced at the newly minted MGM, the first of which was He Who Gets Slapped (1924)--a Victor Sjöström vehicle.  Notably, that film starred Norma Shearer, whom Thalberg would go on to marry and have two children with.  It was his idea to have the new studio produce a longish short basic introduction to the new studios in 1925 with 1925 Studio Tour in which he makes a personal appearance.  The first partial silent that Thalberg produced came in 1928 in White Shadows In The South Seas, which has a musical score and sound effects, with a few talking sequences provided by the Western Electric Sound System.   The first full sound film that he produced was The Trial Of Mary Dugan (1929).  He even co-directed one film in 1929: the partially silent Queen Kelly--a film that had considerable production woes--again due to his old nemesis Stroheim.  His accomplishments in production are too numerous to list here, suffice to say that he introduced a great many techniques that quickly became indispensable and are still in use today.  Also under his guidance, MGM was the ONLY film studio to turn a profit during the darkest days of the depression.  He was willing to venture into genres that had been frowned on as well--such as horror.  Additionally, the number of unknowns that he had the foresight to hire, and subsequently made huge stars of is also outside the scope of this post (so, as usual, follow links below).  6 films that he was producing at the time of his death were released posthumously, the last of which came in 1938 with Marie Antoinette, which his by then widow starred in.  After working himself without a real break since he first started working for Universal, he came down with an illness that was subsequently diagnosed as pneumonia. He convalesced at home in a oxygen tent, but never rallied, his birth defect had finally caught up with him.  He died on the morning the 14th of September in 1936 at the age of 37, having lived almost 2 decades longer than his pediatric doctors had predicted.  He interred in the Great Mausoleum, Chapel of the Benediction at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

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