IRVING THALBERG, SUPER PRODUCER
REVIEW: IRVING THALBERG:
THE LAST TYCOON AND THE WORLD OF MGM
Written by Roland Flamini
Published Hardcover 1994, Crown Publishers
This relatively brief book chronicles the life and work of Irving Thalberg, the doomed motion picture producer who labored long hours while fending off a terminal heart condition which finally killed him (with complications from pneumonia) at the age of 37, having outlived his doctor-predicted life expectancy by a good decade.
Through a combination of intelligence, financial smarts and a sense of popular taste, Thalberg quickly came into control of the chaotic production methods being used at Universal Films in the 1920s. Working for the Laemmle family, Thalberg took on more and more responsibility at the studio until he became the de facto head of production at Universal. Thalberg initiated production methods that were soon emulated all over Hollywood, and no person is more credited with changing how movies were made, and who controlled their making at a studio, than Thalberg.
He fired the popular, but irascible director Erich Von Stroheim who went regularly over-budget but created critical and (usually) money-making successes. Thalberg was only 21. Doing this to Stroheim, which seemed an impossible feat in the pre-Thalberg days where popular film directors reined supreme, sounded the death-knell of a Hollywood that had been built around the excess, and inspirations, of individual artists, whether they were actors, actresses, or directors.
Thalberg created the age of the Producer, an innovation that is still the standard Hollywood method for churning out "product" ( a word Thalberg used at times).
Ironically, it was only after his death that Thalberg's name appeared in the credits of any films he was involved with, as during his life he eschewed onscreen credits as self-aggrandizing.
Thalberg spent his childhood mostly as a bed-ridden invalid, and he consumed books of a wide variety as a way of escaping his physical confinement and his habitual illnesses. His vast reservoir of reading became an archive of plots and character types for later use in making films, and he was committed to using "proven" material from books and plays as source material for films.
Despite having fired Stroheim, Thalberg himself was dedicated to every appearance of quality on screen, and he left Universal and joined with Louis B. Mayer who owned Metro pictures, and shortly thereafter Thalberg and Mayer linked up with Sam Goldwyn (of Goldwyn pictures) and Marcus Leow (who owned the Loew movie theatre chain) to create MGM. Thalberg was 24.
Considered a genius by much of Hollywood, he possessed a memory that could recall endless minutia of detail from books and scripts he had read, and production details on past films.
Nearly everything in his life was trumped by his desire to make films, and he was capable of managing production schedules on dozens of movies simultaneously through sleep-deprivation and willpower. He also used corporate infighting at the studios he worked for to create his own loyal teams of employees to both block the efforts of other powerful producers and to maneuver himself for the best scripts and budgets. He entered into a long-standing feud with Louis B. Mayer after MGM became a proven success, and each party won individual battles, with Mayer triumphing by simply outliving Thalberg.
Thalberg seemed to labor furiously with an expectation of his sudden demise hanging over his head each day. His mother nursed him regularly until Thalberg married actress Norma Shearer in 1927, but Shearer did not take over the full supervision of Thalberg's health until she became pregnant and insisted upon she and Thalberg having their own private home (they had been living with Thalberg's parents). The first of their two children were born in 1930.
Flamini's book is written in an on-and-off light manner. He is deeply interested in every emotional and sexual aspect of the lifes of the movie stars and production people that he writes about, and he infers a great deal in between the lines that doesn't appear to always be supported by facts except through conjecture on his part. He speculates in places, but does not seem to create stories from whole cloth.
Despite the gossipy-tone which afflicts the book at times, Flamini has marshaled a great deal of biography about Thalberg and history about early Hollywood in an organized and interesting way. He explores Thalberg's production methods from a layman's viewpoint and communicates the impressive ability Thalberg had to muster film after film in quick secession, always with an eye toward having either a money-making hit, or at least a critical success to burnish the name of MGM with having the highest standards in the world of film.
Reviewed April 19, 2007
Also see the review of the 2008 Mark Vieira book on Thalberg - Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of M-GM
Original page 2007. Updated Sept 2013