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Irving Thalberg: The Hollywood Studio System

Irving G. Thalberg

The career of legendary production executive Irving Thalberg – Hollywood's “Boy Wonder” of the 1920s and early 1930s – will be explored in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' new exhibition, “Irving Thalberg: Creating the Hollywood Studio System, 1920–1936,” which opens on Thursday, Sept. 17, '09, in the Academy's Fourth Floor Gallery in Beverly Hills.

“Irving Thalberg: Creating the Hollywood Studio System, 1920–1936” is guest curated by historian and Thalberg biographer Mark Vieira, whose Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of M-G-M was profiled on Alt Film Guide several months ago and whose Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince is due out in early November. Admission is free.

Lon Chaney, Nigel De Brulier in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Lon Chaney, Nigel De Brulier in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The exhibition will showcase unpublished photographs, documents, poster art, props and costumes from motion pictures overseen by Thalberg, in addition to feature portraits by George Hurrell and Clarence Bull of many of Thalberg's stars, among them Norma Shearer (Thalberg's wife), Lon Chaney, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Joan Crawford.

Films represented include the mammoth Ben-Hur (1925), which reportedly was the cause of Thalberg's heart attack in the mid-1920s; the Academy Award-winning Grand Hotel (1932) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935); and the Norma Shearer vehicles Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Marie Antoinette (1938).

Irving Thalberg (born in Brooklyn on May 30, 1899) became the general manager of Universal Studios at age 20. Three years later, he joined Louis B. Mayer at his small Los Angeles studio, Louis B. Mayer Productions, which in 1924 was merged with two larger studios – Metro Pictures and the Goldwyn production company – to form what eventually became known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Mayer and Thalberg – whose relationship underwent a number of ups and downs – were responsible for turning MGM into the most successful film studio of that era. Thalberg himself is credited for the introduction (or revamping) of numerous studio practices, including story conferences, sneak previews and extensive retakes (Ben-Hur was a case in point).

Jean Harlow, Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer
Jean Harlow, Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer at the May 6, 1934, wedding of actress Carmelita Geraghty and screenwriter Carey Wilson.

Thalberg died in September 1936 at the age of 37. Shortly afterwards, the Academy created the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which is presented periodically to producers “whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”

(At the end of Hollywood Dreams Made Real, Mark wonders about what would have happened had Thalberg gone on living: “What about the stars Thalberg groomed? Imagine where he might have taken [Jean] Harlow's career. He might have brought her to his new company and made her the foremost comic star of the 1940s, precluding the ascendance of Lucille Ball. He might have borrowed Clark Gable and Carole Lombard for his own version of My Favorite Wife. He was planning, in fact, to remake The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton. …)

“Irving Thalberg: Creating the Hollywood Studio System, 1920–1936” will be on display through December 13. The Academy's Fourth Floor Gallery is located at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills and is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and weekends, noon to 6 p.m. The gallery will be closed for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, November 26 through 29.

For more information call (310) 247-3600 or visit www.oscars.org.

Photos: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library

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