Author and photographer Mark A. Vieira (right), who has been a friend for a number of years, has recently written no less than two books on Irving G. Thalberg, the young MGM mogul whose high-quality productions earned him both a reputation as Hollywood’s “Boy Wonder” and a special place in Oscar history as the name attached to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Memorial Award given to “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” Thalberg even inspired a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, the unfinished The Last Tycoon.
Now, Mark’s two books may cover the same ground in terms of subject matter, but they’re radically different in terms of approach to same:
Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of M-G-M (Harry N. Abrams, 2008), is an art book comprising more than 250 photographs – about 200 of which previously unpublished – in addition to an anecdotal survey of Thalberg’s career, whereas Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince is a thorough, critical biography, which will come out via the University of California Press in September.
Hollywood Dreams Made Real is a stunner. Among the series of production and publicity images, and film stills are those showing a sexy Nina Mae McKinney in King Vidor’s 1929 all-black musical drama Hallelujah; Joan Crawford looking like she’s about to melt into her Adrian gown in a publicity shot for the 1930 melo Our Blushing Brides; Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in a magically lit shot from Queen Christina (1933); and, inevitably, a Norma Shearer headshot by George Hurrell. (I say “inevitably” because Shearer was Thalberg’s wife and Hurrell was Mark’s subject in Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits. Shearer can be seen above with Thalberg and Sid Grauman, he of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.)
Also, silent star Mae Murray (above, top photo, in The Masked Bride) looking like she’s had one too many in Circe the Enchantress (1924); Lon Chaney at his most vampiresque in the legendary (and lost) London After Midnight (1927); Robert Montgomery and Constance Bennett sharing an idyllic moment in the pre-Coder The Easiest Way (1931); director Sidney Franklin paired up with a water buffalo on the set of The Good Earth (1937); and (again) Norma Shearer, unrecognizable, about to have her head chopped off at the end of Marie Antoinette (1938).
Plus Shearer again, looking as puppy-eyed as her dog in a publicity shot for the 1934 drama The Barretts of Wimpole Street; George Cukor directing Garbo and Lenore Ulric on the Camille (1937) set; and a beautifully reproduced still from Romeo and Juliet (1936), with Shearer’s 34-year-old Juliet in bed while Leslie Howard’s 42-year-old Romeo is just about ready to close the curtains so the (not-so) young lovers can have a little privacy. (Mark writes that the Production Code’s Joseph Breen “warned Thalberg to avoid filming any ‘action of Romeo and Juliet lying on the bed, fondling one another in a horizontal position, and pulling one another down.’”)
And the book features more – many, many more images.
That said, Hollywood Dreams Made Real is not only a picture book. Mark provides extensive information on Thalberg’s career, his films, and the Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s. For instance, regarding the unavailability – which lasts to this day – of the 1932 Joan Crawford vehicle Letty Lynton:
“[The money-losing historical drama Rasputin and the Empress, starring Lionel Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, and John Barrymore, above] also became the first to cause MGM a libel suit; the prince on whom John [Barrymore]’s character was based sued MGM – and won. Then a plagiarism suit was filed against MGM for the popular Joan Crawford film Letty Lynton. The playwrights of Dishonored Lady [Edward Sheldon, Margaret Ayer Barnes] claimed that Thalberg had appropriated their story of the ‘Edinburgh poisoner.’ MGM had to pay a settlement and permanently withdraw Letty Lynton.”
(I probably should mention that the Hollywood Dreams Made Real cover shows Crawford, shot by George Hurrell, in a publicity pose for the unlucky Letty Lynton. And that the tale of Edinburgh’s Madeleine Smith later became vehicles for Hedy Lamarr, as Robert Stevenson’s Dishonored Lady in 1947, and for Ann Todd, as David Lean’s Madeleine in 1950. Now, someone at Time Warner should find a way to show Letty Lynton again after all those years.)
I haven’t read Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, yet, but Mark describes it as “the first Thalberg book to be written in strict chronology, using unpublished production files, financial records, and correspondence to elucidate his methods. It is also the first to use transcripts of Thalberg’s conversations and notes from Shearer’s unpublished memoirs to illuminate the human being behind the legend.”
For those totally unfamiliar with Irving G. Thalberg’s career, here’s a (very) brief history of the producer’s Hollywood years:
Born in New York City in 1899 to German immigrant parents, by the time he was 21 Thalberg had already become head of production at Universal. By the time he was 25, he was second-in-command (after father figure-turned-nemesis Louis B. Mayer) at the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Among the dozens of motion pictures Thalberg produced, supervised, and/or helped to develop are the blockbuster The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), made while he was still at Universal; Greed (1924, above, a very dead ZaSu Pitts), which pitted him against extravagant – and strong-willed – filmmaker Erich von Stroheim; The Merry Widow (1925), a box office sensation directed by Stroheim and starring superstars Mae Murray and John Gilbert; King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), the biggest domestic box office hit of the 1920s, also starring John Gilbert; and the troubled Ben-Hur (1925), starring Ramon Novarro, a potential white elephant that was turned into the biggest worldwide blockbuster until Gone with the Wind fourteen years later.
Also, the satirical Marion Davies vehicle Show People (1928); the lurid Lon Chaney melo West of Zanzibar (1928); Greta Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie (1930); the African adventure Trader Horn (1930); the tearjerker The Champ (1931), which earned Wallace Beery a best actor Academy Award; and the saucy Jean Harlow (above, with Clark Gable and Wallace Beery in China Seas ) comedy Bombshell (1933).
And more: the Academy Award-winning Grand Hotel (1932), with a stellar cast that included Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford; the Ernst Lubitsch musical classic The Merry Widow (1934), starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald (above); the Academy Award-winning sea-faring drama Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which pitted Clark Gable against Charles Laughton; and A Night at the Opera (1935), which rejuvenated the career of the Marx Brothers.
Ah, there were the Norma Shearer vehicles as well, among them Lady of the Night (1925), in which Shearer is excellent as a good girl and her not-so-good look-alike; The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), in which she received co-star billing along with Ramon Novarro; The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), her first talkie; and the creaky but enjoyable The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929).
Plus The Divorcee (1930), which earned her a best actress Academy Award; the racy pre-Coder Let Us Be Gay (1930, above, lower photo), in which Shearer is superb as a wronged wife-turned-woman of the world; the Academy Award-nominated The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934); the overripe society drama Riptide (1934, above, top photo); and the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet (1936), in which the thirty-something Shearer (beautifully) incarnates the teenaged lover.
Thalberg, I should add, for better or for worse was a hands-on producer. He decided to shorten the multi-reeled Greed; to bring the out-of-control Ben-Hur (above, Ramon Novarro) troupe from Italy back to Hollywood; to reshoot the Helen Hayes vehicle The Sin of Madelon Claudet – which was to earn the actress an Academy Award; and to spend more money so as to make the grand Queen Christina even grander.
Ironically, Thalberg’s sole on-screen credit for an MGM production came after his death. Thalberg’s father figure-turned-nemesis-turned father figure again, Louis B. Mayer, insisted that Thalberg’s name be shown prominently in a title card inserted before the opening credits of the 1937 drama The Good Earth, released four months after Thalberg, who had always suffered from ill health, was felled by pneumonia at the age of 37 on September 14, 1936. The title card read: To the Memory of Irving Grant Thalberg We Dedicate This Picture, His Last Great Achievement.
“Everybody felt distracted at Irving’s death,” producer Albert Lewin later remarked. “It was kind of an earthquake, not only for Metro, but for the industry. He had been universally loved and admired. The entire industry was shaken by his death.”
Alexander Kirkland, Norma Shearer in Strange Interlude (1932)
Among those who have been honored with the Irving G. Thalberg Award, first handed out in 1938, are Darryl F. Zanuck (three times), Hal B. Wallis (twice), David O. Selznick, Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn, Arthur Freed, Cecil B. DeMille, George Stevens, William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, and more recently, Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood, Norman Jewison, Warren Beatty, and Dino de Laurentiis.
Mark has agreed to answer a few questions (via e-mail) about the subject of his two books for Alt Film Guide. Please click on the link below.
Mark Vieira photo: Lois Tryk
“The Wedding of the Painted Doll” number from the musical The Broadway Melody (1929), the first talkie to win a best picture Academy Award; Louis B. Mayer, director Reginald Barker, Irving Thalberg on the set of The Dixie Handicap (1925); Norma Shearer and Chester Morris in the popular pre-Code melodrama The Divorcee (1930).
First of all, why did you decide to write a book on Irving Thalberg?
Ben-Hur, Flesh and the Devil, Tarzan the Ape Man, Grand Hotel, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Night at the Opera, The Good Earth – most filmgoers today have heard of these Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classics. Yet, few know the name of the genius behind them.
Nicknamed the “Boy Wonder,” Irving G. Thalberg was running Universal Pictures at the age of twenty and M-G-M at twenty-three. Between 1924 and 1936, he supervised more than four hundred M-G-M films; made stars of Lon Chaney, William Haines, Ramon Novarro, Greta Garbo, Robert Montgomery, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, and Helen Hayes; innovated story conferences, sneak previews, and extensive retakes; introduced the horror film; and co-authored the Production Code.
By age thirty-seven he was Hollywood’s greatest producer, his films a rare blend of commercialism and taste. Then, as he stood poised to lead the cinema to new heights, he died. With a legacy of classics, surely his place in the pantheon would be assured.
However, Thalberg’s films were not reissued for twenty years. In that time, critics such as Pauline Kael used foolish and often hostile apocrypha to smear his legend, portraying him as a humorless advocate of canned theater, an exploiter of writers, and a myopic obsessive who foisted an untalented wife on an unwilling public. [That’s apparently the actually quite talented Norma Shearer, above in Strangers May Kiss (1931).]
So, Thalberg is one of the most misunderstood, misquoted, mysterious and maligned figures in film history. I wanted to set the record straight. Even though there have been three biographies of Thalberg, I felt that I could bring a fresh perspective. I have seen the vast majority of his films. I am a filmmaker and photographer. I write in strict chronology, using archival documents to create the most accurate timeline possible. In addition, I gained access to Norma Shearer’s unpublished memoir notes, so I felt that I had an inside track.
Irving Thalberg possessed a much-admired talent for picking out stories and was widely respected for being an enthusiastic proponent of “classy entertainment,” including the production of a number of prestigious literary adaptations. Where did that come from?
He endured long stretches of childhood illness. His only weapon against fear and boredom was a well-stocked library. He learned to love the classics. He was told that he would not live past thirty. He pushed himself into the film industry and then pushed to make films of the same caliber as the books he had read as a child.
[Above, cinematographer Hendrik Sartov, director King Vidor, Thalberg, and Lillian Gish on the La Boheme (1926) set.]
On the other hand, Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer have been accused of cheapening those prestigious literary adaptations to make them more palatable to the average filmgoer. Is that a fair assessment of what MGM did in the 1920s and 1930s? And if so, was Thalberg the one responsible for that approach?
In only two cases did Mayer or Thalberg change the end of a classic story: Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the silent version of Anna Karenina, which was called Love. It’s more fair to point out that only Thalberg would have filmed The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Resurrection, Strange Interlude, or Private Lives.
[Above, Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet.]
Much has been written about the complex relationship between Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. What’s your take on that? Who would you say was responsible for MGM’s success during the Depression years, when most other studios were on the verge of bankruptcy?
The story of their relationship is a tragic one. A filial affection turned cold and competitive after they achieved wealth and power. Neither could have accomplished singly what they did as a team, turning a newly formed production company into the world’s most successful studio—and in only three years.
It was Thalberg’s creative vision that brought M-G-M an $8-million-dollar profit in the worst year of the Great Depression, when every other studio was either in the red or in receivership. He dared to film an eclectic array of projects.
Most film historians cite 1939 as the greatest year of classics. I feel that 1932 is equally impressive, because it was then that the talking picture regained the fluidity of the silent film. In addition, lax censorship allowed for such projects as Red Dust and Grand Hotel. Every studio made great films that year. Think of A Farewell to Arms, 42nd Street, Trouble in Paradise, Love Me Tonight, American Madness, Call Her Savage, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Scarface, The Sign of the Cross, and The Old Dark House. But only M-G-M’s films were truly profitable.
What about Irving Thalberg’s relationship with MGM’s directors, say, Victor Fleming (above, with author Upton Sinclair and cinematographer George Barnes on the set of The Wet Parade ), Clarence Brown, Robert Z. Leonard, W.S. Van Dyke, Jack Conway, King Vidor?
Thalberg cast directors in the same way he cast actors. It’s safe to say that he held an independent thinker like King Vidor in higher esteem than a contract director like Jack Conway. He did allow W. S. Van Dyke, a routine director of Westerns, to create the lyrical and powerful White Shadows in the South Seas. [Van Dyke later moved up the MGM ladder to become one of the studio’s most prestigious and successful directors.] But Thalberg reserved his true esteem for writers.
And inevitably, what about Irving Thalberg’s relationship with MGM’s remarkable star roster? Apart from wife Norma Shearer, did he have any favorites? Any least favorites?
I didn’t get the sense that Thalberg had the feeling for actors that he did for writers. He was tolerant of actors, but had a true friendship with only one, Charles Laughton. His relationship with actors was primarily trying to find the formula that worked and squeezing the juice out of it; Ramon Novarro is a good example I think Thalberg was easily bored by actors. Why else would he let Novarro, John Gilbert, William Haines, and Helen Hayes slide into unpopularity?
[Novarro, who, like so many performers of the studio era, got stuck in repetitive star vehicles, was quoted by author DeWitt Bodeen as saying, “I was dying to have my career managed by Irving Thalberg, but I soon realized that his only star interest was his wife. If Norma needed or wanted something, I could be left sitting in his waiting room for a week until shegot it.” Please note that in his articles Bodeen could be quite “creative” with some of Novarro’s quotes.]
[Above, Greta Garbo aboard the Swedish liner Drottningholm upon her arrival in the United States in 1925. This was her first American publicity photo, taken by James Sileo.]
Irving Thalberg was known for finding good stories, but was he also good at finding future stars? In addition to Norma Shearer, who else did Thalberg nurture?
Thalberg made stars of Lon Chaney [above, with Victor McLaglen and Harry Earles in The Unholy Three (1925)], William Haines, Ramon Novarro [Thalberg was the one who told Novarro that he had landed the coveted role of Ben-Hur], Greta Garbo [right, in The Temptress (1927)], Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, and Helen Hayes.
He could not work the same magic with Lawrence Tibbett, Grace Moore (oddly enough, Harry Cohn succeeded with her [at Columbia in the mid-1930s]), Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne [whose sole MGM effort, The Guardsman , earned them both Academy Award nominations, but failed to set the box office on fire], or Diana Wynyard.
Like Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick was also seen as a sort of Boy Wonder. He also happened to become Thalberg’s rival at MGM in the mid-1930s. In your view, what would be the chief differences between the two, both in terms of their output and their approach to the filmmaking process?
Selznick was a compulsive tamperer. Thalberg knew when to step back and let the artists create. And he knew when a project had been worked on sufficiently.
Also, both Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick promoted their lovers/wives: Thalberg had Norma Shearer (above), who became the Queen of MGM; later on, Selznick had Jennifer Jones. Some have blamed Selznick’s professional downturn on his obsession with Jones’ stardom. Was Thalberg ever accused of cheapening or derailing his output in order to promote Norma Shearer vehicles?
Joan Crawford [right, in a publicity shot for Our Blushing Brides (1930)] wanted Paid, The Divorcee, and A Free Soul. She accused Thalberg of favoritism because she only got to play in Paid. “Sex is a very potent weapon,” she told Bob Thomas on the subject of Shearer and Thalberg in 1967. Other than these three films, there were no roles for which both actresses were equally suited. Can you see Shearer in Dancing Lady? Or Crawford in Private Lives?
On the other hand, it is my opinion that The Women should have been a pre-Code film with Jean Harlow as Crystal, Shearer as Sylvia, and Crawford as Mary Haines. [The 1939 release had Shearer as Haines, Crawford as Crystal, and Rosalind Russell as Sylvia.]
Irving Thalberg and Erich von Stroheim. Art vs. commerce, or pragmatism vs. self indulgence? Both? What’s your opinion?
I found evidence that Thalberg tried to save [the multi-reeled] Greed, but that preview audiences turned it down cold. He did not want to cut it. Mine may be an indefensible stance, but I think Stroheim was out of control even when his films were (almost) on time and under budget. He was a great “idea” man, but a poor executor of those ideas.
Ironically, Thalberg fell into the same trap; i.e., compulsive extravagance. The Good Earth and Romeo and Juliet were completely out of control when he died. They were not improved by overspending, but they are certainly nice to look at.
The most enjoyable part of writing this book was discovering films that I thought I knew and should discount. I most highly recommend the following: Captain Salvation, The Fire Brigade, Private Lives, and Skyscraper Souls. Prosperity is a minor masterpiece. Run, don’t walk, to see it.
[Above, Gibson Gowland and Jean Hersholt – looking like anything but a humanitarian – in Greed‘s sun-drenched climax.]
Irving Thalberg may have had a knack for choosing the right moneymaking vehicles for his stars. But was he ever responsible for a major (or even mid-sized) flop? If so, could you give us a couple of examples? Also, were there projects that Thalberg was desperate to make, but that never came to fruition?
Rasputin and the Empress [right], as much as I like it, was a flop because Thalberg spent too much money trying to find an interpretation that stuck; ditto for Riffraff. Freaks was also a conspicuous failure, yet even in its short version it’s a masterpiece.
Thalberg wanted to make The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the story of the Armenian genocide by the Turks, but international diplomacy killed the project. I wish that he had made Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here [1935, about the possibility of a fascist government in the United States, as people blindly follow their leaders], which is timely even now.
The name Irving Thalberg has become synonymous with Quality Film Producer, as attested by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Irving G. Thalberg Award. Would you say that Thalberg’s reputation for being the man best able to mix art and commerce is well deserved?
That image is well deserved. Only Selznick had as many hits made from literary classics. Thalberg was able to create hits from both literary and theatrical properties.
[Above, Mamo Clark and Clark Gable in the Academy Award-winning Mutiny on the Bounty.]
And finally, is there anyone today who might come close to who/what Irving Thalberg was?
Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg aboard (poorly remembered but very powerful mogul) Joseph Schenck’s yacht in 1934 (top); former MGM rivals Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, and Shearer’s husband from 1942 – the year she retired from films – to her death in 1983, Marti Arrouge (middle); Norma Shearer in later years (bottom).