"The picture business can only exist," observed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer mogul Irving Thalberg in a long letter to a fellow studio executive in 1933, "on the basis of real entertainment, glamour, good taste, and stars." Thalberg adhered to that formula for much of his intense, frequently brilliant career as one of Hollywood's most influential producers in the age of the studio system. By the time he penned these words—he was in his early thirties and beginning to fear that the assembly-line approach introduced at other big studios would forever compromise the kind of filmmaking he espoused—he had already helped launch the careers of Clark Gable, Ramon Novarro, Marie Dressler, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo and overseen such acclaimed films as Ben-Hur, The Big Parade, The Broadway Melody, and Grand Hotel. Though not all Thalberg's pictures were box-office jackpots (several of his more ambitious projects never earned back their investments), when he died of pneumonia in 1936, at the age of thirty-seven, the triumphs attributed to the "Boy Wonder of Hollywood" were not merely the stuff of studio lore.
The tale of Thalberg, as Mark Vieira tells it in his engaging new biography, Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, is "as romantic and improbable as a silent-movie plot." It begins in the attic apartment of a Brooklyn brownstone located in what was then a German-Jewish enclave, where young Irving entered the world in May 1899. He was pronounced a "blue baby" due to a congenital heart condition that caused notable discoloration and the initial prognosis anticipated a maximum life expectancy of thirty years. Thalberg's childhood was filled with health setbacks, and he was bed-ridden with rheumatic fever for a year during high school. But the time in bed, Vieira suggests, served as an apprenticeship of sorts, allowing Thalberg to immerse himself in reading everything he could get his hands on—classics and pulps, plays and biographies, philosophy and history; all the sources and lessons he would draw on later in his career.
Vieira spends the bulk of his energies charting Thalberg's meteoric rise, from his teenage start as the assistant to Universal boss Carl Laemmle, to his "mature" years at MGM, where he spent close to a decade and a half toiling away at a feverish pace as vice president in charge of production. By 1926, merely three years after MGM's founding and after Louis B. Mayer had brought Thalberg on board, the studio boasted the highest earnings of any in Hollywood. Crediting Thalberg, then in his mid-twenties, with the success, the New York Times referred to him as an "old head on young shoulders"; it wasn't long before Screenland magazine pronounced him the "hit-maker." Due to his youthful appearance, Thalberg was often mistaken for an assistant—his future wife, Norma Shearer, on meeting him in 1923, thought he was an "office boy"—yet behind that sweet, innocent facade was, at least as some of his collaborators and competitors saw him, "the toughest and most ruthless man in the industry."
Known for his habits of flipping a twenty-dollar coin high in the air and munching on corn flakes during screenings, Thalberg was famous for his frequent insistence on retakes and his occasionally autocratic behavior toward writers, earning him the moniker Napoleon Thalberg. "Movies aren't made," he once insisted. "They're remade." His strident tampering was a source of great dismay to many directors. During the production of China Seas, for example, after several unwelcome interventions in which Thalberg dictated to the editors and coached the actors, Tay Garnett pushed back. "Irving, you've hired me as director," he told him. "You've given me the best stars in the business and spent a million dollars—and now you won't let me direct the picture. I didn't come to Metro to be a stooge!" Thalberg was not unwilling to acknowledge his own wrongdoing and acquiesced in this instance.
Film history has long been told from the vantage point of the director or the star, or focused our attention on a specific genre, period, or national cinema, but rarely has it come from the perspective of the producer. Vieira's biography offers an unusually animated and revealing tour of Hollywood in the 1920s and '30s. His detailed accounts of the personalities and the productions are replete with wonderful anecdotes: Thalberg imported William Strunk Jr., of The Elements of Style fame, from Cornell University to help with the treatment of Romeo and Juliet. When Strunk arrived at the studio—it's hard not to picture Barton Fink—Thalberg explained to the literary scholar what was expected of him: "Your job is to protect Shakespeare from us." Strunk responded by telling Thalberg how the bard used to gather his stories without paying royalties or sharing authorship, finally making a pronouncement that is somehow appropriate for understanding not only Renaissance England but also the age of Thalberg: "Shakespeare would have made the best movie producer in history." Perhaps, but Thalberg was a pretty close second.
Noah Isenberg is the author, most recently, of Detour (British Film Institute, 2008) and the editor of Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era (Columbia University Press, 2009).