About Irving Grant Thalberg
Irving Grant Thalberg was an American film producer during the early years of motion pictures. He was called "The Boy Wonder" for his youth and his extraordinary ability to select the right scripts, choose the right actors, gather the best production staff, and make very profitable films.
Thalberg was born in Brooklyn, New York, to German Jewish immigrant parents. He had a bad heart due to childhood rheumatic fever and was plagued with other ailments all his life. Upon completing high school, he was employed by Universal Pictures' New York office, where he worked as personal secretary to legendary studio founder Carl Laemmle, the boss of Universal Studios. Irving Thalberg was bright and persistent, and by age 21 was executive in charge of production at Universal City, the studio's California production site.
He quickly established his tenacity as he battled with Erich von Stroheim over the length of Foolish Wives (1922), and controlled every aspect of the production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). In 1924, he left Universal for Louis B. Mayer Productions, which shortly thereafter linked up with Metro Pictures Corporation to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Thalberg became the merged studio's head of production.
The Big Parade (1925), directed by King Vidor, was Thalberg's first major triumph at MGM. Until 1932, when he suffered a major heart attack, he supervised every important MGM studio production, and combined careful pre-production groundwork with prerelease sneak previews which measured audience response. He also had full authority to reedit any MGM film. At the time he joined MGM, Thalberg was dating actress Norma Shearer, whom he married in 1927. She considered early retirement after having her second child with Thalberg, but he was convinced he could continue to find good roles for her and encouraged her to continue acting. She went on to be MGM's biggest star of the 1930s. Their two children were Irving Jr. (1930 – 1988) and Katherine (1935 – 2006).
At first, Thalberg and studio chief Louis B. Mayer got along famously well. However, they had different production philosophies. Thalberg preferred literary works, while Mayer preferred glitzy crowd-pleasing films. A clash was inevitable, and their relationship grew decidedly frosty. When Thalberg fell ill in 1932, Mayer took advantage of the situation and replaced him with David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger. When Thalberg returned to work in 1933, it was as one of the studio's unit producers, albeit one who had first choice on projects and MGM resources, including its stars, due to his closeness to Nicholas Schenck, who was then president of MGM corporate parent Loew's Inc. Schenck, who was the true power and ultimate arbiter at the studio, usually backed up Thalberg. As a result, he helped develop some of MGM's most prestigious ventures, including Grand Hotel (1932), The Barretts of Wimpole Street, (1934 film starring his wife Norma Shearer), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), China Seas (1935), A Night at the Opera (1935) with the Marx Brothers, San Francisco (1936), and Romeo and Juliet (1936).
Thalberg died of pneumonia at age 37 in Santa Monica, California. At the time of his death, he was working on the preproduction of A Day at the Races (1937) and Marie Antoinette (1938).
Thalberg is buried in a private marble tomb in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, lying at rest beside his wife Norma Shearer Arrouge (Thalberg's crypt was engraved, "My Sweetheart Forever" by Shearer).
Thalberg's name appeared on the screen in only two of the pictures he produced, both of which were completed after he died. While he was alive, he refused to allow his own name to appear in his films. The credit for his final film, The Good Earth (1937) reads: "To the Memory of Irving Grant Thalberg his last greatest achievement we dedicate this picture." Another dedication to him appeared in the opening credits of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), a film that Thalberg set into motion, but never lived to see.
Thalberg, a good friend of the Marx Brothers and responsible for bringing them to MGM, once sent this often-repeated quote to Groucho Marx via letter on the latter's birthday: "The world would not be in such a snarl, if Marx had been Groucho instead of Karl."
In 1938, the multi-million dollar administration building built on the old MGM Studios in Culver City – now Sony Pictures Studios – was named for Thalberg. The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is also named for him.