Irving Thalberg: The Boy Genius of Hollywood

I have a confession to make. As most should know, I’m a writer. In my spare time, I have a penchant for screenplays. I finished my first screenplay in middle school, and reading it over in the years that followed, I discovered that it’s little more than a piece of Irving Thalberg fan fiction.

Names from classic Hollywood have transcended the decades. Producers like Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn are still familiar to audience (thanks to the studios they created). Thalberg’s name is one probably better known to film students, but the producer (who passed away at the age of 37) was so influential during his short tenure that the Academy Award’s lifetime achievement award is named after him.

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Now, I have heard Thalberg’s name be a bit divisive (I came from a fairly indie, artsy film school). I get the criticism, (which will be saved for another less fluffy piece), but I find him a fascinating man, with an equally fascinating back story.

Irving G. Thalberg began his career working under Carl Laemmle at Universal Studios, before eventaully he eventually worked his way up to the position of Head of Production at the classic Hollywood powerhouse Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, at the ripe old age of 26.

Thalberg was a sickly child, and his heart had been substantially weakened from an early bout of rhumatic fever. In a story that seems all too common, the young man knew that he would have a shorter lifespan due to his heart condition. The diagnosis was his motivation to do turn himself into something (and pull himself out of him fairly working class, Brooklyn childhood) and make what he could of the little time he had. (During childhood, Doctors theroized that Thalberg wouldn’t see 30.

Throughout his tenure at MGM, Thalberg’s name is tied to plenty of the superstars of the period. He is one of the people considered responsible for the reinvention of the Marx Brother’s career. He brough the act to MGM, and with a few narrative tweaks to the Brother’s typical manic style, it resulted in one of their greatest films, A Night at the Opera. His success with the Marx Brothers formula is also directly tied to a number of advances Thalberg made in the art of narrative development. He is the first exectuive who is tied to audience test and preview screenings.

During his time at MGM, Thalberg met and eventually married actress Norma Shearer. The couple had two children together, and while much is written about the quality of their relationship, they certainly took some adorable pictures together.

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Despite his relatively short life (Thalberg has film credits for just 15 years, beginning in 1921 and lasting until his death in 1936), he is directly tied to some of the biggest films during Hollywood’s Golden Age. From The Good Earth, to A Night at the Opera, Thalberg was at the helm of the ship on MGMs initial climb to film making prominence.

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