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Irving Thalberg: MGM's Boy Wonder


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Recently came across this review of Mark Vieira's new Irving Thalberg biography, *Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince*

 

http://leonardmaltin.com/Picks.htm#RecentFilmBooks

 

Sounds like a very interesting work and it isn't even all that expensive, just a bit over $20.

 

This one's definitely going to be included in my letter to Santa! ;)

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Remember reading years ago in a bio of Mayer, that when he left Thalbergs funeral he turned to Eddie Mannix {Yes the Eddie Mannix that may have covered up the murder of Paul Bern, Jean Harlow's husband and maybe involved in George Reeves, TV's Superman death, who was having an affair with his wife, see "HollywoodLand"} and made the statement "Isn't God good to me".

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I've heard that before.

 

And the irony is that Mayer and Thalberg started out in really good terms, from what I've read. It was only over the years that their relationship started turning sour and increasingly competitive.

 

Mayer himself would have a little more than a decade after Thalberg's death to run the studio single-handedly, before he was booted by Nick Schenck.

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> {quote:title=HollywoodGolightly wrote:}{quote}

> Mayer himself would have a little more than a decade after Thalberg's death to run the studio single-handedly, before he was booted by Nick Schenck.

 

Except that he didn't. Under pressure from Schenck to hire a head of production, Dore Schary moved over from RKO, where he'd run that studio's operation for several years. Schary sought to modernize not only the stuidio's product, putting films in to development that were far more adult and timey than the Andy Hardy-centric fare favored by Mayer, but also the company's personnel, for instance bringing in the Harvard-educated John Green to reform the Music Department. Mayer understandably felt threatened by all this, and eventually issued an ultimatum to Schneck, his nemesis since the death of Marcus Loew in 1927: "Either Schary goes, or I go."

 

Why it apparently never occurred to Mayer that he handed Schenck exactly the opportunity he'd been waiting for for twenty-four years is difficult to fathom. In any case, the Loew's chairman handed the keys to the studio to Schary, who sadly had to preside over the company's cutting loose of its roster of contract players, directors and technical personnel. Schary was eventually given the boot, too, but not before he set in motion the film that would be the failing studio's salvation: BEN-HUR.

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The main rift between Mayer and Thalberg came about due to a surge in popularity from the numerous personnel of MGM towards Thalberg. This was especially the case with the major stars of the studio. It became all too apparent that when a problem arose, most of the time, Thalberg interceded or usually solved the problem. Mayer spent too much time, playing the role of promoting himself as a father figure to his personnel. Thalberg remained a loyal and trusted friend to those he worked with. The age issue between both studio executives also played an important part on why this business and personality rift seemed enviable. Thalberg being young and about the same age as many of the major stars, had more in common to relate too their various needs or even insecurities.

 

The one single issue that brought the rift between Mayer and Thalberg into full circle was movie star John Gilbert. At the beginning of MGM?s climb to the top of becoming Hollywood?s biggest and greatest studio, Gilbert and Mayer had a ?love/hate? relationship. It was Mayer, who usually ended up getting involved to the fullest extent in the personal lives of MGM?s major stars. Although Thalberg technically supported Mayer to some degree, he never went beyond certain limits that annoyed Mayer. When the John Gilbert issue erupted out of control by 1929, Mayer saw his chance to finally rid himself of what he believed to be the studio?s most daring adversary and a public embarrassment. It?s now believed that Mayer secretively planned the ruin of John Gilbert, when the MGM star failed to make a successful transition to ?talking pictures.? It was Thalberg who kept the hope alive that Gilbert could retain his star status. However, the years of heavy drinking and a wild life style finally put an end to Gilbert?s time at MGM. Even Thalberg had to reach towards the decision that Gilbert was all but burnt out and finished. This technical fiasco at MGM would then lead to other situations of scandal and personal mishaps involving the working relationship between Mayer and Thalberg. The next big problem for Mayer and Thalberg occurred with another major star, beautiful Jean Harlow, whose private life was always under fire and of major concern. The situation got to a point that Mayer began to confide to close friends that he blamed Thalberg for not being more iron-handed with the problematic events that besieged MGM.

 

When Thalberg succumb to what has always been believed to be the duress and stress of running MGM and he died in 1936, Mayer was quoted as saying, ?God is good to me.? Most likely, the usual ?business fears? were always set into motion that are part of running an enterprise as big as was MGM. A collaboration between individuals running a large company usually leads to doubts, suspicions and one believing that the other will make for a total take over. Mayer for his part was always under the scrutiny of the main front office heads outside of Hollywood and he wasn?t very popular with them. Most film buffs and fans will say that Thalberg was the real brains behind the success of MGM and believe Mayer would always be haunted by this idea. In the long run, Thalberg was more human or humane than Mayer could have ever been. But then, Mayer understood lots of other business decisions that Thalberg probably never took to heart or gave importance. As to which one of these two men should be handed the credit for the success of MGM will most likely remain a constant debate. Mayer would of course go on to running the studio long after Thalberg was gone. However, I don?t think the studio was ever as bright, polished and dignified as when Thalberg was around.

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Scott Eyman's book, *The Lion of Hollywood* is a great read for anyone interested in the story of Mayer, Thalberg and the history of MGM. Eyman's approach details many of the myths surrounding these two powerhouse men and the realities of the situation over the myths.

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I don't think Norma would have remained a top star at MGM much later than she did, even if Thalberg hadn't died. If the public had still been clamoring for for Norma Shearer movies, they'd have to have obliged, no matter how Mayer felt about it. He was, after all, a businessman.

 

I honestly think that she was falling out of fashion with audiences so that The Women might have been her last big hit regardless of whether Thalberg had lived some more years. But, of course, his death may have led her to seek a change in her lifestyle. I'm hoping to learn more about all of this when I read that new Thalberg bio.

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Does anyone want to comment on the tremendous flop of Marie Antionette? I believe it was to be Thalberg's masterpiece for his wife. Expensive preparations were already underway at the time of his death, so it was completed. But both the movie and Shearer were a big failure. I believe this was the beginning of her end.

 

Has anybody seen this picture?

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> finance wrote:

> If there was a rift between Mayer and Thalberg, how did Mayer deal with Norma Shearer after Thalberg's death. Did Norma's early retirement have anything to do with Mayer?

 

The career of Norma Shearer was on the decline, when her husband and mentor Irving Thalberg died in 1936. She was for the time he was alive, the queen of the studio and Thalberg sort of designated MGM?s uncrowned leader. He was more like the ?prince of the studio,? while Mayer remained its true king. Over a period of time, most other actresses at MGM came to realize that no matter what circumstance, Shearer would always get first consideration for the best roles offered in MGM's repertoire of film projects. Most historians agree that while Shearer wasn?t exactly the best actress of her period, she did play an important part in establishing a poise and elegance to the imagery of a movie star. This was especially the case, when the ?talking picture? era arrived and Shearer proved herself worthy of her stardom into this new realm of filmmaking. Her understanding of the motion picture business was on all counts as important as her fame and whatever there might be to her acting abilities that for the most part had more to do with glamour and style than anything requiring a high degree of dramatic content.

 

While he was alive, Thalberg controlled every aspect of her career at the studio. This of course kept her safe and her position at MGM could not falter or be so jeopardized. It?s now believed by most movie historians that Thalberg was and remains the real solid basis to her success at MGM. Thus, she became one of filmdom?s first great stars of the early sound era. There?s been a debate among various historians if her career in silent pictures has any strong merit, when compared to her work in sound. This division in opinions has led to a consensus that she was driven with an ambition to overcome her past work in silent pictures once sound arrived on the scene. It?s believed for all intended purposes that her work in silent films was good, but nothing so classical or could ever have such a strong impact to her overall film career. I tend to agree with this assessment, due in large part to the way Thalberg himself was driven in giving her the best possible opportunities. Mayer simply went along with this situation, simply because Shearer had acquired a big enough following and the success she enjoyed by way of her husband, created this sort of royal movie imagery for MGM.

 

It was during the last year of Thalberg?s life, that Shearer faced the first biggest of all turmoil to her career. This came about, when actress Marion Davies and her boyfriend, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst wanted to bargain for the ?Marie Antoinette? project that Thalberg all along had planned for his wife. Shearer had already interfered with Davies not getting a few choice roles. This final showdown led to Davies, with the help of Hearst, breaking off their successful contract with MGM. Davies then headed over to Warner Brothers, where her career never really got off the ground or stayed solvent. While Mayer agreed with Thalberg that Davies was wrong for the role of the ill fated French queen, Mayer blamed Thalberg for the loss of an important star and his friendship with Hearst was damaged beyond repair. Mayer and for the most part, the whole of MGM had enjoyed a lot of positive support from the Hearst newspaper chain. The loss of Davies meant a vast amount of publicity resources could not be so easily recovered. When ?Marie Antoinette? was released, the Hearst newspapers refused to review or give any coverage of the film!

 

With Thalberg dead and ?Marie Antoinette? being designated as the start of Shearer?s box office decline, it seemed likely that the death of her beloved mentor husband had suddenly changed the course of her film career. At first, Mayer didn?t want to make any negative waves towards Shearer, now having to handle her career on her own. Mayer allowed Shearer a continued freehand to decide what film projects she might want to take on. However, this proved to be something of a disaster, when her choices didn?t exactly turn out to be as successful as her past films. In 1938, she was offered the role of ?Scarlett O?Hara? in ?Gone With The Wind.? She wisely refused and while most will say she wasn?t right to be cast in the civil war epic, she did score a good hit with ?The Women? in 1939; this film would be her last success for MGM. As the 1940s rolled in, it was becoming all too apparent that she had lost her once magical presence with movie goers. Her next series of films were major flops. Despite this situation, Mayer offered her the choice of ?Mrs. Miniver? in 1942, but Shearer tuned down the opportunity. It?s now believed that the huge success of ?Mrs. Miniver? haunted Shearer to the point of finally forcing her to retire from the movies.

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Technically speaking, the MGM epic of ?Marie Antoinette? was a good film or production. Strangely, this was the time of Warner Brothers Pictures having tremendous success with their Historic epic films during the late 1930s. Why the MGM epic failed might have more to do with the script or that there was too much melodrama for audiences to handle or simply accept. Certainly, Shearer gave a fine performance and the film displayed the typical high production values so symbolic of MGM. There just might be reason to feel that the historic tale was too predicable and of a tragic nature for audiences to feel so compelled to experience. Not even Shearer?s strong screen persona would be enough to save the motion picture. The fact that Tyrone Power was brought over to MGM from 20th Century-Fox to co-star, lends the theory that the project was under some agitation, probably having more to do with the death of Thalberg and that Shearer needed more help than ever, while it was obvious her career was in its decline.

 

There's never been any doubt that the enormous failure of "Her Cardboard Lover" in 1942 was instrumental in leading towards her retirement. Especially when "Mrs. Miniver" that same year proved to be such a huge success and Shearer's luck seemed to have finally run dry and out.

 

The years after her retirement were more or less spent at MGM, usually showing up at the studio, meeting old friends and giving advice, at the same time keeping alive her movie star status. Mayer treated her with all due respects and later on even studio head Dore Schary. Shearer would for her part, aid in the process of helping new and inspiring talents for MGM. She would remain for the rest of her life, one of the last symbols of old Hollywood royalty and all its glamorous trappings.

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> {quote:title=MovieProfessor wrote:}{quote}

> Why the MGM epic failed might have more to do with the script or that there was too much melodrama for audiences to handle or simply accept.

 

I don't know, I just don't think Americans generally relate so well to movies about European aristocracy, with the possible exception of some British legends, you know, King Arthur & Camelot-type stuff.

 

Maybe that had something to do with it, because I think that nearly every movie with Tyrone Power and Norma Shearer should have attracted a lot of moviegoers, all other things being equal.

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