Irv­ing Thal­berg: Boy Won­der to Pro­duc­er Prince

Mark A. Vieira
  • Review
By – September 7, 2011

Irv­ing Thalberg’s funer­al in 1936 filled Wilshire Boule­vard Tem­ple in Los Ange­les with a thou­sand mourn­ers while a crowd of some 8000 onlook­ers stood along the side­walk out­side. One of Hollywood’s elect, Thal­berg had over­seen the pro­duc­tion of over a hun­dred movies and was mar­ried to one of the era’s great stars, Nor­ma Shear­er. When he died he was just 37 years old. 

As if in a 20th cen­tu­ry fairy tale, Thal­berg was tapped at the age of 19 to be the per­son­al assis­tant to Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios’ Carl Laemm­le, and was run­ning that stu­dio at age 21. He went to work for Louis B. May­er as vice-pres­i­dent in charge of pro­duc­tion at the age of 23. Thal­berg not only epit­o­mized Hol­ly­wood of the dream fac­to­ry” era, he vir­tu­al­ly invent­ed the process of mass-pro­duc­ing motion pic­tures. He also intu­itive­ly under­stood sto­ry­telling and the mak­ing of film stars. In his relent­less pur­suit of a supe­ri­or prod­uct he spent great sums on pres­tige” films while keep­ing his eye on the bot­tom line. 

Mark Vieira’s 2008 book Hol­ly­wood Dreams Made Real sur­veyed the Thal­berg era at MGM large­ly through pho­tographs. Here he details the producer’s life, with the ben­e­fit of pri­vate access to Shearer’s unpub­lished mem­oirs. There are glimpses of their lov­ing mar­riage, but Thalberg’s work con­sumed his life, and this biog­ra­phy is large­ly the sto­ry of the films he made. Vieira describes them all — and the atten­dant back­stage pol­i­tics — in detail. This is a sym­pa­thet­ic, dili­gent, and intel­li­gent account of a won­drous era in Hol­ly­wood that has now reced­ed near­ly beyond liv­ing memory.

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