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The Amazing Irving Thalberg: The Boy Wonder of Hollywood

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  • Post last modified:November 16, 2020

Do you watch Ben Hur every Christmas? A famous film, but do you know who produced it? Probably not. But Hollywood would not be the same without Irving Thalberg.

The film industry has not always been the well-oiled machine it is today. It was created and not long ago. The 1920s and 30s are the golden age of Hollywood and the moment when systems were formed. Irving Thalberg was a central figure in it as an (executive) producer. You have probably never heard of him as he refused to take screen credit. So let’s dive into history and learn a bit more!

The early situation in Hollywood

Can you imagine that we still had silent black and white movies just 100 years ago? At the beginning of filmmaking, the production teams were small. Maybe it was just a cameraman and some actors. It reminds a bit of new starters on YouTube, not? From 1908, the industry started expanding and new roles came into existence. A newspaper mentions the title of ‘producer’ for the first time that year for a company owner turned film entrepreneur, who was also the director (a new role too).

Hollywood was booming. In 1914, Universal settled as one of the first studios in Los Angeles and just eight years later, Hollywood made 83 per cent of all movies. The film industry was changing quickly and film companies found it difficult to have a standard procedure. The shifting taste of the audience meant altering the approaches in filmmaking. Managers had to do two things: find out what the audience wants and find the right procedure of filmmaking to maximize the output.

They started relying on brokers to negotiate between the creativity of the artists and the wishes of the company owners for control in the production process. To do that, brokers created a dynamic type of leadership that was more entrepreneurial and hybrid, working outside the normal ways.  

The producer comes into existence

Producers are the brokers of the Hollywood film industry. In the 1910s, films became longer in length and film companies assigned one broker to oversee the total filmmaking and the final product. Say hello to the executive producer! This producer got multiple productions to manage. This also meant a divergence from the director, who was only doing one film at once. But good directors would often get promoted to producers.

Cinema in 1920s
1920s (Warner Bros) cinema

In the 1920s and 1930s, the production of the film industry in Hollywood got its shape as we know today. Film studios became very large due to mergers and consolidations. Family members of the studios could nog longer rule them and the ruling went to boards filled with bankers and bureaucrats. All the boards wanted was to ensure long term stability and profits; they had little knowledge about filmmaking and were foreign to the creative process.

It became more and more important to find a balance between ‘efficiency and art, bureaucrats and artists, big budgets and creative visions’. Enter the producer: the person with the unique job to find a balance between capitalisation and creativity in the studio. He needed knowledge about audience taste, storytelling, and the mechanics of picture-making and also have a businessman approach to the costs. During the golden age, every film had to be individually brokered. Studios had a network of producers streamlining the creative work, supervised by the executive producer. The producer as we know it was born.

Irving Thalberg: a short background

Okay, that’s all nice, but how does Irving Thalberg fit into all of this? Well, he was one of the founding members of MGM and known as ‘the boy wonder of Hollywood’. He was a producer with the finest skills and a big vision.  

Irving Thalberg in his later years

Irving Gant Thalberg was born in 1899 from German-Jewish immigration parents. He had a congenital heart defect and was told that he probably wouldn’t make it past the age of 30. This made him live very intensively, as he was ambitious and intelligent and wanted to make the most out of his short life. Seeing that he was a ticking time bomb, he decided to skip college and go straight into business after school. After considering law, he chose ultimately for his passion: film. Through a family connection, he started working at Universal in New York and after two years, he arrived in Los Angeles in 1920.

There he created his name and fame. Thalberg was very clear on his vision about movies and how they could be upgraded. He moved up the hierarchy quickly and at just 21 years old, he became the executive producer in charge of production. He, however, never went for the fame itself: none of the movies he produced bear his name. As he said it himself: ‘Credit you give yourself isn’t worth having’.

Thalberg’s vision on production

Thalberg wanted to make good quality movies, but he really believed in the power of management (preferably his own). He felt that movies should be stricter supervised to stay on time and budget while allowing artistic freedom. Up until now, directors were often in charge and they took little interest in budgeting or scheduling as they took the money and time they felt they needed for a movie.

In Thalberg’s opinion, filmmaking was a creative business. It should have budgets, but no blueprints. The box office was defined as a combination of a star and a title that the public wants to see. He once said during a speech in 1933:

‘Nobody has been able to say definitely whether picture making is really a business or an art. Personally, I think it is both. It is a business in the sense that it must bring in money at the box office, but it is an art in that it involves […] the inexorable demands of creative impression. In short, it is a creative business, dependent, as almost no other business is, on the emotional reaction of its customers”.

Irving Thalberg

During his time at Universal, Thalberg introduced mandatory shot-by-shot scripts, schedules and budgets. This way he could stay on schedule and have one big film go to screen after the other. His idea of scientific management was new in the creative industry and was met with resistance in the creative teams as they felt their movement became restricted. Thalberg was stern: art did not outdo the organization. Art was important, experiment was necessary, the budget could be increased. However, in the end, it had to stay within boundaries.

Thalberg’s established production system at MGM

In 1924, Thalberg transferred to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Universal preferred to make smaller movies, where MGM shared Thalberg’s vision of larger and ambitious movies. At MGM, he was head of production and he could finally completely do what he felt was right. At some point, when someone said MGM, they meant Thalberg. It’s similar to how we now talk about Apple and Steve Jobs.

Irving Thalberg during shooting a film

The film studios got larger, so Thalberg changed the production department. In 1925, just one year after Thalberg joined, MGM had 75 projects in some stage of development. You can image that Thalberg couldn’t do it alone anymore. He specialised the job functions and divided them over more people. As he could no longer keep careful supervision of all the pictures, Thalberg introduced a middle management where each person was responsible for a couple of movies, the associate producers. Also called ‘Thalberg’s Men’. Each associate producer was responsible for a different genre or feature of film production.

Thalberg was very proud of this system. It allowed the director to focus only on making a good picture and cost-efficient people would take care of all the time-consuming details of production. Effective management was liberating the artist. It also meant for directors that they were only getting involved shortly before shooting the film with the script ready to go. Something some artists had to get used to.

Thalberg became very famous for his production system and still many see him as the founding father of the production system nowadays. Other studios tried to copy him and his management. After his death, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Producers who have a portfolio of outstanding work can receive it.

Thalberg’s vision on filmmaking

Thalberg was not only famous because of his production skills, but he also had good taste in films. His movies had to have the highest quality possible. He was a perfectionist with a flair for extravagance. Every movie needed to have at least one great scene. He often pushed budgets for retakes if he felt the movie was not good enough. In his opinion, money spend on producing a good movie would be paid back, either at the box office or in prestige.

In 1929, Thalberg gave a speech that showed his vision on filmmaking:

‘We have seen that the foundation upon which the whole motion picture industry is built is the desire to provide entertainment. Therefore, when we are judging or criticizing what we see on the screen, we must first consider it from the standpoint of entertainment value. We can also judge it from an artistic or technical viewpoint as well, but its entertainment value must be the first criterion’.

Irving Thalberg

This was his ethos for his entire life. Everything in the movie, from casting to previews and the demand for retakes, was to create the highest entertaining product for the audience. His job was to observe, sense and feel the moods of the public and creating movies that fitted into that. Here we see our broker back from early Hollywood.

The ethos made sure that Thalberg was making many successful movies. People in the industry called hem the ‘Hollywood’s hit-maker’. They said that ‘when reading a script, he used one half of his brain for production and the other half for distribution’. Thalberg had an uncanny taste or hunch for what kind of movies the audience wanted to see.  

Thalberg’s execution of filmmaking

Thalberg was involved in the movies from beginning to end. Scripts wore his ideas and the final product had his seal of approval. He had a system when creating a film. Let’s discuss how Thalberg created his products.

Irving Thalberg with the Marx brothers

The price of filmmaking

To have the highest entertainment value, Thalberg was prepared to make high-quality movies and corporate executives had to pay the price. Thalberg allowed the creatives to experiment to create the best possible product. MGM spend much more money per film on average than other studios, often ranging from 125.000 to 400.000 dollars where other studios spend half the amount. But they were also quickly the leading studio in the industry.

While MGM showed a sufficient number of films every season, the time to make a movie was also much longer than average. Most of the pictures had been in development for five years with many discussions and rewrites. Thalberg would take retakes for the slightest reason, to create the perfect picture.

Using famous stars in filmmaking

Another thing that was very important to Thalberg was to work with stars, famous actors and actresses. The audience loved them and thus there was a higher entertainment value. He even went as far as to check what the audience expected from a certain actor and then implement those elements in the movie. He also felt that stars should do oblique casting, which means that stars move between different kinds of roles and so gain dimensionality in their performance styles and public personas.

Irving Thalberg with his wife Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow

The Production Code

In 1930, Thalberg was part of the group who created the Production Code; a document to preserve and protect the moral tone of Hollywood films. It included things like ‘crime should never be showcased in a way to encourage crime’ or ‘scenes of passion should not be introduced when not essential to the plot’. Quite different nowadays, isn’t it? They would never have made Fifty Shades… Thalberg thought that these things were important, although more for aesthetic reasons than moral ones. Already in 1927 he and a few executives created a document about do’s and don’ts around sensitive subjects. However, entertainment value stood above moral values and so, if needed, he was fine with crossing the Code. The introduction of talkies also changed matters for him.

Move to talkies in filmmaking

The move from silent movies to talks is quite interesting as Thalberg really didn’t like talking movies. Thalberg said about them:

‘Novelty is always welcome, but talking pictures are just a passing fad’.

He couldn’t be more wrong. Even though he was the boy wonder, he was not infallible. However, he changed his mind quickly, though. Seeing the effect talkies had on the audience and reaching for that entertainment value, he saw the enhancement to produce more talkies. He also found a new market as he was the first to see value in singing movies: Broadway-like movies.

Thalberg’s last years of filmmaking

In 1933, MGM realised that their studio was relying too much on Thalberg, who was fighting with his illness at that moment. Jealously also played a big part. When he came back after a long period of rest due to a heart attack, MGM had restructured the company and he was no longer head of production, but a unit producer. Thalberg was frustrated, but he decided to use this time for experiments in filmmaking. He wanted to explore audience immersion and dramatic impacts. As a unit producer, he could dive deeper into it and also explore emotional or psychological experiences by audience members. He also made plans to start his own production studio, but sadly he never got the chance.

On September 14, 1936, Irving Thalberg died at age 37, when his heart succumbed to severe pneumonia. Whole Hollywood mourned: no camera was turning for 24 hours. The era of Thalberg came to an end.

Irving Thalberg death newspaper

To wrap it up

Thalberg had shaped a culture of production that spread to the industry as a whole: the balance he struck in studio operations was imitated by Selznick, Zanuck and other influential producers. In 1936, some form of the Thalberg balance could be found in every studio in Hollywood.

Thalberg was famous for his talent to combine a good production system with creativity. He made the producer’s system as it is today, where artists have freedom and where business can still make a profit. He created one of the greatest studios in film history and pioneered processes in the production system. But he also the first to found a process with stars, storytelling, editing and talkies. Next to that, many recall him as a very interesting, charming and ambitious person. He was the first in Hollywood to find a good balance between being a businessman and also being a storytelling protagonist.

Thalberg was very well-liked by many at the time, most saw him as a genius or a very well businessman. F. Scott Fitzgerald even modelled his main protagonist on Thalberg in The Last Tycoon. (Amazone Prime now has adapted The Last Tycoon with Matt Bloomer as Thalberg). He was a role model for other studios who were searching for their own Thalberg, like David O. Selznick. Irving Thalberg was The boy wonder of Hollywood and now, 70 years later, he still stands as a shining example for producers in the film industry.

Want to read more blogs about the film industry? You can find them here!

The Last Tycoon Thalberg

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