A sickly child, Irving Thalberg was brought through his many illnesses by his strong-willed mother. Forced to leave high school because of rheumatic fever, Thalberg read voraciously during his convalescence, mentally warehousing story ideas and standards of quality that would serve him well in his filmmaking years. After several dead-end secretarial jobs, Thalberg met Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Pictures, who was impressed by the young man's concentration skills and capacity for hard work. As Laemmle's secretary, Thalberg expressed several solid theories as to how to improve efficiency on the rambling Universal lot in California. When Laemmle went on an extended vacation, he put the 21-year-old Thalberg in charge of the studio, where the frail young man proved a born leader and decision-maker. Eventually outgrowing Universal, and seeking a larger salary and wider-ranging responsibilities, Thalberg accepted a vice-president post at the newly formed MGM in 1924. While Louis B. Mayer handled the financial end of MGM, Thalberg took over the creative end, turning out a steady stream of movie hits. One of his most famous policies, which on the surface seemed the height of budgetary folly, was to allow MGM's producers and directors to shoot limitless retakes of scenes that hadn't played right in the projection room or before preview audiences. While industry wags referred to MGM as "Retake Valley," this perfection-at-all-costs policy resulted in excellent box-office returns. Tagged "the Boy Wonder," Thalberg commanded great respect throughout Hollywood, not only because of his near-infallible gift for moviemaking but also because he was a polite, respectful boss, willing to listen to anyone's input so long as it was for the general good of the studio. Additionally, and despite his assuredness at his job, there was a pronounced streak of modesty in Thalberg; he refused to allow his name to appear in the credits of his films, arguing that "credit you give yourself isn't worth having." However, not everyone was enchanted by the Boy Wonder -- disciples of Erich von Stroheim, who was fired twice by Thalberg, singled the young producer out for some particularly vicious invective; Broadway writers like George S. Kaufman despaired at being kept waiting in the busy Thalberg's outer office for hours and days on end; and actor Edward G. Robinson deeply resented Thalberg's intention to "mold" Robinson's career, rather than allowing the actor his creative freedom. But the yea-sayers outweighed the nay-sayers, and Thalberg continued riding high until a heart attack in 1932 forced him to take several months off. During that period, Louis Mayer, who'd always been jealous of Thalberg's accomplishments, maneuvered things so that Thalberg's powers would be severely reduced upon his return. By 1936, Thalberg was on the verge of bolting MGM and setting up his own independent production company, in the manner of David O. Selznick. Such a move never took place; Thalberg died of pneumonia at the age of 37. He left behind a widow, actress Norma Shearer, and a legend that persists to this day. In 1937, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, to honor high-quality production achievements; and that same year, Irving Thalberg's name appeared onscreen for the first time, at the beginning of MGM's The Good Earth.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Suffered from a rheumatic heart condition his whole life and was not expected to live past the age of 30.
- Learned speed typing and shorthand after high school, which landed him a secretarial job at the New York offices of Universal Film Manufacturing Co. in 1918. Eventually left to become vice president and head of production for Louis B. Mayer.
- Dubbed "the Boy Wonder," he set high standards and developed many prestigious films while at MGM.
- Helped revive the career of the Marx Brothers.
- Often credited with instituting the sneak preview for measuring audience response and a film's box-office potential.
- One of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).
- Refusing to accept any on-screen credit for work, his name appeared posthumously on one film, The Good Earth in 1937.
- Was the basis for the lead character in F. Scott Fitzgerald's final novel, The Last Tycoon.
- Following his death due to pneumonia, AMPAS instituted the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, presented periodically to a producer whose work displays a high level of motion picture production excellence.