Irving Thalberg


Irving Grant Thalberg (May 30, 1899September 14, 1936) was an Academy Award-winning American film producer during the early years of motion pictures. He was called "The Boy Wonder" for his youth and his extraordinary ability to select the right scripts, choose the right actors, gather the best production staff, and make very profitable films.


Thalberg was born in Brooklyn, New York to German Jewish immigrant parents. He had a bad heart and was plagued with other ailments all his life. Upon completing high school, he was employed by Universal Pictures' New York office, where he worked as personal secretary to legendary studio founder Carl Laemmle, the boss of Universal Studios. Irving Thalberg was bright and persistent, and by age 21 was executive in charge of production at Universal City, the studio's California production site.

He quickly established his tenacity as he battled with Erich von Stroheim over the length of Foolish Wives (1922), and controlled every aspect of the production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). In 1924, he left Universal for Louis B. Mayer Productions, which shortly thereafter linked up with Metro Pictures Corporation to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Big Parade (1925), directed by King Vidor, was Thalberg's first major triumph at MGM. Until 1932, when he suffered a major heart attack, he supervised every important MGM studio production, and combined careful pre-production groundwork with prerelease sneak previews which measured audience response.

At the time he joined Metro Pictures, Thalberg was dating actress Norma Shearer whom he married in 1927. She considered early retirement after having her second child with Thalberg, but he was convinced he could continue to find good roles for her and encouraged her to continue acting. She went on to be MGM's biggest star of the 1930s. Their two children were, Irving Jr. (1930 – 1988) and Katherine (1935 – 2006).

Upon Thalberg's illness, Louis B. Mayer, who had come to resent Thalberg's power and success, replaced him with David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger. When he returned to work in 1933, it was as one of the studio's unit producers.

Nonetheless, he helped develop some of MGM's most prestigious ventures, including Grand Hotel (1932), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), China Seas (1935), A Night at the Opera (1935) with the Marx Brothers, San Francisco (1936), and Romeo and Juliet (1936).


Thalberg died of pneumonia at age 37 in Santa Monica, California. At the time of his death, he was working on the preproduction of A Day at the Races and Marie Antoinette ().


His name appeared on the screen in only two pictures. The credit for his final film, The Good Earth (1937) reads: "To the Memory of Irving Grant Thalberg his last greatest achievement we dedicate this picture." Another dedication to him appeared in the opening credits of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), a film that Thalberg set into motion, but never lived to see.

Thalberg refused to allow his name to appear in any of his films, and was quoted as saying, "Credit you give yourself is not worth having."

Thalberg, a good friend of the Marx Brothers and responsible for saving their careers, once sent this often-repeated quote to Groucho Marx via letter on the latter's birthday: "The world would not be in such a snarl, if Marx had been Groucho instead of Karl."

In 1938, the multi-million-dollar administration building built on the old MGM Studios in Culver City -- now Sony Pictures Studios -- was named for Thalberg.

The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is named for him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald based the character of Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon on Thalberg. In the 1976 film version he was played by Robert De Niro. Thalberg was portrayed in the movie Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) by Robert Evans, who later was the producer of Chinatown (1974) and The Godfather (1972).

Thalberg is buried in a private marble tomb in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, lying at rest beside his wife Norma Shearer Arrouge (Thalberg's crypt was engraved, "My Sweetheart Forever" by Shearer).

In an episode of Young Indiana Jones, the Universal Pictures of the silent era is depicted, along with characterizations of Irving Thalberg, John Ford, Erich von Stroheim, Carl Laemmle, and Jack Warner.

In a sketch from the British TV comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus, a high-profile, egotistical movie producer named Irving C. Salzberg (played by Graham Chapman) pitches a movie to a team of yesmen writers. Contrary to Thalberg's tendency to not credit himself, the end credits of this episode (which came right after this sketch) credited him for nearly everything, and all the names were slightly changed to look more like Irving C. Salzberg (such as John C. Cleeseburg).


As a film producer, Thalberg won Academy Awards for Best Picture for the films The Broadway Melody, Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty.





  • The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. Thomas Schatz. Pantheon Books, New York, 1988.


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