Irving Grant Thalberg was born in New York City, to Henrietta (Haymann) and William Thalberg, who were of German Jewish descent. He had a bad heart, having contracted rheumatic fever as a teenager and was plagued with other ailments all of his life. He was quite intelligent with a thirst for knowledge but, convinced that he would never see thirty, he skipped college and became, at 21, a high-level executive at Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios, then the largest motion picture studio in the world.
After hitting a career impasse at Universal (partly as a result of a failed romance with Laemmle’s daughter), Thalberg jumped ship and enlisted with the relatively obscure Louis B. Mayer Productions overseeing its typically turgid yet profitable melodramas. While the two men shared a common vision for their company, they approached their responsibilities from radically different angles. Mayer was a macro-manager; like a chess master, he would typically engineer business moves far in advance. Given the opportunity, Mayer could’ve succeeded as CEO of any multi-national corporation. Thalberg was at heart, all about movies, literally pouring his life into his work, largely leaving the managerial duties of the studio to Mayer. Modest, he disavowed screen credit during his lifetime, decrying any credit that one gives themselves as worthless. This working partnership would keep Louis B. Mayer Productions consistently profitable and would extend into their heydays as masters of MGM but would lead to an acrimonious later relationship.
By 1923 theater mogul Marcus Loew had a big problem. In an effort to secure an adequate number of quality films for his theatrical empire, he had merged Metro Pictures with his latest acquisition, Goldwyn Pictures only to discover his new super-studio had inherited a handful of projects (the Italian-based Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and Greed (1924)) that had spun wildly out of control. He soon discovered that his problems were magnified by inheriting an incompetent management team. He instructed his attorney to conduct a headhunting expedition with instructions to investigate Louis B. Mayer Productions — which Loew had previously visited on one of his trips west. Mayer’s east Los Angeles studio actually had few tangible assets — most of his equipment was rented. Loew ended up paying a pittance for Mayer’s company but offered both men (after initially rejecting Thalberg!) huge salaries and even more generous profit participation allowances. Answering to New York-based Loew’s Inc., Mayer and Thalberg moved into the then-state-of-the-art Goldwyn lot in Culver City and, with Loew’s deep pockets, set about creating the most enviable film studio in Hollywood, quickly eclipsing Thalberg’s former employer, Universal. Greed was largely scrapped (Thalberg recognizing director Erich von Stroheim’s vision of a 7-hour film was unmarketable, had it extensively edited) and written off after a truncated release, with Ben Hur being called home and re-shot with a new director. Saddled with an unfavorable contract and millions in the red, the film would ultimately benefit the new company from prestige more than net profit, despite drawing huge crowds.
Mayer and Thalberg quickly moved past these inherited nightmares and created their dream studio. From 1925 through the mid-1940s there was MGM and then everyone else. It’s roster of stars, directors and technicians were unmatched by any other studio. Indeed, to work for MGM meant that you had reached the top of your profession, whether it was front of or behind the cameras. Under Mayer and Thalberg, the studio refined the mechanics of assembly-line film production — even their B-pictures would outclass the other major’s principal productions (arguably MGM’s only weakness was comedy). Their formula for quality made MGM the only major studio to remain profitable throughout the Great Depression (although a lesser studio, Columbia also did so, it achieved “major” studio status after 1934, ironically assisted by loaned out stars from MGM).
Thalberg himself was a workaholic and his health, which was never good, suffered. In his position as production supervisor, Thalberg had no qualms about expensive retakes or even extensively re-working a picture after it had completed principal photography — one such case was with King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), where he recognized the modest $200,000 WWI drama was lacking the war itself and could be turned into a true spectacle with a few epic battle scenes added. These few additional shots cost $45,000 and turned the film into MGM’s first major home-grown hit (and its biggest hit of the silent era), grossing nearly $5 million. If he micro-managed productions there was no one in Hollywood who did it more effectively. Thalberg fell into a deep depression after the mysterious death of his friend and assistant Paul Bern (the two had worked extensively together on the hit Grand Hotel (1932)) and he demanded a one-year sabbatical. Loew’s Inc. head Nicholas Schenck (Marcus Loew had died in late 1926) responded by throwing more money at him — more than Mayer himself was scheduled to earn for the year, alienating Mayer. This, to his ostensible boss was an insufferable insult, one that would drastically alter their relationship. Thalberg remained on the job but suffered a heart attack following a 1932 Christmas party. Mayer quickly engineered a coup of sorts, recruiting a new inner circle of producers (including David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger) to replace him. Thalberg recuperated in Europe with his wife Norma Shearer and returned to MGM in August, 1933 resuming his somewhat reduced duties as a unit production head. He continued to score hits, supervising The Merry Widow (1934), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), the rousing, definitive version of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and the lavish Marie Antoinette (1938) (released after his death).
Thalberg also sought to rectify the studio’s poor record in comedy films, signing the Marx Brothers, who had just been released from their contract at Paramount after string of flops. He felt the brilliant comedy team had been seriously mismanaged and ordered their MGM films to be shot in sequence and after their routines had been well tested on stage. The Thalberg-produced A Night at the Opera (1935) was a big hit but he wasn’t infallible, stumbling with the critically well-received production of Romeo and Juliet (1936), which went on the books as a $1 million loss. Over Mayer’s objections, he delved into the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1937) but died of pneumonia on September 14, 1936 at age 37. The Good Earth (1937) was released soon afterward, MGM honoring him by providing him his only screen credit (Thalberg had always eschewed a producer’s credit on his films).
He was survived by his widow Norma and their two children; Irving, Jr. and Katherine. After his death the Motion Picture Academy created the Irving Thalberg Award, given for excellence in production.