Irving Thalberg

Box Office Poison: Norma Shearer

Publicity photo for Romeo and Juliet (1936) of Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer

When talking about the career of Norma Shearer, it’s impossible to not discuss the career of Irving Thalberg. Being married to one of the most celebrated producers in Hollywood meant that her career became very closely intertwined with his, particularly throughout the 1930s.

During the 1920s, Norma Shearer worked her way up to become one of the biggest stars at Metro Goldwyn Mayer. After starring in movies with other luminaries of the silent film era like John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, and Lon Chaney, she transitioned well into talkies and won an Academy Award for her performance in 1930’s The Divorcee. With her 1927 marriage to Irving Thalberg, they had become one of the biggest power couples in Hollywood. Thalberg was often accused of only caring about Norma’s films, but I’ve never thought that was a fair assessment of his career. However, he did work to help her have the career of her dreams.

By the mid-1930s, Norma’s career had hit a crossroads. With production codes being fully enforced, she was no longer able to play the sophisticated, liberated women she exemplified in the pre-Code era and, under Thalberg’s guidance, she entered the “prestige picture” era of her career. Years later, when television entered the mainstream, the films she made during this time were the ones she would become most closely associated with for several decades, not her pre-Code work.

Of all the movies made during this phase of her career, 1936’s Romeo and Juliet is unquestionably one of the two that best reflects her status as the queen of MGM. As if a Shakespeare production didn’t carry enough prestige on its own, it was a truly lavish production. And it’s also the movie the Independent Theater Owners Association was complaining about when they published their Box Office Poison ad in May 1938 and included Norma Shearer on their list of stars they claimed did little to draw people into theaters.

Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard in Romeo and Juliet

Adaptations of Shakespeare in general were a risky venture for film studios. Even with high potential for artistic achievement, they weren’t an easy sell. When plans were announced for MGM’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, the only person who seemed enthused about it was Irving Thalberg. Romeo and Juliet would be the kind of prestige picture that Louis B. Mayer famously despised. Not only would it be expensive to produce, he knew it would lack the widespread appeal necessary for it to be profitable. Other MGM execs agreed. As far as they were concerned, any potential it had to win an Oscar or two wasn’t worth its estimated $1.5 million budget.

Thalberg tried to assemble an A-list cast and crew to make the concept more appealing, but that also proved to be a challenge. George Cukor signed on to direct, but jokes were already being made about the idea of Norma, who was in her 30s and had recently given birth to her second child, playing a teenager. Thalberg knew the right male lead would make or break this movie. When he approached Clark Gable about the project, Gable replied, “I don’t look Shakespeare, I don’t talk Shakespeare, I don’t like Shakespeare, and I won’t do Shakespeare.” Initially, Leslie Howard initially wasn’t interested in doing the movie and Warner Brothers didn’t want to loan him out for it anyway. However, after some reconsideration on Leslie’s part and some loan-out negotiations between Warner Brothers and MGM, Howard ended up in the part of Romeo.

Theater owners at the time had valid reason to roll their eyes about the idea of getting stuck with a Shakespearean adaptation. By the time MGM’s production of Romeo and Juliet was released, it was just over a year after an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Warner Brothers set the worst kind of box office record: a record number of cancellations from theater owners.

The only way Thalberg was able to get the green light to proceed with Romeo and Juliet was by agreeing to cut the budget down to $800,000. However, production costs quickly exceeded that amount to a considerable degree. The initial $1.5 million budget seemed like a quaintly conservative figure compared to its final price tag of nearly $3 million.

The team working on Romeo and Juliet went to great lengths to make a movie that felt as authentic as possible. During pre-production, a crew spent four months in Italy photographing genuine Renaissance-era items and finding as many items as possible to bring back. Not only did the lead actors have highly detailed costumes created for them, extras in crowd scenes did as well. Massive sets were built, including a full-sized balcony. Consultants were brought on to give advice on how to adapt Shakespeare for the screen and to work with actors on their diction.

In addition to the technical costs of producing Romeo and Juliet, problems with the crew made production a drawn out process. John Barrymore, who was was dealing with alcoholism and recently had seen his marriage to Dolores Costello come to an end, wasn’t exactly reliable. Norma, the only actor in the cast without experience as a stage actor, was anxious about her performance. George Cukor struggled to find his footing as a director, which slowed down filming at times.

When shooting on Romeo and Juliet was finally complete, the first test screening was not the resounding success Thalberg had been hoping for. The audience reaction wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, either. Over the years, Thalberg had earned a reputation for being able to rescue projects that received negative or indifferent reactions during test screenings. But in the case of Romeo and Juliet, the source material meant there was little he could do to boost its appeal. On other films, he had the option of doing things like ordering rewrites and reshoots to improve them. Even movies based on more contemporary plays and books gave him some leeway. But since Shakespeare is so deeply enmeshed in the collective consciousness, his hands were largely tied.

In spite of all the doubts surrounding the project, Romeo and Juliet actually wasn’t poorly received. Many critics gave it favorable reviews, even if they fell short of being raves. Very often, they admired aspects of the production and Norma’s performance was generally praised. After its premiere, it did reasonably well at the box office and its performance strengthened in subsequent weeks. Schools organized field trips to see it and it started trends inspired by Norma’s costumes and hairstyles in the film. However, given the total cost of production, doing “reasonably well” at the box office wasn’t enough for MGM to break even on it. In the end, it lost $922,000.

For Thalberg, the box office performance of Romeo and Juliet was a personal disappointment. This was a big passion project for him and he knew that Norma wasn’t going to act forever and wanted her to leave a strong legacy. Even when he was fatally ill, he was still asking about box office numbers for Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet was released very shortly before Thalberg’s death on September 14, 1936, making it the last film of Norma’s that he was able to personally oversee to completion. But before he died, he had put the wheels in motion for her to work on Marie Antoinette.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Irving Thalberg’s career is the fact that he made a name for himself by reining in Erich von Stroheim’s extravagant, spare-no-expense productions, but ended his career with movies like Romeo and Juliet and The Good Earth, both of which were too expensive to be profitable. Had he lived to oversee it, Thalberg’s vision for 1938’s Marie Antoinette had the potential to make von Stroheim’s extravagance look positively understated in comparison.

Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette

Irving and Norma had been pushing to make Marie Antoinette happen since 1933 and Thalberg had very big ideas for it. He imagined it filmed in color and, like Romeo and Juliet, wanted it to have larger-than-life sets and and thousands of ornate costumes. Once again, a crew had already been sent to Europe to purchase antiques and take photographs that could be referenced during production. Over 900 wigs had been created for it. By the time of Thalberg’s death, $400,000 had been spent on pre-production, so scrapping the project all together would have been a big waste of money.

In the aftermath of Thalberg’s death, the executives at MGM took some time to figure out what would become of the projects Thalberg had been working on. Many expected that Marie Antoinette would be scrapped without him, but in late 1936, Louis B. Mayer informed Norma that Marie Antoinette would be her next film and work would begin when she was ready to come back. But first, Norma had some issues to resolve with MGM. She was not at all impressed with the way the studio had been handling Thalberg’s legacy.

While on leave after Irving’s death, Norma heard stories about how some of the execs — ones who owed their entire careers to Irving — were trying to diminish his contributions to the studio and take credit for his work. Mayer was also shortchanging Norma by helping himself to the share of Irving’s profits which Norma was owed. This led to Norma making an appearance on a radio show hosted by Louella Parsons for the purpose of publicly calling Mayer out and making it known that she was considering a new studio.

At that point, Norma was still considered a reliable box office draw, so there was incentive for MGM to keep her around aside from generally avoiding the bad publicity of ripping off the widow of the man who helped build the studio. And Mayer knew how much Norma wanted to do Marie Antoinette, so agreements were eventually reached. Norma signed a new contract with MGM and Marie Antoinette was finally happening — even if Mayer wasn’t happy about having to give up those profit shares.

But without Irving around, that meant others at MGM could have more control over production of his final project. The idea of doing Marie Antoinette in color quickly went out the window. Had it been filmed in color, that alone would have added $4 million to the budget. However, Mayer and other MGM execs were still harboring some resentment over their dispute with Norma and conspired to push Sidney Franklin, the first choice to direct Marie Antoinette, out of the job and bring in W.S. Van Dyke, who was famous for filming things quickly.

When Norma heard that Sidney Franklin was out, she simply didn’t have it in her to fight it. She didn’t want to be perceived as being difficult and she found out about it on the first New Year’s Eve she would be spending without Irving. Even though Norma was willing to settle for W.S. Van Dyke, she had learned how to make studio politics work for her and put those skills to work for her once filming began. It was the only way she knew how to make sure the finished product even came close to matching what Irving had in mind. For example, when she thought Van Dyke was rushing through things, she made sure the right people knew and she ended up getting the reshoots she wanted.

Norma Shearer in costume for Marie Antoinette

Upon its release in July 1938, Marie Antoinette was very well received. Critics and audiences liked it and it earned four Academy Award nominations. Norma earned one last Best Actress nomination for her performance and MGM was able to get the favorable publicity of following through with the late Irving Thalberg’s final prestige picture. But even when filmed in black and white, the high production costs meant that it was a hit with little hope of becoming profitable. It lost $767,000.

Before his death, Irving Thalberg had been expecting Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette to be Norma’s swan songs. He wanted her to leave the public eye triumphantly. But when she signed that new contract with MGM, she had a few films left before retirement.

After Marie Antoinette, Norma starred in 1939’s Idiot’s Delight alongside Clark Gable. While not nearly as extravagant as Marie Antoinette or Romeo and Juliet, Idiot’s Delight still has the distinction of being one of the few movies Clark Gable made at MGM which lost money. That same year, she was part of the all-star ensemble cast for The Women, even though she wasn’t thrilled about the role of Mary Haines. Despite the fact that The Women did well at the box office, it was another movie that fell into the category of being too expensive to be profitable. It wouldn’t earn a profit until a re-release later in the 1940s.

Even though The Women was Norma’s last big hit movie, 1940’s Escape was the last film she appeared in which earned a profit. Her final two movies, We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover both also failed to turn a profit and Norma retired from acting in 1942.

Box Office Poison Back Story: The Death of Irving Thalberg

Irving ThalbergAs we talk about the infamous Box Office Poison ad from 1938, it’s important to remember that the ad wasn’t solely based on movies released in 1938. The ad itself was published on May 3, 1938, so while movies released in early 1938 were certainly considered, the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA) also considered movies released a year or two earlier. And for some of the stars who were dubbed “Box Office Poison” in the ad, behind-the-scenes factors that may have contributed to their inclusion in that list happened well before the ad was published.

On September 14, 1936, MGM was suddenly thrown into a very uncertain position when Irving Thalberg, the studio’s former head of production, passed away at the age of 37. Thalberg’s death shook the entire film industry, but for several of the stars who were labeled “Box Office Poison,” it was the loss of a mentor who had played a pivotal role in shaping their careers. Some sources have said Greta Garbo was more upset by the death of Irving Thalberg than she was by the death of John Gilbert, who had also died in 1936. To Norma Shearer, it was also the loss of her husband and the father of her children.

Known as “The Boy Wonder,” Thalberg had built a stellar reputation for having genuine gifts for storytelling and film production at a remarkably young age. By the age of 24, Thalberg was MGM’s vice president in charge of production and it wasn’t even his first time being a top producer at a movie studio. Before meeting Louis B. Mayer, Thalberg had worked for Carl Laemmle as the head of production at Universal, where he was faced with daunting task of bringing Erich von Stroheim productions under control.

Just a few years after joining MGM, Thalberg’s work had helped turn it into the most successful studio in Hollywood. Under Thalberg’s guidance, the MGM produced some of the most significant movies of the silent film era, including The Crowd, The Big Parade, Ben-Hur, and Flesh and the Devil. Throughout the 1930s, MGM continued to thrive and Thalberg’s resume grew even more impressive with the additions of movies like Grand HotelMutiny on the Bounty, and A Night at the Opera.

Irving Thalberg Norma Shearer Louis B. Mayer

While Thalberg produced many noteworthy, critically acclaimed films during his career, not all of them were winners at the box office and that often put him at odds with Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg was in charge of the creative side of MGM and Mayer was in charge of the business side and they often had differences of opinion about which movies the studio should be making. Thalberg certainly understood that MGM was a business and therefore needed to make money. But he also believed in occasionally taking a chance on projects that pushed boundaries or had artistic merit, even if he knew they might not be profitable. He insisted on making Tod Browning’s Freaks despite the objections of other executives. When King Vidor approached MGM about making the all-black musical Hallelujah, Thalberg recognized the value in it when Mayer and Nick Schenck didn’t. The Broadway Melody, a movie Thalberg intended as a low-budget experiment, went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Mayer, on the other hand, hated the words “prestige picture.” Not only did he know prestige pictures were very likely to lose money, he just wasn’t a fan of the more artistic type movies. Irving Thalberg may have liked movies like The Crowd, but it was a far cry from the glossy, idealized view of American life Mayer preferred and would later become the studio’s signature style. The profit and acclaim earned by The Crowd did nothing to change Mayer’s opinion of the movie.

Irving Thalberg and the Marx Brothers

Thalberg and Mayer were both driven to create great movies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they had the exact same approach to making them. MGM had earned the nickname of “Retake Alley” because of Thalberg’s famous willingness to reshoot scenes until they were just right, sometimes at great expense. He would put a lot of focus on casting and developing scripts. When the Marx Brothers came to MGM after their career began to flounder at Paramount, Thalberg helped bring their movies in a new direction and took the approach of allowing them to try new material for A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races out on the stage to figure out what worked and what didn’t. When Thalberg died, MGM didn’t really know what to do with the Marx Brothers and didn’t give them the kind of freedom Thalberg had to develop new movies. Groucho was later quoted as saying, “After Thalberg’s death, my interest in the movies waned. I continued to appear in them, but the fun had gone out of picture making.”

During Irving Thalberg’s funeral, it’s said that one executive commented to another, “They won’t miss him today or tomorrow or six months from now or a year from now. But two years from now, they’ll begin to feel the squeeze.” At the time of his death, Thalberg had several projects either actively in production or still in development and MGM’s remaining producers were left to figure out how to move forward with them — or if they would move forward with them at all. Some of those movies involved stars who would later be named “Box Office Poison” and will be discussed more in future posts. But trying to carry out Irving Thalberg productions without his unique vision or innate knack for storytelling wasn’t easy. The remark about how the studio wouldn’t really miss Thalberg until two years later was almost prophetic with the timing of the Box Office Poison ad.

Dueling Divas: Joan Crawford vs. Norma Shearer

The Women_Joan and Norma

Bette Davis may be Joan Crawford’s most notorious rival, but personally, I don’t think Joan had nearly as much to fear from Bette as she did from Norma Shearer.  One thing you have to remember is that Bette and Joan only spent six years working together at the same studio, so for most of their careers, they at least weren’t directly competing for roles.  They may not have liked each other very much, but at least they were out of each other’s hair for the most part. On the other hand, Norma and Joan spent seventeen years together at MGM, so on many occasions, they were vying for the same material.  Plus, Norma had the advantage of being married to Irving Thalberg, MGM’s head of production.

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What’s on TCM: May 2012

Happy May, everyone!  It certainly looks like it’s going to be a busy month on TCM.  Joel McCrea is the star of the month, which is something I know a lot of people have been wanting to see for quite some time.  He’ll be featured every Wednesday night this month.  Every Thursday night will be all about movies based on true crime stories.  Plus there’s the annual 48-hour war movie marathon for Memorial day will run from May 27-28.  So without further ado, let’s get to the schedule:

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Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Proudcer Prince

I’ve read quite a few biographies on classic Hollywood figures, but Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince by Mark Viera is really quite different from all of them.  Mainly, I was impressed by how this book does not waste time.  By the page five, Irving is meeting Carl Laemmle, by page eight he had worked his way up from office assistant to studio manager, by page twelve he’s battling with Erich von Stroheim, and by page seventeen, Louis B. Mayer is already coming into the picture.  It’s interesting that Mark Viera was so committed to cutting to the chase because he emphasizes that Thalberg lived his life not wasting time.  Due to his heart problems, Irving lived his life knowing that he probably wouldn’t live to be thirty years old.  So if he was going to do anything with his life, he knew didn’t have time to waste.  And I really appreciated Viera’s cut-to-the-chase approach.  I have read so many biographies that begin with long, drawn out family histories and I’m not particularly interested in that.  There’s none of that in this book.  A lot of books also tend to dwell on childhood years, and although that’s far more interesting to me than family histories, I’d rather get to the good stuff.  This book deals with Irving’s childhood years, but it only tells you what’s important.  You find out what the relationship was like between his mother and father, you hear about his childhood illnesses, how Irving’s mother drove him to seek excellence, and how he compensated for missing so much school by reading voraciously.  That’s the stuff that really formed him for the rest of his life.

But you shouldn’t confuse cutting to the chase with being un-detailed.  Actually, you not only get a lot of insight to Irving Thalberg, you also get a lot of information about the inner workings of Metro Goldwyn Mayer.  Lots of great stuff on his relationship with Louis B. Mayer as well as other key MGM figures such as Paul Bern.  The drama between that develops between Thalberg and Mayer definitely makes for interesting reading once Mayer starts trying to take Thalberg’s power away from him.  It’s got lots of stuff about his marriage to Norma Shearer.  And of course there are plenty of details about the productions of Thalberg’s movies.  Considering that Thalberg was the man behind Flesh and the Devil, The Broadway Melody, Grand Hotel, Tarzan the Ape Man, Show People, Red Dust, A Night at the Opera, The Good Earth, The Big Parade, and The Divorcee, just to name a few, it’s easily a worthwhile read for anyone interested in classic film.

There was very little I didn’t like about this book.  I feel like I should give a warning about the really graphic crime scene photograph of Paul Bern’s body that’s kind of randomly thrown into the picture section.  When you look through the picture section, it starts out with normal stuff like Irving with Carl Laemmle, some studio group pictures, wedding pictures, pictures from the sets of Tarzan and Red Dust, then boom, graphic crime scene photo!  And then you turn the page and it’s Norma and Irving on vacation and going to parties.

But crime scene photos aside, Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince is one of the most enjoyable Hollywood biographies I’ve read.  Not only is it great as a biography, at the heart of it is actually a pretty inspirational story.  A kid with serious health problems knows that he likely won’t live to see his thirtieth birthday.  He’s doesn’t have much in the way of formal education, but despite that, he manages to become one of the most powerful men in the movie industry by a remarkably young age.  He ends up running the biggest movie studio, produces some of the greatest films of all time, marries one of the biggest movie stars, and defies all expectations by living to be 37.  He may have died young, but he accomplished more in those 37 years than most people would in a century.