Irving Thalberg

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.


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:


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.