Boy Wonder of Hollywood

Image: (Wikipedia) “Statue of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in Kaliningrad State University area, Kaliningrad, Russia. Replica by Harald Haacke of the original sculpture by Christian Daniel Rauch that disappeared in 1945 during the Second World War.

David B. Green wrote at Haaretz.com on 14.9.14:

“On September 14, 1936, Irving Thalberg – the “Boy Wonder” of Hollywood; the producer who, while still in his 20s, turned MGM into Hollywood’s most successful moviemaker – died. He was 37 and had lasted seven years longer than doctors told him, as a child, he could expect. He may have been not just the most talented producer in the industry, but also the most loved and admired.

Irving Grant Thalberg was born on May 30, 1899, at the Brooklyn apartment of his German-Jewish parents, William Thalberg and the former Henrietta Heymann. Early on, he was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, and his parents were told he could well be dead by age 20, certainly by 30.

Growing up, Thalberg was sickly and spent a year in high school in bed with rheumatic fever. Knowing his time was limited, when he graduated school he decided to skip college and plunge into the business world. Having learned basic office skills, and with the help of family connections, in 1919 he became secretary to Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, in his New York office.

So impressed was Laemmle with Thalberg’s talents that, by 1920, he had made him production head at Universal’s new complex in Los Angeles…After three years at Universal, Thalberg – who had professional disagreements with Laemmle, and had split with the boss’ daughter, Rosabelle – moved to Louis B. Mayer Pictures. When Mayer’s company was merged, in 1924, with the Loew’s-Metro and Goldwyn studios, Thalberg became vice-president in charge of production, and made part-owner of the new company.

In the 12 years remaining before his death, Thalberg helped turn Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer into the world’s biggest and most profitable studio…After a heart attack in 1932, Thalberg went to Germany to convalesce, a period that Louis Mayer took advantage of to reorganize the studio…

While in Germany, he had witnessed an attack on a Jewish couple, and tried, unsuccessfully, to intervene. On his return, writer Kyle Crichton asked him about the situation of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. Thalberg said flatly, according to biographer Mark Vieira, that “a lot of Jews would die.” When Crichton suggested that the Nazis might murder them all, Thalberg responded, “No, not all of them. Hitler and Hitlerism will pass. The Jews will still be there.”

Some historians have cited this line as evidence that Thalberg was indifferent to the fate of European Jewry. But he helped organize the LA Jewish Community Council, which in the 1930s quietly funded efforts to expose Nazi activity in America, and he was active in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League…”

From Wikipedia:

“…Thalberg was one among the majority of Hollywood film industry workers who migrated from the East Coast, primarily from New York. Some film actors, such as Conrad Nagel, did not like the five-day train trip or the sudden warmth of the California climate. Neither did Marion Davies, who was not used to such “big wide spaces.” Samuel Marx, a close friend of Thalberg’s from New York, recalled how easily Thalberg adapted to Southern California, often standing outside his doorway during moments of contemplation to enjoy the scenery. “We were all young”, said comedian Buster Keaton. “The air in California was like wine. Our business was also young—and growing like nothing ever seen before.”

…Thalberg likewise gained the respect of leading playwrights, some of whom also looked down on him due to his youth. George S. Kaufman, co-author of Dinner at Eight, several Marx Brothers films, and two George Gershwin plays, came from New York to meet with Thalberg. Afterward he confided to his friend, Groucho Marx: “That man has never written a word, yet he can tell me exactly what to do with a story. I didn’t know you had people like that out here.”…

…Another assistant producer to Thalberg explains: “Irving had a sixth sense about a manuscript. He was a film doctor. You could go out [to a preview] with a film, and if there was something that didn’t quite come off, he could put his finger on it. Some of the great films that came out of Metro were remade at his suggestion. He had that uncanny ability.”

His youth also contributed to his open-mindedness to the ideas of others. Conrad Nagel, who starred in numerous Thalberg films, reported that Thalberg was generally empathetic to those he worked alongside: “Thalberg never raised his voice. He just looked into your eyes, spoke softly, and after a few minutes he cast a spell on you.” Studio attorney Edwin Loeb, who also worked to create AMPAS, explained that “the real foundation of Irving’s success was his ability to look at life through the eyes of any given person. He had a gift of empathy, and almost complete perspective.”

Those opinions were also shared by producer Walter Wanger: “You thought that you were talking to an Indian savant. He could cast a spell on anybody.”

His talent as a producer was enhanced by his “near-miraculous” powers of concentration, notes film critic J. Hoberman. As a result, he was never bored or tired, and supplemented his spare time with reading for his own amusement, recalls screenwriter Bayard Veiller, with some of his favorite authors being Francis Bacon, Epictetus, and Immanuel Kant…”

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