Irving Thalberg was a filmmaker’s dream of a producer. He worked long hours making sure every shot of his productions worked to serve the film’s story, often causing other obligations such as meetings with actors and directors, to be late. So passionate was he about his work that Thalberg gave reason to why he remained uncredited for his work – “Credit you give yourself is not worth having.” It is literally no wonder why Thalberg was called MGM’s “Boy Wonder.”
One of his earliest productions was to be strictly hands-on with everything that went into the production of Lon Chaney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923). His worked paid off. The silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel became Universal Studios’ most successful silent film — it reportedly grossed almost three million dollars. Later, Thalberg would produce Lon Chaney’s silent drama “He Who Gets Slapped (1924) in which Thalberg’s future wife Norma Shearer made an appearance as “Consuelo” in the film.
After, Thalberg moved to MGM Studios, and his first production was King Vidor’s “The Big Parade” (1925). Not only would the silent film become a huge success at the box office but it would also become the second most successful silent film in cinema history
Thalberg worked closely with The Marx Brothers at MGM after the comedy brothers broke off their relationship with Paramount Pictures. The Marx Brothers’ career was fading into obscurity until they took Thalberg’s suggestion of taking their routine to theater and perform live to see which jokes would or would not work in their films. “A Night At The Opera” (1935) was their first film for MGM and served to be a big hit at the box office. The Marx Brothers were once again on top.
When Thalberg and Norma Shearer, “The First Lady of MGM,” became romantically involved in 1925, everyone believed Shearer was only by his side to climb the ladder of her own career. In truth, Shearer considered retiring from films earlier to be a dedicated housewife for Thalberg but he convinced her otherwise. Thalberg proved it by producing seven of her films — of which garnered her with Academy Award nominations for “Best Actress” for her work including the pre-code film “The Divorcee” (1930) in which Norma Shearer won an Oscar.
In 1936, Thalberg shockingly passed away from a case of pneumonia due to his bad heart – he was only 37 years old. Thalberg was at the beginning of pre-production for “Marie Antoinette” (1938) – Shearer was to star in the title role. She stuck with the production despite her husband’s death. She received her sixth Academy Award Nomination as “Best Actress In a Leading Role” for playing the doomed Queen of France. In honor of MGM’s beloved producer, the studio closed its gates on the day of Thalberg’s funeral. Thalberg’s name appears in the credits of the two films on which he was working before he died, “The Good Earth” (1937) and “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (1939)
In honor of Thalberg’s achievements, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science named an award after him called The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. It is given to the most creative producers in the film industry. Some of the past recipients have been Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, Igmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, Clint Eastwood, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
With almost 100 films to his filmography, Thalberg managed to produce Oscar-winning films such as “The Big House” (1930) and the cult classic film “Freaks” (1932). Thalberg not only produced Greta Garbo’s last silent film “The Kiss” (1929) but also produced her first talking picture the following year, “Anna Christie” (1930). He was no doubt one of the most creative producers Hollywood has ever and may possibly will ever witness.