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Irving Thalberg

Movie Producer

Born: 30 May 1899
Died: 14 September 1936
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York
Best known as: "The Boy Wonder" movie producer of old MGM

Name at birth: Irving Grant Thalberg

Irving Thalberg was mogul of early Hollywood who died at the age of 37 after making Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer the most profitable and glamorous film studio in the world. Thalberg grew up with a weakened heart and the experts' belief that he would not live to be 30. He landed a secretarial position with the New York office of Universal Pictures when he was 19, and by the time he was 21 he was in charge of Universal's production facility in California. He left Universal to join Louis B. Mayer's small company in 1923, which was absorbed by Loews, Inc. and turned into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, with Mayer in charge and the young Thalberg as his vice president in charge of production. "The Boy Wonder," as Thalberg was called, took Hollywood by storm, making headlines with his blunt treatment of director Erich von Stroheim: Thalberg fired Stroheim from Greed in 1924 and pared the movie from more than seven hours to a more marketable two hours. In the twelve years Thalberg was at MGM he had a reputation as a tireless worker and a tough boss, but he also demonstrated an intuition for storytelling and star-making that created Hollywood benchmarks. Most of his star-making efforts went toward building the career of his wife, Norma Shearer, already a leading lady when they married in 1927. Together they were Hollywood royalty, but Thalberg's health wasn't so good and he had a heart attack in 1932. After some time off in Europe he returned to Hollywood to find that Mayer had betrayed him and left him with a minor role at the studio. Pneumonia killed him in 1936, but he left a legacy of top-notch productions, including: Ben-Hur (1925); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1925); The Broadway Melody of 1929 (1929); The Divorcee (1930, with Shearer); The Champ (1931); Grand Hotel (1932); Freaks (1932); Mutiny on the Bounty (1935); and A Night at the Opera (1935, with the Groucho Marx). Thalberg famously rejected a screen credit as producer, even though he had a direct hand in more than 90 movies. After his death his movie The Good Earth featured him in the credits as a dedicatee.

Extra credit: There's a special Oscar awarded now and then, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, for "consistently high quality" movies (winners include Walt DIsney, Alfred Hitchcock and George Lucas)... The title character in F. Scott Fitzgerald's final, unfinished novel The Last Tycoon is said to be modelled after Thalberg... Thalberg and Shearer had two children, Irving, Jr. (1930-1988) and Katherine (1935-2006).

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