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May 30: Hollywood’s Boy Wonder

May 30, 2014

Irving_ThalbergIrving Grant Thalberg, who rose from stenographer to film executive and produced, in less than two decades, some of Hollywood’s earliest hit movies, including Grand Hotel, Camille, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Good Earth, was born in Brooklyn on this date in 1899. Afflicted with congenital heart disease, which would take his life at age 37, Thalberg became an executive at Universal Pictures at age 20, later at MGM. He disarmed and impressed actors, directors, and critics alike with his youth, his charisma, his empathy, and his instincts for success. “I used to go into his office with the feeling I was addressing a boy,” said the great actor Lionel Barrymore. “In a moment, I would be the one who felt young and inexperienced.” Although Thalberg was widely recognized as a motion picture genius (David O. Selznick described him as “the greatest individual force for fine pictures”), he consistently refused production credits for the films he approved and funded. A Socialist Party organizer in his teens, he changed with his Hollywood wealth into a pro-business Republican and a fierce enemy of labor unions, including the nascent Screen Writers Guild, which he tried to strangle in the cradle before his death in 1936. Among the actors whose careers Thalberg cultivated were Lon Chaney, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, and Norma Shearer, whom he married. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Last Tycoon, was based on Thalberg’s life. To see an Academy Award video about Thalberg, look below.

“The movie medium will eventually take its place as art because there is no other medium of interest to so many people.” —Irving Thalberg