Irving G. Thalberg was a prodigy who became director-general in full charge at Universal Studios when he was not yet 21.
Thalberg was born in an old-fashioned brownstone in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father was a lace importer. His grandfather, H. Heyman, owned a large department store in Brooklyn.
During a vacation with his grandmother on Long Island he met film producer Carl Laemmle, who had the cottage next door. Thalberg admired him, but he didn't ask for a job. Instead he walked up to the Mecca Building and went directly to the Universal offices to find work without asking Laemmle's aid. He received $35 a week as a stenographer.
Laemmle liked his work and soon made Thalberg his private secretary. Thalberg soaked up each detail of the organization and the technique of motion pictures. After two years had passed, Laemmle made a trip to the coast with his young secretary. Thalberg suggested changes. Things began to hum and tangles unraveled.
One day Laemmle packed his bags for Europe. "You stay here," he told Thalberg. "You are completely in charge of the studio."
In later years Thalberg said, "It was one of those periods when people were getting fired right and left. Pretty soon I simply took charge because there was no one left to take charge."
He became the "boy wonder" of Hollywood. The industry marveled still more when he produced "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
In 1924, Louis B. Mayer convinced Thalberg to join his company, which soon became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Thalberg guided production of hundreds of films, built his own stars and developed directors and writers.
One of Thalberg's discoveries was Norma Shearer. At a neighborhood theater he saw her face flash on the screen in a minor film. He signed her to a contract. He watched over her in the MGM stock company, encouraged her and she became one of his greatest stars.
After three years he asked her for a date. They married in September 1928 and built a home in Santa Monica.
When the rest of the industry confronted the crisis of "talkies," Thalberg calmly produced his first sound picture, "Broadway Melody."
In 1935, his "Mutiny on the Bounty" won the Oscar for Best Picture. The same year he produced the Marx Brothers classic "A Night at the Opera".
Thalberg was one of the new producers who did not want credit on the screen for his productions. "Screen credit is valuable only when it's given to you. If you're in a position to give it to yourself you dont need it," he once said.
Thalberg died in 1936 of pneumonia.
- Edwin Schallert and other Los Angeles Times writers, September 15, 1936