Today is the birthday of the Boy Genius, legendary MGM production head Irving J. Thalberg (1899-1936).
The name Thalberg looms large in the Marx Brothers legend, being as he was the man behind the near-perfection that is A Night at the Opera (1935), and who oversaw the beginning of A Day at the Races (1937), and generally oversaw a reinvention of the team’s formula and screen image. He is often decried for this by die-hard fans, but the fact remains that the decline of the Marx Brothers happened after Thalberg died. The one picture he cooked entirely from soup to nuts A Night at the Opera is imbued with his patented Hollywood magic….and since most of his pictures had that quality, there’s no reason to suspect the subsequent ones wouldn’t have had it too.
What was that magic? You can get a bead on it by looking at the whole of his career. Starting out as a stenographer and secretary to Universal Founder Carl Laemmle, he rapidly rose to the position of that studio’s general manager. After three years he went to work for Louis B. Mayer, whose studio was merged into MGM in the mid 20s.
Thalberg’s pictures seemed to embody the pinnacle of the Hollywood aesthetic. When I think of his mark, I think of movies like The Champ (1931) (and many other Wallace Beery pictures); the many masterpieces of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney; Charles Laughton in movies like The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Mutiny on the Bounty; the early career of Joan Crawford; and the career of Thalberg’s wife Norma Shearer. And perhaps Thalberg’s greatest project, the star-studded Grand Hotel. And Garbo!
Here’s Groucho on the subject of Thalberg (starting a little after 4 minutes in. Get ready for rambling!)
For more on early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcTo find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.