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Thalberg Made Movies, Not Deals

September 14, 1986|SAMUEL MARX | Marx is a veteran writer-producer. He is the author of several books, including a memoir, "Mayer & Thalberg, the Make-Believe Saints," published in 1977. and

I showed up in Irving Thalberg's office at MGM on the morning of May 24, 1930, to report for duty as a writer. Instead, he appointed me the story editor. It seemed a curious decision, instantly arrived at, but I later realized his mind was always searching for new stories--and he had never seen me without a book in my hand.

Irving Grant Thalberg claimed he had a "compartmentalized mind." In all, he was the studio's production head 12 years, from the day the company began to the day he died. I arrived at the halfway point of his tenure. The following six years gave me an opportunity to study the man and the way he made movies. They don't make movies like that anymore, but then they don't make men like him anymore either.

A perfectionist long before the word was in common use, he was always under pressure--planning new films (he made roughly 50 a year), overseeing those in production, retaking those that didn't come up to his standards. As many people know, he never put his name on the screen. He produced more than 300 films and, had he chosen to, could have put "Produced by Irving Thalberg" on all of them.

"Credit you give yourself isn't worth having," he said.

He was slim, 5 feet 7, with tousled black hair, square shoulders and an eternally boyish look. He didn't use four-letter words, didn't enjoy flattery or tolerate yes men. When told he had been termed a boy wonder-- with only a high school education, he ran Universal at 19--he looked coldly at the woman who spoke those words and said he'd never heard it. ("Although I'm always interested in fiction," he added.)

It was a time when all stories were expected to have a beginning, middle and end--in that order. His favorite screen writer, Frances Marion, wrote her movie originals around three characters and one situation. Vicki Baum claimed drama consisted of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation; Anita Loos said comedy consisted of extraordinary people in an ordinary situation. Thalberg looked on literary rules as if through the lens of a camera, exchanging the patterns on a printed page for the pictures he envisioned on the screen, leading his friend Charlie MacArthur to say, "Irving goes on the theory the author didn't write the story he intended to write."

Thalberg was a secretary to Carl Laemmle when that benign head of Universal Pictures brought him to Hollywood in the early 1920s. Laemmle's studio was being operated by a committee of three. Impressed by Thalberg, Laemmle added him to the group and in a short time dismissed the others. I queried Thalberg about how this had come about and his answer disclosed a tough philosophy from which, as far as I know, he never varied. "In an industry where so few have the courage of their convictions," he said, "I saw that if I made them do it my way, they'd never know if their way would have been better."

His ability at movie making reached full flower under the incredible administrative abilities of Louis B. Mayer. "I hire people for their brains," Mayer said, "and I'm not such a fool that I don't let them use them."

Thalberg brought to the movies an instinct for showmanship, an unswerving desire for excellence and determination to make good pictures even better. Time and again he came back from a preview that would send average film makers into rhapsodies and order new scenes to improve a just-completed film. When he asked the architect of his new beach home to tear it down and do it over, an acquaintance said, "Irving's introducing retakes to the building trade."

He believed producers should always hold the reins on the movies that they made. When the masterful director Frank Lloyd tangled with Thalberg's comparatively insignificant associate Al Lewin on the set of "Mutiny on the Bounty," Lloyd said, "This picture isn't big enough for the two of us and you have to choose between us."

"I'm sorry to hear you say that, Frank," said Thalberg. "It will hurt me to have to take you off it." When the film finished shooting, Lloyd and Lewin were the best of friends.

Thalberg had little affection for sequels of the kind that follow so many films today. When Mayer came roaring out of the preview of the Clark Gable-Joan Crawford starrer "Possessed" wanting an immediate sequel, Thalberg said "Sure, L.B., and we'll call it 'Repossessed,' " then turned his attention to more original notions.

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