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A mogul content to let stars shine

But Irving Thalberg, MGM's legendary producer, gets his due in a handsome new coffee-table book.

October 31, 2008|Susan King | King is a Times staff writer.

He was the "Boy Wonder" producer whose name never appeared on a film's credits. But he was responsible for the success of such classics as "Grand Hotel," "Night at the Opera," "A Day at the Races," "Anna Christie" and "Freaks."

He also made stars and legends out of the likes of Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow -- to name just a few. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences even bestows an award in his honor to a producer who upholds his legacy.

This genius of cinema who supervised more than 400 films at MGM from 1924 until his death of pneumonia at the shockingly young age of 37 in 1936 is now the subject of a beautiful new coffee-table biography, "Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of MGM" by Mark A. Vieira.

The book is graced from cover to cover with breathtaking black-and-white photographs from that era shot by the studio's glamour photographers, such as George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull and James Manatt.

Film historian and portrait photographer Vieira also has a critical biography of Thalberg coming out in a year. But he felt the producer warranted a picture book because Thalberg "made his points visually, and what remains of his films are these images, these fantastic, glorious images."

Though he was well known in Hollywood circles, says Vieira, Thalberg kept in the shadows. All of these producers had publicists and made sure their names were everything. But he had an aversion to publicity.

In fact, the only publicity he wasn't averse to was for his wife, Shearer, who was the grande dame at MGM.

Because the frail Thalberg was convinced that he didn't have long to live, says Vieira, he was willing to take risks.

"He wasn't going to take no for an answer. He had this boldness and unshakable faith in himself," said Vieira.

"I don't think it's news to anybody that Hollywood is known for copycatting. He wasn't like that. He said what can we do that we haven't tried before."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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