Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Caesar Borgia Was No Better Able to Care for Himself": Portrait of Irving Thalberg, 1927




In preparation for Goatdog's 1927 Blog-a-Thon, coming up March 23-25, the Siren is posting some brief excerpts from a 1927 Vanity Fair article about Irving Thalberg. The article is by Jim Tully. One thing that strikes the Siren when reading film articles of the past is that the writers were often a great deal more prescient and perceptive than we give them credit for today.

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He is considered a genius by many of the leading citizens of Hollywood. In the cinema world the word genius is more common than a threadbare plot...

I would have considered [Thalberg] a real boy wonder had he curbed with understanding the torrent that was Stroheim. For ... Stroheim is likely to be considered the first man of genuine and original talent to break his heart against the stone wall of Hollywood ...

To Thalberg, all life is a soda fountain. He knows how to mix ingredients that will please the herd on a picnic ...

He has inspired and sponsored such productions as The Big Parade, The Merry Widow, Tell It to the Marines, The Scarlett Letter, and Flesh and the Devil. He has been a firm rung in the ladder that led to the success of such stars as Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, William Haines and many others...

No person could dominate a world of cheap intrigue and fierce economics with a set of emasculated virtues. He can be relentless and suave. He can strike back from any angle. In a world where friendship is as shadowy as figures on a screen, Thalberg relies on no man. He has retained a level and a clear course through the helter skelter of the cheapest form of intrigue known to mankind--studio politics....

He is so wan, so tired-looking and so appealing, that women, ever on the alert to evade logic, often become sentimental about him. The feeling is wasted. Caesar Borgia was no better able to take care of himself...

The young supervisor's outstanding achievement for 1927 is Flesh and the Devil. The director, Clarence Brown, must be given full credit for this excellent film. He was ably assisted by the fine work of Greta Garbo. If Mr. Thalberg guessed these two people into their respective roles, which is quite likely, he should be given full credit...

In one respect Thalberg is superior to most producers. He reads books...

[quoting Thalberg] 'A young woman came to me from one of the fan magazines and said, "Mr. Thalberg--I realize that you are of the new order in films--a young man with ideals."

'I interrupted her. "If you mean that I think I'm superior to the so-called cloak and shoe and glove manufacturers who have really given their lives and their pocket-books to this business in order to allow us something to build on---why then--you are wrong. I respect them very much--they had ideals also." '

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Above, Irving Thalberg and his wife, Norma Shearer, photographed by Edward Steichen in 1931. They really do look to be in love, don't they? For a look at the Thalbergs' celebrated beach house, go here.

5 comments:

Anna said...

Great post - I can't wait to read more! TCM's documentary on Thalberg was really fascinating, and it had loads of good quotes to go with it too if you need them for a write up.

Campaspe said...

Thanks so much! I am planning to write about Flesh and the Devil, which I bought especially for this event. First blog-a-thon that required a cash outlay. :)

Gloria said...

By some coincidence, I have been recently reading a couple of books about Thalberg in order to source myself for a written article on CL's Thirties' work.

Thalberg was an intelligent, literate man, and compared with his contemporary film moguls, he had princely manners (whereas others were mannered like Eugene Pallette in Heaven can Wait)... just think that Albert Lewin was one of his trusted men.

For all his brilliance, his output as a producer has also some shadows: he was Stroheim's nemesis in Universal and MGM, cutting both the director¡s montage of Foolish Wives and Greed... Even though his biographers give as a reason Stroheim going excessively over budget, rather than Thalberg's dislike of his work as a director

Alex said...

I don't know much particularly about Thalberg, but one thing to keep your guard against is accepting Hollywood's self-depiction as accurate. This is especially true of producers and executives. Producers and executives WANTED you to believe that the core of their work is with stars and directors.

Instead, the true "meat" of such early executives as Thalberg was the structuring of the film industry as an industry. Thalberg in particular was Laemmle's henchman in Laemmele's eventually successful effort to break the monopoly of Edison Trust.

Campaspe said...

Gloria and Alex, good to see you both around again. I was thinking of both of you recently, as a matter of fact -- Gloria, because I just finished reading Simon Callow's Laughton bio (at last!) and Alex because I got into a real down-the-rabbit-hole discussion at another blog about whether or not the blacklist was ... well, every aspect of the blacklist, basically. I had no idea the blacklist era had been rehabilitated while I wasn't looking.

ANYWAY - about this post; I just found the whole article interesting because it was a contemporary view of Thalberg at a time when he was very much in the ascendant. Some of Tully's writing seemed very astute, especially his lament for what happened to Stroheim under Thalberg's watch. Now that I re-read in light of what Alex is saying, I do see some subtext regarding business matters, but not much. Presumably the Vanity Fair reader (even in 1927) wanted more glamor and less labor.