Mark Vieira’s 2010 book Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince follows the life of legendary MGM producer Irving Thalberg from his birth to his untimely death at the age of 37. Born with a heart defect, doctors predicted he would be lucky to live until twenty, and yet he defied the odds to live as long as he did. In his still abbreviated life, Thalberg managed to cultivate one of the most profound legacies both as an artist and leader that the film world has ever seen, making MGM the gold standard of filmmaking in the 1920s and 30s.
Thalberg is the main character in all of Vieira’s book. He starts with Thalberg’s birth, not his ancestors, and ends with only two chapters and an epilogue that come after his death, these constituting the seventh and final section of the book. In between, Vieira breaks the chapters into six sections, denoting six distinct eras of Thalberg’s life and career as it evolved with the film industry. It reads like a narrative, painting a clear picture of Thalberg, the industry in which he worked, and his significant impact upon it, pulling the reader into his story and the Hollywood of yesteryear.
I often give Thalberg the title of my favorite figure in film history, something I mean very sincerely. I found him in a bit of serendipity, accidentally clicking to order this biography from the library instead of the book I was actually trying to get. I left for a vacation a few days later and took the book along with me, finding myself so engrossed in his life and unable to put it down. In the three years since then, I have devoted a lot of research to Thalberg and talking about his work and legacy. Vieira’s biography was the beginning of this fascination for me, and upon a second reading, it only becomes better. His research is incredibly thorough, and he crafts such a compelling, living image not only of Thalberg but of every other character in his story from, his wife, actress Norma Shearer to his partner at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Louis B. Mayer. That engrossing realism makes his life all the more compelling and his death all the more devastating.
It seems to be a common theme with most of the books I read for the Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge this year, but my favorite part of this book is how Vieira breaks through the mythos of Thalberg to paint a very real, human portrait of him. Due to the circumstances he overcame and surpassing everyone’s expectations both physically and professionally, he seems superhuman. Yet, in his frailty, he has such a pervasive sense of humanity, one that Vieira captures so well. One of the qualities that made Thalberg great was his willingness to try new things and his wholehearted belief in his team and their ability to succeed. After the advent of sound, Thalberg enlisted his brother-in-law Douglas Shearer to figure out the technology behind it so MGM could incorporate it into their films, and “told him not to be afraid to make mistakes. ‘After all, Doug, we know as much about sound as anyone does’” (p. 88).
For the brevity of his life, it is almost impossible to believe and comprehend the impact Irving Thalberg had on the film industry. He had an almost scientific understanding of how best to utilize actors & actresses, writers, and directors to make the best pictures. He was a perfectionist with a clear artistic vision and oversaw the production of some of the most enduring, artful films made in the 1920s and 30s. However, as Vieira writes, “[t]he thoughtful, quirky cinema of Irving Thalberg died with him” (p. 395). For the numerous films Thalberg produced, his name is on almost none of them, as he firmly believed “credit you give yourself is not credit worth having.” As such, he goes largely forgotten among those not invested in classic film, even despite having an award at the Academy Awards named for him. His legacy at MGM was erased over time by actions both deliberate and unintentional, but fortunately, that is changing with increased focus and scholarship on him. I cannot praise Vieira’s biography enough for the way it works to combat this. Whether you have never heard of Thalberg or are intimately familiar with his life, there is something to learn in Vieira’s book, and I recommend it perhaps more heartily than any other book about the film industry and its characters.
The other legacy of Irving G. Thalberg is the body of work that he accomplished in his short lifetime. Fortunately, most of it exists. It is fine, uncompromising, and enjoyable because of the work he did while munching cereal in his screening room seventy-five years ago.
Mark A. Vieira, Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, p. 398
This book review is part of Raquel Stecher’s Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge. Follow her on Twitter (@RaquelStecher) and check the hashtag #ClassicFilmReading to see more reviews!