Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hollywood Couples: Irving Thalberg And Norma Shearer

The word most often associated with MGM producer Irving Thalberg is "legendary," so much so that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named an award after him to recognize "[c]reative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production."

Born in New York City to German immigrants, Thalberg contracted rheumatic fever as a boy and suffered from a weak heart for the remained of his life. Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, hired Thalberg right out of high school and by the age of twenty-one, Thalberg was producing movies. Thalberg later joined Louis B. Mayer Productions, which after mergers with Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures became MGM, for years the dominant studio in Hollywood.

Thalberg preferred to remain uncredited which is why you don't see his name on such Katie winners as Greed, The Big Parade, Flesh and the Devil, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, The Crowd, Laugh, Clown, Laugh and Anna Christie, but he was widely recognized as the best producer in Hollywood and was responsible for every high-profile picture to come out of MGM between 1924 and 1933. He also rescued the Marx Brothers from oblivion after Paramount dropped their contract and (again, without credit) produced A Night at the Opera, arguably the best Marx Brothers movie ever (Katie-Bar-The-Door certainly thinks so; I'm a Duck Soup man, myself).

Thalberg married actress Norma Shearer in 1927 after a two year courtship conducted mostly by Thalberg's secretary over the telephone. Joan Crawford, Shearer's chief rival at MGM and history's primary source of anti-Norma quotes, was mystified at the attraction. "I don’t get it. She’s cross-eyed, knock-kneed, and she can’t act worth a damn. What does he see in her?" Writer Anita Loos opined, "Norma was intent on marrying the boss and Irving, preoccupied with his work, was relieved to let her make up his mind."

Or maybe they just fell in love. It happens.

If Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were Holly- wood's number one power couple during the Silent Era, the "Boy Genius" and "The Queen of MGM," as Thalberg and Shearer were known, were the Power Couple of the Early Sound Era. They had two children together, Irving Jr. and Katherine.

After Thalberg suffered a heart attack in 1932, Mayer replaced him as head of MGM production with rising stars David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger, reducing Thalberg to a unit producer. Despite the demotion, motivated many have said by Mayer's jealousy, Thalberg continued to produce MGM's best movies including Grand Hotel, Mutiny on the Bounty, Camille and The Good Earth.

Always in poor health, Thalberg died suddenly in 1936 of pneumonia. He was thirty-seven years old.

Some say Shearer wanted to retire immediately after Thalberg's death but MGM pressured her to sign a six-picture deal to cash in on her popularity. Others suggest Shearer signed the deal after discovering her share of Thalberg's estate was a mere $1 million, no more than an 1/8th of what she had initially expected to receive. In any event, she made two of her best remembered pictures, Marie Antoinette and The Women, and then retired from the screen permanently in 1942.

Shortly thereafter, Shearer remarried, to a ski instructor twelve years her junior named Martin Arrouge, and remained married to him until her death in 1983. From all accounts, Arrouge was a pretty accommodating guy and it was a happy marriage.

In later years, he even let her call him "Irving."


KC said...

Nice post. I just finished reading Mark Vieira's book about Thalberg and I've decided that they really were in love. Shearer may have been more motivated to marry Thalberg because of her career, but it does look like there was a strong attraction between the two.

Mythical Monkey said...

KC -- welcome to the blog. I'll have to look for Vieira's book, I'm a fan of Thalberg's work.

For everybody else, I've added a link to KC's blog "Classic Movies" in the movie links section on the right hand side of the page. Check it out.

Lupner said...

Wow, I did not know he died so young -- only knew he was a producer and that there was a big ol' special Oscar in his name. Very interesting.

KC said...

Thanks for the support! I'm glad you enjoy my blog. I wrote a review of the Vieira book--it'll show up on Classic Movies next week. I highly recommend all of Vieira's books. They always have loads of gorgeous photos and interesting stories about old Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

So many factual errors as usual concerning the life and career of Norma Shearer.
She by her own determination was adored by the public and had a highly successful silent film career. Already a star by the time she married Thalberg. The Crawford comments were spiked with vitriol and always accompany any true fair look at her entire life. Do the same star marries producer story apply to Norma Talmadge and her marriage to Nicholas Schenk ?
Talmadge could not , with her HUGE following , make past 2 talkies ? Norma Shearer won an Oscar and could not have had her stellar career if the public did not want her. The public proves who is a star not her husband and PLEASE stop with the " she let her 2nd husband call her Irving" lie.
The lady was dying of Alzheimer's and living at the Motion Picture Home. Get your facts straight or get off the net !!!