Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of M‑G‑M, by Mark Vieira. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008. Cloth $50.00. 240pp. ISBN: 978-0-8109-7234-6.
Not a conventional biography, though all the biographical basics are here, Hollywood Dreams Made Real is a narrative and visual survey of the life and work of Irving Thalberg, Jr. and the early golden era of Hollywood from the silents to the mid-1930s in which he functioned. Author Mark Vieira (who, full disclosure, has been published in Bright Lights) proposes to elevate Thalberg not only to the rank of de facto auteur and starmaker but to that of “the prime architect of the Hollywood studio system.” The narrative consists of short biographical glimpses interspersed with lavishly reproduced, rare still photographs with extended captions, making the book equally amenable to sampling or a straight read.
At first glance, Thalberg (1899-1936) seems an unlikely candidate for mogul. A “blue baby” with a rheumatic heart that would eventually fail him at age 37, he spent much of his youth in bed studying the literary and intellectual talents of the day, including William James. Fortuitously, his grandmother lived next door to Carl Laemmle; and at age 19, well enough to work, Thalberg got a job at the New York office of Universal Pictures. From there his ascension was startlingly swift; by 21, he was general manager and head of production at the company’s California facility, Universal City. With an occasional stumble, he would continue to rise, creating an impressive body of films that included many of the canonical works of Hollywood: Ben-Hur; Grand Hotel; Mutiny on the Bounty; A Night at the Opera; The Good Earth; and literally hundreds more. While his name was almost never on screen (“Credit you give yourself isn’t worth having” he famously said), according to author Vieira, he pioneered many of the production methods that Hollywood has long taken for granted: “story conferences, sneak previews, read-response surveys, and the resulting retakes” — processes the book describes in fascinating detail. Interwoven into the narrative are production histories of important works like Grand Hotel that show the intricate interrelationship between Thalberg and his collaborators before and behind the screen. And inevitably, the book delves into the rivalry between M-G-M’s two highest-wattage stars, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, giving the feud, and the combatants, a fair hearing.
Conventional wisdom has portrayed Thalberg as both a charismatic “boy wonder” and the villainous producer who drastically re-cut, and some say ruined, Stroheim’s seminal 1922 film Greed. Both identities are on display here. A shocking image of the murdered Trina from a cut scene in Greed is a grim indicator of what was lost when the film’s epic length (reported variously as from seven to ten hours) was reduced to a couple of hours. But stills from Lon Chaney films like Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Unholy Three (both 1925) and, especially, the 1932 grue-fest Freaks remind us that Thalberg — who had an abiding interest in “morbid psychology” a la Kraft-Ebbing — pioneered the horror genre as much as did Universal’s classic monster movies of the early 1930s. Populist, crowd-pleasers like the Tarzan series and Marie Dressler’s high-grossing “battle-axe” films could coexist with raunchy “adult” fare like Red Dust (above) and haute literary properties like Noel Coward’s Private Lives and prestigious stars like the Barrymores and Garbo. This reflected Thalberg’s personal interest in both low and high culture. During his European travels, he could indulge his taste in the latter by viewing films like Feyder’s Therese Raquin.)
Hollywood Dreams Made Real reveals the endless power struggles among Thalberg, Mayer, and the other hyper-ambitious men (Nicholas Schenck et al.) who determined what people watched, where, when, and how. Most intriguing are the clashes, sometimes subtle or behind-the-scenes but frequently catastrophic, between Thalberg and Mayer, which read like a William Inge family tragedy where vulgar, old-world father and sophisticated, modern son duke it out for power and control (when they’re not gushily praising each other). Mayer would eventually arrange a “palace coup” to remove Thalberg while the latter was vacationing in Europe — a betrayal that hit Thalberg especially hard because he felt Mayer was exploiting his increasing health problems. But testifying to the “boy wonder’s” resiliency, he soon ended up back at M-G-M as the only producer there who had the privilege of personal contracts.
Fortunately, the book doesn’t gloss over Thalberg’s limitations. Vieira records the mogul’s initial failure to grasp the significance of sound films, surprising given his seemingly unerring grasp of cultural and societal trends. Also, his diehard capitalist impulses made him see a “communist conspiracy” behind the attempts to unionize workers, efforts he fought mightily. But the book argues persuasively that Thalberg’s involvement in every aspect of production, from constantly rethinking and remaking the cinematic personas of stars like Crawford and Shearer down to the nuts and bolts of script rewrites, made him one of Hollywood’s few Renaissance men. Hollywood Dreams Made Real’s wealth of beautiful stills of both the films and the larger-than-life personalities who populated them resonate as a kind of instant visual indicator of what its subject achieved, and account for much of this seductive book’s appeal.