Irving Thalberg: Prince of Hollywood was on my TCM Top Twelve back in May. Here we are at the tail-end of July and I finally watched it and boy is this one of the better documentaries I’ve seen in a while, particularly on TCM. It’s an 80 minute, comprehensive documentary focused entirely on the life of MGM head of production Thalberg and his meteoric, and brief, rise to fame. Including archival footage and interviews, if you get the chance to see this again I highly recommend it.
The documentary chronologically explores Thalberg’s life and legacy as the head of MGM production, giving me a lot of information I didn’t know. The doc introduces Thalberg by citing author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who based his character in The Last Tycoon on the studio head. Thalberg himself is described as well-read but there is a brief section highlighting his relationship with Universal head Carl Laemmle who was a family friend. It’s an interesting moment that isn’t glossed over per se, but it certainly doesn’t go into as much depth on how much of Thalberg’s success is attributed to him versus knowing the right people (he did become the head of production at Universal by 21!).
Where Prince of Hollywood excels is in telling anecdotes about Thalberg’s time as head of production at Universal and MGM. The first story being that the young man had the gumption to fire director Eric von Stroheim, effectively ruining Stroheim’s career. Eventually Thalberg made Universal one of the biggest moneymakers of the silent era and entered in the era of Universal’s legendary monster movies starting with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, moving the studio from Westerns and melodramas. There’s several stories told about Thalberg’s ability to gamble on films, anticipating what the audience would want. While the studio was the last to embrace talkies, his risk on Broadway Melody turned it into the best received movie musical of the era!
Throughout the story of Thalberg’s studio prowess is a hint of foreboding and sadness. Thalberg suffered from a weakened heart since childhood (which would plague him on and off-set throughout his life) and as he grew up he was aware of the fact he wouldn’t have enough time to do all he dreamed, thus why he was quick with turning over films; he didn’t have time for delays in both work and in life.
Thalberg’s need to encompass all of life’s joys in a short span is best exemplified in his marriage to star Norma Shearer. Throughout the film Thalberg is at the middle of numerous relationships. It’s mentioned that Carl Laemmle got angry with Thalberg over his refusal to marry Laemmle’s daughter. Other stories are told of various studio heads keeping Thalberg away from their girls, especially Louis B. Mayer who didn’t want his daughter to marry the young man for some reason. It’s almost comical the fear of some fathers and the outright zeal of others for Thalberg’s hand in marriage. Many assumed the relationship between Thalberg and Shearer would be short-lived considering both were on the rebound from past relationships (Shearer had ended a torrid affair with Victor Fleming while Thalberg had broken up with Constance Talmadge). I will give Thalberg credit for having the best marriage proposal of all time detailed in the documentary. It’s described as Thalberg giving Shearer a tray of engagement rings and saying “Pick one.” I’m thinking the screenwriter of Sweet Home Alabama stole from the Thalberg’s on that one!
Prince of Hollywood includes amazingly sweet home movies of Thalberg and Shearer playing together at San Simeon and you can tell they loved each other. Shearer is given a few snippets in this doc, expressly to show how different and devoted they were to each other. Shearer for instance didn’t want children. She was a notorious workaholic who openly admitted to possessing no maternal instincts (can’t fault her there as I’m in that club). It could be considered selfish of her to have children purely because Thalberg wanted them but the film doesn’t go into much detail about the family or children. It is sad to seen funeral footage of Shearer, a woman utterly broken after the early death of her husband who resigned to a fate of being unable to live without him.
Irving Thalberg: Prince of Hollywood is a spectacular documentary that gives you as much info as you’d probably get from a book. I discovered so much I didn’t know from the fact that Thalberg championed female screenwriters, felt that the cast and script of a movie was a priority and a director purely someone who was “competent” with a camera, and was best friends with Paul Bern (Jean Harlow’s second husband who died under mysterious circumstances). Sure I had a few questions afterwards but none that were too pressing. The blend of footage with interviews is well done and for a TCM documentary its remarkably comprehensive. Sadly there’s no other way to watch this outside of TCM so keep an eye out for it the next time it airs.