LOS ANGELES

Irving Thalberg

Just twenty-three but running Universal Pictures, Irving Thalberg was hamstrung by shortsighted policies and nepotism. On February 15, 1923, he left Universal and joined a smaller company, Louis B. Mayer Productions. One of his first duties was to recast a film called Pleasure Mad. Mayer was unhappy with the leading lady, so Thalberg told his legal counsel Robert Rubin to contact Edward Small.

Thalberg had a prodigious reputation. He had run Universal for three years, upgrading its product and improving profits. It was he who had authorized the Pink Tights offer. Small did not know that Thalberg had then suggested Norma to Hal Roach, where Thalberg thought he would move upon leaving Universal. When he moved to Mayer's company instead, he was in a position to ask for Norma himself.

Edith Shearer co-signed Norma’s contract and accompanied her to Los Angeles in early March of 1923. After a five-day train trip, there was no contingent to meet them at the Santa Fe station, only a taxi driver. They took his advice and registered at the Hollywood Hotel, which stood at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. “It harbored some of the best stars,” wrote Norma. “And some of the best mice.”

Louis B. Mayer Productions

Louis B. Mayer was short, stocky, and thirty-nine, the living proof of his favorite adage: “First you crawl. Then you walk. Then you run.” He had escaped the anti-Semitism of Tsarist Russia to become a teenage junk merchant in Nova Scotia, a theater owner in Massachusetts, a distributor for the Eastern Seaboard, and finally a manufacturer of his own films in New York. In 1919 he had moved his company to 3800 Mission Road, but by 1923 he needed help. He was lucky to get Thalberg, whom many considered a genius. And Mayer was a brilliant manager. Still, their company had no stars.

When Norma and Edith paid their first visit to the chalet-style studio, they were led to an office by a short, slight young man. Because of his boyish appearance, Norma took him for an office boy. She was brought up short when he was introduced as Irving Thalberg. She made her second error when she told him that she had gotten better offers. “I know,” said Thalberg. “I made them.”

Norma’s first week at Mayer went no better than her first day. She over dressed for a scene in John Stahl’s The Wanters. “My dear, why are you trying so hard to be what you aren’t?” Stahl asked her. She dissolved into tears but could not cry for the camera. Worse, the first day’s rushes showed unattractive closeups. A sympathetic cameraman named Ernest Palmer reshot them, finding the best lighting and angles.

More misfortune followed. Stahl demoted her from the leading role. Cast in Reginald Barker’s Pleasure Mad, she incurred the director’s wrath. She was thoroughly intimidated when he told Mayer that he was wasting his money on her. Mayer used reverse psychology on Norma, telling her she was “yellow.” That did it. “I am NOT yellow!” she shouted at Mayer. “I’ll fight it out! I’ll show you! I can do it!” She put the same fire into her performance, and Thalberg was vindicated.