Thalberg’s genius expressed itself in sixteen-hour days and almost superhuman concentration. On the rare occasions when he looked up from his work, he saw that he was not being fairly compensated. In late September 1932 he demanded more money. This led to a grueling series of confrontations with Mayer and Nicholas Schenck, who controlled Loew’s Inc., M-G-M’s parent company. When they saw that Thalberg was ready to quit, they raised his profit share to 37.5 percent. His triumph was short lived. On December 28, 1932, he suffered a heart attack.
Thalberg’s doctors declared that he would recover if he took a long vacation. This was Mayer and Schenck’s opportunity to eliminate the position of production chief; when and if Thalberg returned, he would be only one of a group of supervisors, to be called “producers.” Thalberg wanted to go to Europe to recover and rest, but this would mean a postponement of Shearer’s projects. Though an absence from the screen could dim her stardom, she chose to go with her husband. Thalberg later praised her for putting his health ahead of her career.
The Thalbergs left Los Angeles in March 1933, traveled through Germany and France, and were feted by royalty in London. Thalberg used his vacation to formulate plans for his return. He was welcomed back to M-G-M by Mayer in August 1933 and given a beautiful three-story bungalow as an office, then faced resistance from executives who owed him their careers.
As the year ended, M-G-M announced that Thalberg was preparing a super-production of Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette for Shearer. Instead, his first project for her was a sophisticated vehicle. Riptide did well but not as well as expected; some people stayed away because it was called a “bad” film by the grassroots campaign to strengthen the Production Code. In July the MPPDA reconstituted the Code and safeguarded it with a Production Code Administration (PCA).
Thalberg and Shearer’s next project, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, included adult themes, but it skirted the Code and became a hit, affirming his return to Hollywood. Moreover, it was a triumph for Shearer, whose acting revealed a new subtlety and power.
Marie Antoinette was shelved in late 1934 when Shearer became pregnant. Thalberg pressed forward with an increasingly demanding schedule, and, though responsible only for films generated by his production unit, he piled them on. Projects that had been purchased with Shearer in mind went to other actresses. Ann Harding did Biography of a Bachelor Girl, which was not a success. No More Ladies with Joan Crawford was a middling success. China Seas co-starred three Thalberg alumni—Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and Wallace Beery—and was a big success. Even bigger was Mutiny on the Bounty, which won the Academy Award® for Best Picture of 1935. A Night at the Opera restored the Marx Brothers to stardom.
On June 13, 1935, Norma Shearer gave birth to a daughter, Katharine. (She was named for the actress Katharine Cornell, whom Thalberg and Shearer both considered the greatest living American actress, but who declined their many offers to work at M-G-M.)
A Heartfelt Project
In 1936 Thalberg had an even bigger production slate: The Good Earth, an epic of China; A Day at the Races, a Marx Brothers film; Camille, the Dumas fils story for Greta Garbo; and Maytime, a Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musical (and Thalberg’s first Technicolor film). In spite of his schedule, Thalberg spent a good deal of time with his wife and children.
Most of all, Thalberg’s attention was on his dream project, Romeo and Juliet, a super-production starring Shearer. Few films before (or since) have had as much research, care, and money lavished on them. (Thalberg had to practically beg Mayer to get approval from Schenck for a $2-million budget.) Romeo and Juliet was to be the crowning point of Shearer’s career, enabling her to retire if she (and her fans) so wished. When the film premiered as a road-show attraction on August 20, 1936, it garnered highly positive reviews, with Shearer’s performance getting the best of them; she had filmed it at thirty-three yet was still the youngest Juliet ever seen on stage or screen. First-week attendance was heavy, and word-of-mouth was good. By the third week, Irving Thalberg sensed that Romeo and Juliet was not going to be the all-out hit he wanted for Shearer; and he had overspent, something he once fired Erich von Stroheim for doing.
The Death of Irving Thalberg
The disappointment of Romeo and Juliet affected Thalberg. He seemed listless, and then he caught a cold. It turned into pneumonia. The infection was severe, but the newly discovered penicillin was only available from an East Coast hospital. When Shearer offered to pay for a charter flight, the attending physician told her to stop interfering. Surrounded by his family, Irving Thalberg died on September 14, 1936. He was thirty-seven.