by Mark A. Vieira
Mark Vieira’s name has become synonymous with handsome coffee-table books, but his credentials as a master photographer and photo archivist sometimes obscure his bona fides as a serious film researcher and historian. In his foreword to this beautiful volume he explains his fascination with Irving Thalberg and promises that this picture-and-text compilation is merely a prelude to an exhaustive biography of Hollywood’s legendary “boy wonder.”
I don’t know how long we may have to wait for that magnum opus, but in the meantime, this book goes a long way toward examining the modus operandi behind the fabled film executive’s mystique.
Making abundant use of rarely-quoted interviews with longtime associates, unpublished manuscripts (including notes for Norma Shearer’s intended autobiography) and other sources, Vieira brings Thalberg to life in these pages. A voracious reader, the producer spent endless hours in story sessions with his staff writers and once made this revealing comment: “Directors realize only seventy-five percent of our scenarios, and while the audience never knows how much it has missed, I do.” Greta Garbo and John Barrymore filmed their scenes for Grand Hotel three times before Thalberg was satisfied. In 1930 he halted production on three features that he felt were completely beyond rescue.
As you’d expect, the photos that illustrate Vieira’s year-by-year chronicle of Thalberg’s tenure at MGM are exquisite, including portraits of Garbo, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, et al., set stills, production shots and more. There are even a pair of fascinating snapshots taken by Basil Rathbone on the set of Romeo and Juliet. A few selections can only be described as eccentric—like a shot from a Karl Dane-George K. Arthur silent comedy in which neither star appears. I suppose the author simply fell in love with the still and couldn’t resist using it here.
I learned more than I ever expected to from the text, and savored the beautifully-reproduced photos. This is unquestionably one of the premier film books of the season. (Abrams)