Chapter 29: The Thalberg Formula

Summary: The Dazeys now have four servants, and Aggie is working with famous directors and big stars at MGM. Not all of her movies are a success, but she has the confidence of Irving Thalberg. When her contract is renewed for another year, she is disappointed when Frank’s reaction is not as expected.

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A thousand dollars a week, every week! What changes did that make in the Dazey family? None, I thought—if I thought about it at all. We did have four servants now: a cook, a housemaid, a nurse, and a combination gardener/chauffeur. Frank didn’t like me to drive home alone from the studio at night, so we hired good, steady Olaf. We never had the courage to ask him to wear a uniform, but he never dented a fender in all the time that he drove for us.

Naturally, there were two cars. Frank’s was a gleaming yellow sports model that could go 80 miles an hour—and did. Mine was a town car. It was splendid with its plush blue upholstery and silver, filigreed vase for flowers, which is what sold me on the purchase. I remembered the old Vitagraph days when I’d start to walk through the wintry nights to the train station, passing Commodore Blackton’s Minerva town car with its silver flower vase shining inside. Years later, the children confessed that one of our nursemaids made use of this delicate container because she was too lazy to stop the car and take them to the restroom.

With such a solid income, we could afford to send Mama and Izzy to London. Izzy was really enjoying herself writing for English companies. They didn’t pay so much, but they didn’t take the heart’s blood out of one either.

I was put on another picture for Marion Davies, “The Patsy.” The director was King Vidor. I’d known and liked him since the Studio Club days. He’d been a poor boy in Texas who, with his wife Florence and their baby, had trekked out to Hollywood in an old jalopy. Before long, he had become a top director.

Hedda Hopper, a dashing comedienne, played Marion’s society mother in the picture, and there was a maid, a bit part that King and I built up for more than it was worth. I was surprised, as most people at the studio were, when King insisted on casting Marie Dressler as the maid. From “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” and “Tillie’s Tomato Surprise,” I’d always thought of Marie as a slapstick comedienne. In “The Patsy” she gave a tender, heartwarming performance that helped the picture immeasurably. She also helped herself, for it was this role that started her off in her memorable starring career at MGM.

Gradually, I’d been taken into the MGM gang. At least once or twice a week the crowd would get together, sometimes at Irving Thalberg’s house, sometimes at a director or star’s home, such as Jack Conway or Jack Gilbert’s. Dressed to the teeth and airing our diamond bracelets, we women would sit around and gossip while the men played poker. The chips ranged in value from $20 for a “white” to $1,000 apiece for “yellows.” Sam Goldwyn sometimes came to these parties with his beautiful red-haired wife, Frances. One evening, Frank saw Goldwyn lose $27,000 in a poker game. We never heard Sam commit one of his famous “Goldwynisms,” though one day the secretary of an MGM executive came bubbling into my office to show me a telegram. Her boss’s wife had died and Goldwyn’s wire read, “Please accept my heartiest condolences.”

When the gang didn’t meet at somebody’s house, there’d be expeditions to cabarets, the dusky entertainments of Central Avenue, and the swank Plantation. Irving genuinely like the people he worked with and, although he was one of the youngest of the group, he managed us all as a clucking hen might tend her brood. Only Irving didn’t have to cluck. One word—one look—from him was enough. When the poker game became so “stiff” that it hurt a couple of players, it was Irving who reduced the stakes. If a special MGM train was wanted for the Tijuana races, it was Irving who made all the arrangements. And once at the Plantation, when a drunk started to insult “the movies,” it was Irving who charged up to do the fighting. Slim and frail looking but with hot eyes, he faced the hulking annoyer who, without a word, turned and staggered away.

I think we all played so hard because we worked so hard, Irving the hardest of the lot. He was absolutely unconscious of—or perhaps superior to—time. I’d be called to his office for a 2 p.m. meeting and end up sitting around reading the trade papers or chatting with his charming secretary until six or seven o’clock. Then the buzzer would signal and I’d be ushered into Irving’s private sanctum to find him sprawled back in a great chair, munching away at a bag of peanuts or a five-cent bar of candy. These nibbles seemed all Irving needed for food, and he generously passed them around. But my always-unstable stomach rebelled, and when the conference was finally over at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., I’d falter out to Olaf and the town car and tell him to get me to home and dinner, quick!

When I was working with directors like Sidney Franklin or King Vidor, Thalberg’s procedure was much like Tom Ince’s: a couple of conferences to get the story set, then perhaps one or two more about cuts and revisions. With most of the people Irving had gathered around him, that was all that was needed. Then Erich von Stroheim came to the studio to direct “The Merry Widow.” Von Stroheim, an Austrian, was one of the greatest, and certainly one of the maddest, geniuses ever to come to this country. With “Greed” and “Foolish Wives” he’d made Universal one of the most talked about companies in the business. However, his expenditures had driven the Universal bankers almost into apoplexy, and the studio had been forced to drop him.

Everyone thought MGM insane to take him on, but Irving said, “’The Merry Widow’ needs sex, and Von Stroheim’s got more sex than any director out there.” Von Stroheim wrote the scenario himself, and I was called in when, as Irving said, “Von’s got his script 400 pages over length and $4 million over budget.”

I really wasn’t much more than a stenographer writing out the changes and cuts that were fought out between the two men. “Fought” is a mild word for it. Sometimes the two would scream at each other, and I’d be sure murder was imminent. Sometimes one or the other would break into hysterical anger, Von Stroheim because he claimed Irving was ruining his picture, Irving because Von Stroheim’s plans would ruin the company. But somehow the conferences would always end—never earlier than midnight, more often at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.—with smiles, handshakes, and perhaps a joke or two. Irving had a genius on his hands, sizzling with temperament and fantastically egotistical, but still a genius. As a producer, it was Irving’s job to control this genius without alienating the man.

One of the “sex” touches that Von Stroheim dreamed up was that the wicked baron had a fetish for women’s shoes. Hundreds and hundreds of pairs of slippers, soft leather riding boots, and fancy pumps were collected to be gloated over in the closet or bedroom. Irving accepted the sex angle, saying it could be suggested indirectly so it would pass the censor boards and only the sophisticates would understand. But Von Stroheim wanted to show, in hundreds of feet of film, just how the baron acquired his peculiar lust. The battle was furious and long. Finally, about 4 a.m., Von Stroheim stopped pacing, faced Irving, and fairly screamed, “But you fool! You’ve got to understand the baron has a fetish for feet!”

“And you, Von,” said Irving coolly, “have a fetish for footage.”

At this, even Von Stroheim had to laugh. The conference ended genially. The next afternoon, Irving was on hand, fresh and cheerful, to renew the contest. After all the arguments were settled, “The Merry Widow,” starring luscious Mae Murray and the upcoming young Jack Gilbert, was finally produced with a not-too-unreasonable budget, and brought MGM $4 million in profit.

Selma Lagerlof and Willa Cather had long been my two favorite novelists. One day, I took my old copy of Lagerlof’s “Emperor of Portugalia” to Irving, and told him it would make a powerful and different movie. In a few days, Irving sent for me, said he’d not only read the book but had shed real tears over it. Lagerlof had not as yet won the Nobel Prize, and MGM had no trouble buying the novel for $5,000.

I was put on the script and told Lon Chaney was to play the old fey peasant. The casting of his innocent, ethereal young daughter who turned prostitute was more difficult. A young, pretty brunette who was in stock at the studio used to drop in my office to bemoan the fact that she was given only vacuous ingénue parts. I tipped her off about the daughter in “The Emperor.”

“But nobody around the studio believes in me enough to think I can do a role like that,” she said almost in tears. “I do,” I said. “Now just believe in yourself, and we’ll see what happens.” The young actress was given the role and a few days later a lovely picture was sent to my office with the inscription, “To Agnes Christine Johnston, in appreciation of her faith in me. Norma Shearer.”

Victor Seastrom, a noted Swedish director who had just had a great American success, was to direct the picture. (Editor’s note: “He Who Gets Slapped” was Seastrom’s first major success with MGM according to this biography on IMdB.) Seastrom was a highly sensitive artist with no idiosyncrasies at all except perhaps that he loved his wife and children more than any American professional I’ve ever worked with.

One afternoon, Seastrom took me to a projection room to see another Lagerlof picture, “The Saga of Gösta Berling,” which had been made abroad by Mauritz Stiller. Seastrom described him as “the genius of the Swedish studios.” Stiller’s direction was powerful dramatically, his camera shots breathtakingly beautiful. But what most enthralled me was the performance of a young actress in a small part. She was much too plump in figure, but those delicate features, those tragic, haunted eyes! At noon, the next day, I stopped in at Mr. Mayer’s office.

“I saw a Swedish girl in ‘Gösta Berling,’” yesterday,” I said. “She’s too fat, but I think it would be a good bet for the studio to sign her.”

“We did,” said Mr. Mayer. “Two months ago. And you’ll probably see her in the lunchroom, eating cottage cheese with her boyfriend. We’ll thin down Greta Garbo all right.” I hurried to the commissary, and asked about the young actress who’d just come over from Sweden. “Yeah,” said my waitress. “She’s here. See them two over in the corner? ‘Beauty and the Beast’ I call ‘em.”

Greta, already slimming down from the cottage cheese diet, was even lovelier than she’d been on the screen. The boyfriend was a middle-aged man with a domed head too huge for his body. Greta Garbo soon became “Garbo the Great,” but Mauritz Stiller, the towering genius of the Swedish industry, the discoverer and Pygmalion of Garbo, was never taken seriously in America. He was thought of as just ‘Garbo’s boyfriend.’ She soared to heights far above him and within in a few years Stiller died of what was said to be—I think with much truth—a broken heart.

My picture, rechristened for some reason “The Tower of Lies,” was released about the time my contract was coming to a close. The reviews were fine. Seastrom’s direction, the performances of Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer, and even my script were all praised. But to my horror, the box office was—to say the least—insipid. I was almost afraid to meet Irving in the halls and refused invitations to two parties I knew he was going to.

One day, leaving the studio, I bumped right into him. “Hi Aggie” he called. “Your ‘Tower of Lies’ is sure laying an egg.”

“Oh, I know,” I winced. “Isn’t it just awful?”

“Don’t let it get you down,” he said. “Happens to everybody, and to some of the best films. Know what I tell the New York office when they beef? I say, ‘Look here—that’s a prestige picture. May not do much business, but in the long run it’s fine for the reputation of the company.’”

Those early days of the Thalberg regime at MGM have become legendary, something like “The Era of Good Feeling” in American politics. Certainly there has never been a time when one studio had such stars: Greta Garbo, Jack Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, Ramon Navarro, Renee Adoree, Carmel Myers, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lon Chaney, Mae Murray. As for the young directors—Jack Conway, King Vidor, Clarence Brown, Robert Leonard, and later William Wellman and Eddie Goulding—they were starting out then but, even to this day, they are the biggest in the industry. And what pictures were made! Quo Vadis, The Big Parade, The Torrent, Three Weeks, Flesh and the Devil, Emma, The Merry Widow, Laugh Clown Laugh, to name only a few.

At MGM a great edifice housing the important executive offices is now called “The Thalberg Building.” His real memorial is the pictures he produced, the fame of the writers and directors he drove or kidded, as the case called for, to success. The reason for all this, as I look back, is that the studio was run with the utmost simplicity. As in my Ince days, the stories were developed solely between writer and director, and then were sent to Irving to make the final changes and plan casting and production. But there was something more.

Ince went through several financial storms, and sometimes there would be a clean sweep at the studio. But at MGM, if you had Irving’s confidence, you felt that nothing on earth could get you fired. And, being sure of your job, what reason to play politics or feel envy? Directors, stars, and writers—we all played and worked together like a lot of high school kids before commencement. If any present day executive wants the Irving Thalberg formula, I can state it simply enough. In those first Thalberg years, MGM was a studio without fear. Duplicate that condition, my friends, and great pictures will roll and the box office jingle like a Salvation Army tambourine.

My contract was taken up again for another year, complete with a nice raise. I could hardly wait to get home to tell Frank. I found him slumped in front of the fireplace drinking a highball.

“Hey wait, Frank,” I said. “I’ll have one with you. But where are the kids? I’ve got news.”

“Put ‘em to bed,” said Frank. “They hit the nurse. Though Ruth says the nurse hit Mitch first. Have to go down to the agency for a new one tomorrow.”

“Get the best you can,” I said. “And pay anything the agency asks. Guess what? They’ve taken up my contract.” Frank grunted, and finished his drink before he made a new one for himself and one for me.

“Another year of this, huh?” he finally said. “Well, I guess it won’t wreck us.” A fine greeting, I thought, for a young wife who’s just come home with the news that she’s been signed for 52 weeks for $1250 per.

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