By L.S. Klepp
Updated March 25, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Hollywood’s Golden Age of the ’20s and ’30s was the product of a large, sweaty workforce of alchemists. The rough-edged crudity of many of them is legendary. But the aura surrounding the MGM executive and producer Irving G. Thalberg is pure gold. During his brief life he was considered a genius. His soft-spoken judgments were received with awe and examined for oracular significance. Since his death at 37 in 1936, his name has been shorthand for integrity and high artistic standards, as the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award bestowed on Oscar night attests.

The brisk tour behind the myth conducted by the journalist and author Roland Flamini in Thalberg: The Last Tycoon and the World of MGM (Crown) reveals an intelligent, iron-willed, but not exactly colorful man. Thalberg didn’t generate the scandals, wisecracks, and anecdotes that are the staples of Hollywood biographies. About the best that Flamini, also the author of Scarlett, Rhett, and a Cast of Thousands, can do in the anecdote department is to tell us that when Thalberg’s more raucous friends wanted to finish off an evening in a brothel and dragged him along, he contented himself with reading the early-morning Los Angeles Examiner while they were entertained upstairs. Thalberg’s health was too frail for any ambitious vices, and he continued to live with his obsessively ambitious and protective mother even after he married the actress Norma Shearer (they finally moved out after their first child was born).

Thalberg, born with a defective heart and sentenced to an early death by his doctors (no later than 30, they said), wasted no time. At 20 he was head of production at Universal Studios, where he soon fired the director Erich von Stroheim for cost overruns, putting an end to the era of the untrammeled artist-director in Hollywood. At 24 he was Louis B. Mayer’s partner and chief producer (and eventually chief thorn in the side) at the newly formed MGM. He saw the potential of Garbo, launched Gable, and conceived, cast, shaped, and reshaped some of the best movies of the ’30s, such as Grand Hotel, Camille, and Mutiny on the Bounty. His judgment was far from infallible — he turned down Gone With the Wind — but his intelligence was razor-sharp, and amid the standard crass, overbearing, tantrum-throwing studio bosses, he was calm and self-controlled, a cool diplomatic Talleyrand among strutting Hollywood Napoleons. But a genius? This account conveys a shrewd businessman who had a clear idea of the product he wanted — elegant, obliquely erotic films based on plays or the classics. It was a distinguished but, as Flamini notes, derivative achievement. Thalberg wasn’t a creative movie genius so much as the ultimate connoisseur, a movie critic who ran the movies and knew what would work.

Mayer went from depending on Thalberg to resenting and sabotaging him. After Thalberg’s funeral, he was allegedly overheard saying, ”Ain’t God good to me?”-and, as Flamini comments, ”True or not, it didn’t sound out of character.” The fact that the two had much in common — both were Jewish, unreligious, and politically conservative — made their differences more galling to Mayer, who, like much of Hollywood, felt outsmarted by the boy-wonder producer. Mayer went for sentimentality and moralizing in movies; Thalberg liked cynical European sophistication. Mayer more nearly embodied the Hollywood approach to the movies; Thalberg’s legacy is simply that he made them better than they needed to be. B