Despite Laemmle's role as an innovator, he was an extremely cautious studio chief. Unlike rivals Adolph Zukor, William Fox, and Marcus Loew, Laemmle chose not to develop a theater chain. He also financed all of his own films, refusing to take on debt. This policy nearly bankrupted the studio when actor-director Erich von Stroheim insisted on excessively lavish production values for his films Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), but Universal shrewdly gained a return on some of the expenditure by launching a sensational ad campaign that attracted moviegoers. Character actor Lon Chaney became a drawing card for Universal in the 1920s, appearing steadily in dramas. His two biggest hits for Universal were The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). During this period Laemmle entrusted most of the production policy decisions to Irving Thalberg. Thalberg had been Laemmle's personal secretary, and Laemmle was impressed by his cogent observations of how efficiently the studio could be operated. Promoted to studio chief, Thalberg was giving Universal's product a touch of class, but MGM's head of production Louis B. Mayer lured Thalberg away from Universal with a promise of better pay. Without his guidance Universal became a second-tier studio, and would remain so for several decades.
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