August 10, 1902– Norma Shearer
In Film History class, way back when I was a youth, all that I could muster for the work of Norma Shearer were cynical comments about her crossed-eyes and unusually mannered performances. But, I would later come to appreciate her special talents.
In Photoplay magazine, Adele Roger St. John, wrote:
“She had the slowest rise to stardom than any actor or actress I’ve seen.”
Her arms and legs were short and squat. The camera didn’t love her. Two of the greatest showbiz impresarios, D.W. Griffith and Florenz Ziegfeld, told the young Shearer she would never be a star. In 1938, during the making of Marie Antoinette, when asked on the set about how she became a star, she replied:
“Because I wanted to.”
Shearer is now mostly forgotten, at least compared to the other women of MGM’s Golden Era. She had a career that lasted less than 20 years, yet she made 100+ films (in 1927 alone, she made 13 movies), almost all of them were hits and well-reviewed. She was Academy Award nominated six times, winning for The Divorcee (1930).
She was a driven woman, and despite the fact that she married MGM’s very young Head of Production, Irving Thalberg, and became the “Queen of MGM”, and by default the “Queen of Hollywood”, and ignoring those six Oscar nominations, she has largely been forgotten by today’s film fans. Perhaps it is because she wasn’t as exotic as Greta Garbo or as striking as Joan Crawford, her MGM contemporaries. Shearer didn’t linger like Crawford, who went on to receive three Oscar nominations at other studios and made her last film in 1970. Shearer, like Garbo, retired from the screen permanently in 1942.
Shearer was the perfect personality for her era. She made a series of highly successful Pre-Code adult-oriented films, with apt titles such as: Let Us Be Gay (1930), Strangers May Kiss (1931), A Free Soul (1931), and Private Lives (1931). All were big box-office hits, placing Shearer in competition with Crawford and Garbo as MGM’s Top Female Star of the 1930s. If she is remembered at all, it is for her portrayals of rich and worldly women in films that, though not very challenging, are enlivened by being provocative, or what seemed provocative in those days.
Earlier this summer, I caught a day of Pre-Hayes Code films on TCM including her Smilin’ Through (1932), where she is naked in a bath scene. This winter, I caught the film version of one of my favorite plays, Noel Coward‘s Private Lives, which I had never seen. Shearer is just terrific in it; so eccentric and sexy opposite Robert Montgomery.
In her early Hollywood days, Shearer played innocent, girlish roles in silent movies. Her best-known early films then were He Who Gets Slapped (1924) starring Lon Chaney, and The Student Prince (1927) with gay actor Ramon Novarro in the title role. She made the transition to sound films with uncommon ease, lucky to have possessed a silken voice.
Even after Shearer had long been a major star for MGM, Louis B. Mayer liked to say that she did the most magnificent acting of her career in his office one day in 1923.
She was new to Hollywood, but she had had much experience at the fringes of showbiz. Her family in Montreal had sold everything to get her to NYC, where she worked as a model while trying to get acting work.
In 1923, an MGM scout liked her cultured demeanor and brought her to Hollywood where she was cast as a socialite in Pleasure Mad. When filming began, she could not seem to get along with the director, Reginald Barker, who wanted to fire her.
Mayer, hoping to keep the production going, called Shearer to his office and heard her side of the story. Then he shouted at her:
“You’re yellow! Here you are given the chance of your life, and what do you do? You throw it away because maybe you don’t like the director or something! I’m through with you!”
Shearer turned on the charm and answered:
“I am not yellow! I’ll show you I can do it! Give me another chance.”
Returning to the set, she plunged right into an emotional scene. Shearer:
“I took that scene lock, stock, and barrel, fur, fins and feathers…”
Her work won her the respect of her director and her studio. Thalberg, MGM’s very young Head of Production was impressed and he cast her in six films in eight months. They all achieved success, and then smartly, Shearer began a romance with Thalberg. They were married in 1927, and he did everything he could to make her a great star. Shearer’s marriage to Thalberg gave her the sort of power in Hollywood that was resented by the other stars.
“How can I compete with Norma when she’s sleeping with the boss?!?”
Shearer’s fame was so great, and her fans were so fervent, that she helped bring attention to one young actor named Clark Gable just by having an onscreen affair with him even though he was playing a gangster. The film was A Free Soul (1931), and in it, Gable gave her such a vicious slapping in one scene that it jolted audiences and outraged critics.
At her apex, Shearer was lavishly gowned for her film roles, and her hair was styled in a fashion that was the essence of sophistication. It was rumored that skilled camera work hid a flaw in her beauty: her eyes were not perfectly aligned. Her eyes became a delicate subject at the studio.
She excelled in costume dramas like The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), about the real-life romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, played by Fredric March. It was an enormous critical and commercial hit.
Shearer was even successful at Shakespeare, playing the lead in MGM’s 1936 version of Romeo And Juliet opposite Leslie Howard, even if they were a little old to play the teenaged star-crossed lovers.
Shearer was in so many hits that many of MGM’s plum roles were hers for the picking, and approved by her powerful husband. She wanted to do more adaptations of Broadway plays and was given the Lynn Fontanne role in anti-war comedy Idiot’s Delight (1939), opposite Gable in the role Alfred Lunt did on Broadway. She received rave reviews for other Broadway transitions Strange Interlude (1932), again with Gable, based on a play by Eugene O’Neill and, of course, The Women (1939).
She was even better in the lavish Marie Antoinette (1938), well-matched opposite Tyrone Power. It had its posh premiere at the legendary Carthay Circle Theatre with special Versailles inspired landscaping just for the event. The film was the last project of Thalberg who passed away suddenly when he was just 37-years-old while it was in pre-production. He was taken by pneumonia, but basically, he had worked himself to death. Shearer remained committed to making Marie Antoinette even if her enthusiasm for her career was waning following his death. It’s budget of two million dollars made it the most expensive film of the 1930s, and one of the biggest money makers.
Thalberg had passed on buying the rights to Gone With The Wind, but Shearer was still considered for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. She wasn’t interested, and told the press:
“Scarlett is a thankless role. The one I’d really like to play is Rhett!”
Although she was devastated by the early death of Thalberg, she still managed to enjoy liaisons with the then married actors: George Raft and Mickey Rooney, and the unmarried James Stewart.
The movies she made in 1939, Idiot’s Delight and The Women, were the first ones she’d made without Thalberg on her side. Even though she was a force to be reckoned with, so was Thalberg and when he was gone, Shearer simply didn’t have the clout she used to.
Even though The Women is Shearer’s most enduring film, it’s not a movie she was ever interested in making. She thought Mary Haines was a boring character and initially turned it down. But after Mayer found out about her affair with Rooney, Shearer had been taken down a notch and reluctantly agreed to do The Women to help keep the peace with Mayer.
She made Escape (1940) a strong, emotional anti-Nazi drama co-starring Robert Taylor, and then Shearer retired after making We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover (1942) for gay director George Cukor. They were her first big flops.
After Thalberg’s unexpected exit in 1936, Shearer brought in a lawyer to ensure that his percentages of profits from films he had worked on were still being paid to his estate. MGM contested his contract arrangement. Shearer took the story to gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and MGM was forced to grant Thalberg’s widow a share of all the profits from the studio’s films made and released from 1924 to 1938. Nevertheless, Shearer’s contract was renewed by MGM for six more films at $150,000 each.
Shearer retired from films in 1942 and she married ski instructor Martin Arrougé, who was a decade younger. She withdrew from the glamour and glare of Hollywood. The couple was still married when Shearer’s final credits rolled in 1983, taken by Alzheimer’s at 80-years-old. In her declining years, she reportedly called Arrougé “Irving” instead of Martin. She spent her last three years at the Motion Picture Country Home.
She can now be found at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in a crypt marked “Norma Shearer Arrouge”, but right next to Thalberg. Her best friend, Jean Harlow, is next door. Thalberg’s vault is engraved “My Sweetheart Forever” at the request of Shearer. I used to visit them there. You can too.
Her brother Douglas Shearer was an MGM sound designer and recording engineer who was a pioneer in the advancement of sound technology for motion pictures. He was nominated for 21 Academy Awards and won seven.