In Film History class, way back when I was a youth, all that I could muster for the work of Norma Shearer (1902 – 1980) were cynical comments about her crossed-eyes and unusually mannered performances. But, I would later come to appreciate her special talents.
In Photoplay magazine, columnist 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 like it did Greta Garbo. 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.”
Except by Film History buffs like me, 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.
Her relative obscurity is perhaps it is because she isn’t exotic like Garbo or as striking as Joan Crawford, her MGM contemporaries. Shearer didn’t linger like Crawford, who 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.
In her early Hollywood days, Shearer played innocent, girlish roles in silent movies. 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, studio boss Louis B. Mayer liked to say that she did the most magnificent acting of her career in his office one day in 1923, when 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 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 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 costumed in the most lavishly gowns for her film roles, and her hair was worn in a way that was the very essence of sophistication. It was rumored that she was so skilled when the camera was rolling that should could hide any flaw in her beauty. Fer eyes were not perfectly aligned, and those eyes became a delicate subject at the studio.
Shearer was even successful at doing William Shakespeare. She convincingly played the lead in MGM’s 1936 version of Romeo And Juliet opposite Leslie Howard, even if they both were a little too old to play the teenage star-crossed (or cross-eyed) lovers.
Shearer was in so many hits that many of MGM’s best roles were available to her. She wanted to do more adaptations of Broadway plays and she was given the role played by Lynn Fontanne role in the anti-war comedy Idiot’s Delight (1939), opposite Gable in the role Alfred Lunt did on Broadway. She received rave reviews for other Broadway play adaptations, including 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), where she is well-matched with Tyrone Power. The film was the last project overseen by Thalberg who died very suddenly when he was just 37 years old while it was in pre-production. He was taken by pneumonia, but really, 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.
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 with the unmarried James Stewart.
The two films she made in 1939 were the first ones she’d made without Thalberg by her side. Even though she was a force to be reckoned with, so was Thalberg. When he was gone, Shearer simply didn’t have the clout she used to.
The Women is Shearer’s most enduring film, but it was not a project she was ever interested in doing. She thought Mary Haines was a boring character and at first, she turned it down. But, Mayer found out about her fling with Rooney, and she very reluctantly agreed to do The Women to placate the boss.
She made Escape (1940) a strong, emotional, anti-Nazi drama co-starring Robert Taylor, and then We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover (1942) for gay director George Cukor. They were her first big flops. And so, she retired.
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 this contract arrangement. Shearer took the story to gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and MGM was forced to give Shearer a share of the profits from the studio’s films made and released from 1924 to 1938. Still, she was so popular that Shearer’s contract was renewed by MGM for six more films at $150,000 each ($4 million in 2023 dollars).
After Shearer retired, she married ski instructor Martin Arrougé, who was a decade younger, and left behind the glamour and glare of Hollywood. They were 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 final three years at the Motion Picture Country Home.
She can now be found at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in a crypt right next to Thalberg. Her best friend, Jean Harlow, is right next door. Thalberg’s vault is engraved “My Sweetheart Forever” at the request of Shearer. I used to visit them there. You can too.