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Norma Shearer

Norma Shearer

Overview
Edith Norma Shearer was a Canadian-American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 actress. Shearer was one of the most popular actresses in North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

 from the mid-1920s through the 1930s. Her early films cast her as the girl-next-door but for most of the Pre-Code
Pre-Code
Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines. Although the Code was adopted in 1930, oversight was poor and it did not become rigorously...

 film era beginning with the 1930 film The Divorcee
The Divorcee
The Divorcee is a 1930 American drama film written by Nick Grindé, John Meehan and Zelda Sears, based on the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott. It was directed by Robert Z. Leonard, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director...

, for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress, she played sexually liberated women in sophisticated contemporary comedies. Later she appeared in historical and period films.

Unlike many of her MGM
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. is an American media company, involved primarily in the production and distribution of films and television programs. MGM was founded in 1924 when the entertainment entrepreneur Marcus Loew gained control of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer...

 contemporaries, Shearer's fame declined steeply after retirement.
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Encyclopedia
Edith Norma Shearer was a Canadian-American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 actress. Shearer was one of the most popular actresses in North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

 from the mid-1920s through the 1930s. Her early films cast her as the girl-next-door but for most of the Pre-Code
Pre-Code
Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines. Although the Code was adopted in 1930, oversight was poor and it did not become rigorously...

 film era beginning with the 1930 film The Divorcee
The Divorcee
The Divorcee is a 1930 American drama film written by Nick Grindé, John Meehan and Zelda Sears, based on the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott. It was directed by Robert Z. Leonard, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director...

, for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress, she played sexually liberated women in sophisticated contemporary comedies. Later she appeared in historical and period films.

Unlike many of her MGM
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. is an American media company, involved primarily in the production and distribution of films and television programs. MGM was founded in 1924 when the entertainment entrepreneur Marcus Loew gained control of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer...

 contemporaries, Shearer's fame declined steeply after retirement. By the time of her death in 1983, she was largely remembered at best for her "noble" roles in The Women
The Women (1939 film)
The Women is a 1939 American comedy-drama film directed by George Cukor. The film is based on Clare Boothe Luce's play of the same name, and was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, who had to make the film acceptable for the Production Code in order for it to be released.The film...

, Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette (1938 film)
Marie Antoinette is a 1938 film produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was directed by W. S. Van Dyke and starred Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette...

, and Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet (1936 film)
Romeo and Juliet is a 1936 American film adapted from the play by Shakespeare, directed by George Cukor from a screenplay by Talbot Jennings...

. Shearer's legacy began to be re-evaluated in the 1990s with the publication of two biographies and the TCM
Turner Classic Movies
Turner Classic Movies is a movie-oriented cable television channel, owned by the Turner Broadcasting System subsidiary of Time Warner, featuring commercial-free classic movies, mostly from the Turner Entertainment and MGM, United Artists, RKO and Warner Bros. film libraries...

 and VHS
VHS
The Video Home System is a consumer-level analog recording videocassette standard developed by Victor Company of Japan ....

 release of her films, many of them unseen since the implementation of the Production Code some sixty years before. Focus shifted to her pre-Code
Pre-Code
Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines. Although the Code was adopted in 1930, oversight was poor and it did not become rigorously...

 "divorcee" persona and Shearer was rediscovered as "the exemplar of sophisticated [1930's] woman-hood... exploring love and sex with an honesty that would be considered frank by modern standards".

Simultaneously, Shearer's ten-year collaboration with portrait photographer George Hurrell
George Hurrell
George Hurrell was a photographer who made a significant contribution to the image of glamour presented by Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s.-Early life:...

 and her lasting contribution to fashion through the designs of Adrian
Adrian (costume designer)
Adrian Adolph Greenberg , most widely known as Adrian, was an American costume designer whose most famous costumes were for The Wizard of Oz and other Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films of the 1930s and 1940s. During his career, he designed costumes for over 250 films and his screen credits usually read as...

 were also recognized.

Shearer is widely celebrated by some as one of cinema's feminist pioneers: "the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen". In March 2008, two of her most famous pre-code films, The Divorcee
The Divorcee
The Divorcee is a 1930 American drama film written by Nick Grindé, John Meehan and Zelda Sears, based on the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott. It was directed by Robert Z. Leonard, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director...

and A Free Soul
A Free Soul
A Free Soul is a 1931 Pre-Code film which tells the story of an alcoholic defense attorney who must defend his daughter's ex-boyfriend on a charge of murdering the mobster she had started a relationship with; a mobster whom her father had previously got an acquittal for on a murder charge...

, were released on DVD.

Early life


Shearer's childhood was spent in Montreal
Montreal
Montreal is a city in Canada. It is the largest city in the province of Quebec, the second-largest city in Canada and the seventh largest in North America...

 and was one of privilege due to the success of her father's construction business. However, the marriage between her parents was not a happy one. Andrew Shearer was prone to manic depression and "moved like a shadow or a ghost around the house," while (her mother) Edith Shearer was attractive, flamboyant and stylish, prompting gossip that she was a heroin addict and unfaithful to her husband. Neither rumor was ever proven, but Edith proved to be bored with her marriage very early on and focused her energy on Norma, who she decided would one day become a famous concert pianist.

Shearer was interested in music as well, but after seeing a vaudeville
Vaudeville
Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill...

 show for her ninth birthday, announced her intention to become an actress. Edith offered support but, as Shearer entered adolescence, became secretly fearful that her daughter's physical flaws would jeopardize her chances. Fortunately, Shearer herself "had no illusions about the image I saw in the mirror." She acknowledged her "dumpy figure, with shoulders too broad, legs too sturdy, hands too blunt", and was also acutely aware of her small eyes that appeared crossed due to a cast
Strabismus
Strabismus is a condition in which the eyes are not properly aligned with each other. It typically involves a lack of coordination between the extraocular muscles, which prevents bringing the gaze of each eye to the same point in space and preventing proper binocular vision, which may adversely...

 in her right eye. But by her own admission, she was "ferociously ambitious, even as a young girl" and planned to overcome her deficiencies through careful camouflage, sheer determination and charm.

The childhood and adolescence that Shearer once described as "a pleasant dream" ended in 1918, when her older sister, Athole, suffered her first serious mental breakdown and her father's company collapsed. Forced to move into a small, dreary house in a "modest" Montreal suburb, the sudden plunge into poverty only strengthened Shearer's determined attitude: "At an early age, I formed a philosophy about failure. Perhaps an endeavor, like my father's business, could fail, but that didn't mean Father had failed."

Edith Shearer thought otherwise. Within weeks, she had left her husband and moved into a cheap boarding house with her two daughters. A few months later, encouraged by her brother, who believed his niece should try her luck in "the picture business", then operating largely on the East Coast
East Coast
East Coast most often refers to coastline which is on the eastern side of a particular area. Many other terms refer to this initial meaning. Some of these things include:-Malaysia:* The East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia.-New Zealand:...

, Edith sold her daughter's piano and bought three train tickets for New York
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

. Also in her pocket was a letter of introduction for Norma, acquired from a local theatre owner, to Florenz Ziegfeld
Florenz Ziegfeld
Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. , , was an American Broadway impresario, notable for his series of theatrical revues, the Ziegfeld Follies , inspired by the Folies Bergère of Paris. He also produced the musical Show Boat...

, who was currently preparing a new season of his famous Follies.

Early Career


In January 1920, the three Shearer women arrived in New York, each of them dressed up for the occasion. "I had my hair in little curls," Shearer remembered, "and I felt very ambitious and proud." Her heart sank, however, when she saw their rented apartment: "There was one double bed, a cot with no mattress and a stove with one gas jet. The communal bathroom was at the end of a long dimly lit hallway. Athole and I took turns sleeping with mother in the bed, but sleep was impossible anyway—the elevated trains rattled right past our window every few minutes."

The introduction to Ziegfeld proved equally disastrous. He turned Shearer down flat, reportedly calling her a "dog", and criticized her crossed eyes and stubby legs. She continued doing the rounds with her determination undimmed: "I learned that Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
-1920:* White Youth* The Flaming Disc* Am I Dreaming?* The Dragon's Net* The Adorable Savage* Putting It Over* The Line Runners-1921:* The Fire Eater* A Battle of Wits* Dream Girl* The Millionaire...

 was looking for eight pretty girls to serve as extras. Athole and I showed up and found fifty girls ahead of us. An assistant casting director walked up and down looking us over. He passed up the first three and picked the fourth. The fifth and sixth were unattractive, but the seventh would do, and so on, down the line until seven had been selected—and he was still some ten feet ahead of us. I did some quick thinking. I coughed loudly and, when the man looked in the direction of the cough, I stood on my tiptoes and smiled right at him. Recognizing the awkward ruse to which I'd resorted, he laughed openly and walked over to me and said, 'You win, Sis. You're Number Eight.'"

Other extra parts followed, including one in Way Down East
Way Down East
Way Down East is a silent film directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. It is the best known of four film adaptations of the melodramatic 19th century play Way Down East by Lottie Blair Parker...

, helmed by director, D. W. Griffith. Taking advantage of a break in filming and standing shrewdly near a powerful arc light, Shearer introduced herself to Griffith and began to confide her hopes for stardom. "The Master looked down at me, studied my upturned face in the glare of the arc, and shook his eagle head. Eyes no good, he said. A cast in one and far too blue; blue eyes always looked blank in close-up. You'll never make it, he declared, and turned solemnly away."

Still undeterred, Shearer risked some of her savings on a consultation with Dr. William Bates, a pioneer in the treatment of incorrectly aligned eyes and defective vision. He wrote out a series of muscle-strengthening exercises that, after many years of daily practice, would successfully conceal Norma's cast for long periods of time on the screen. She spent hours in front of the mirror, exercising her eyes and striking poses that concealed or improved the physical flaws opined by Ziegfeld or Griffith. At night, she sat in the galleries of Broadway
Broadway theatre
Broadway theatre, commonly called simply Broadway, refers to theatrical performances presented in one of the 40 professional theatres with 500 or more seats located in the Theatre District centered along Broadway, and in Lincoln Center, in Manhattan in New York City...

 theatres, studying the entrances of Ina Claire
Ina Claire
Ina Claire was an American stage and film actress.-Career:Born Ina Fagan in 1893 in Washington, D.C., Claire began her career appearing in vaudeville...

, Lynn Fontanne
Lynn Fontanne
Lynn Fontanne was a British actress and major stage star in the United States for over 40 years. She teamed with her husband Alfred Lunt.She lived in the United States for more than 60 years but never relinquished her British citizenship. Lunt and Fontanne shared a special Tony Award in 1970...

, and Katharine Cornell
Katharine Cornell
Katharine Cornell was an American stage actress, writer, theater owner and producer. She was born to American parents and raised in Buffalo, New York.Cornell is known as the greatest American stage actress of the 20th century...

.

In desperate need of money, Shearer resorted to some modeling work, which proved successful. On the modeling career, she commented: "I could smile at a cake of laundry soap as if it were dinner at the Ritz. I posed with a strand of imitation pearls. I posed in dust-cap and house dress with a famous mop, for dental paste and for soft drink, holding my mouth in a whistling pose until it all but froze that way." She became the new model for Springfield Tires, was bestowed with the title "Miss Lotta Miles" and depicted seated inside the rim of a tire, smiling down at traffic from a large floodlit billboard. Years later, MGM rival Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford , born Lucille Fay LeSueur, was an American actress in film, television and theatre....

 would disparagingly refer to Shearer as "Miss Lotta Miles".

Finally, a year after her arrival in New York, she received a break in film: fourth billing in a B-movie
B-movie
A B movie is a low-budget commercial motion picture that is not definitively an arthouse or pornographic film. In its original usage, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the term more precisely identified a film intended for distribution as the less-publicized, bottom half of a double feature....

 titled The Stealers (1921). More silent films followed, which brought her to the attention of producer Hal Roach
Hal Roach
Harold Eugene "Hal" Roach, Sr. was an American film and television producer and director, and from the 1910s to the 1990s.- Early life and career :Hal Roach was born in Elmira, New York...

, out from Hollywood searching for new talent. Early in 1923, after a successful meeting, Roach made Shearer an offer on behalf of Louis B. Mayer Pictures, run by mogul Louis B. Mayer
Louis B. Mayer
Louis Burt Mayer born Lazar Meir was an American film producer. He is generally cited as the creator of the "star system" within Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in its golden years. Known always as Louis B...

. After three years of hardship, she found herself signing a contract for $250 a week for six months, with options for renewal and a test for a leading role in a major film called The Wanters.

Hollywood


Shearer left New York in the spring of 1923. Accompanied by her mother, she felt "dangerously sure of herself" as her train neared Los Angeles
Los Ángeles
Los Ángeles is the capital of the province of Biobío, in the commune of the same name, in Region VIII , in the center-south of Chile. It is located between the Laja and Biobío rivers. The population is 123,445 inhabitants...

. Still not welcomed an hour after her arrival, she realized that there would be no star treatment from her new studio. Dispirited, she allowed Edith to hail them a taxi.

The next morning, Shearer went to the Mayer Company on Mission Road to meet with the Vice-President, Irving Thalberg
Irving Thalberg
Irving Grant Thalberg was an American film producer during the early years of motion pictures. He was called "The Boy Wonder" for his youth and his extraordinary ability to select the right scripts, choose the right actors, gather the best production staff and make very profitable films.-Life and...

. Shearer was momentarily thrown by their confused introduction, but soon found herself "impressed by his air of dispassionate strength, his calm self-possession and the almost black, impenetrable eyes set in a pale olive face."

The actress


Shearer was less impressed, however, with her first screen test: "The custom then was to use flat lighting—to throw a great deal of light from all directions, in order to kill all shadows that might be caused by wrinkles or blemishes. But the strong lights placed on either side of my face made my blue eyes look almost white, and by nearly eliminating my nose, made me seem cross-eyed. The result was hideous."

The day after the test had been screened to Mayer and Thalberg, cameraman Ernest Palmer found Shearer frantic and trembling in the hallway. Speaking with her, he was struck by her "fierce, almost raging disappointment" and, after viewing the test himself, agreed that she had been "poorly handled." Under Palmer's own supervision, a second test was made and judged a success by the studio brass. The lead in The Wanters seemed hers, until the film's director objected, finding her "unphotogenic". Again, Shearer was to be disappointed, relegated to a minor role.

She accepted her next role in Pleasure Mad, knowing "it was well understood that if I didn't deliver in this picture, I was through." After only a few days of shooting, things were not looking good. Shearer was struggling. Finally, the film's director complained to Mayer that he could get nothing out of the young actress, and when summoned to Mayer's office, she fully expected the axe to fall: "But to my surprise, Mr. Mayer's manner was paternal. 'There seems to be a problem,' he said, 'tell me about it.' I told him that the director had shouted at me and frightened me. Nobody had warned me that Mayer was a better actor than any of us, and I was unprepared for what happened next. He staged an alarming outburst, screaming at me, calling me a fool and a coward, accusing me of throwing away my career because I couldn't get on with a director. It worked. I became tearful, but obstinate. 'I'll show you!' I said to him. 'You'll see!' Delighted, Mayer resumed the paternal act. ‘That's what I wanted to hear,’ he said, smiling." Returning to the set, Shearer plunged into an emotional scene. "I took that scene lock, stock, and barrel, fur, fins and feathers," she remembered, earning her the respect of her director and her studio. As a reward, Thalberg cast her in six films in eight months.

It was an apprenticeship that would serve Shearer well. By the time Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. is an American media company, involved primarily in the production and distribution of films and television programs. MGM was founded in 1924 when the entertainment entrepreneur Marcus Loew gained control of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer...

 was formed in 1924 and she was cast in the studio's first official production, He Who Gets Slapped
He Who Gets Slapped
He Who Gets Slapped is a 1924 film starring Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, and John Gilbert. It was directed by Victor Sjöström. The film is based on the Russian play Тот, кто получает пощёчины by playwright Leonid Andreyev, which was published in 1914 and in English, as He Who Gets Slapped, in 1922...

, she had become one of MGM's biggest box-office attractions. In 1925, she signed a new contract paying her $1,000 a week, rising to $5,000 over the next five years. Soon after, she bought a house for herself and Edith, right under the Hollywood Sign
Hollywood Sign
The Hollywood Sign is a landmark and American cultural icon in the Hollywood Hills area of Mount Lee, Santa Monica Mountains, in Los Angeles, California. The sign spells out the name of the area in and white letters. It was created as an advertisement in 1923, but garnered increasing recognition...

, at 2004 Vine Street.

Irving Thalberg


Having become a star, Shearer's new challenge was to remain one. There were many other talented actresses at the studio and she realized she would have to fight hard to stay ahead of the pack. Seeing that sensational newcomer Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo , born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, was a Swedish film actress. Garbo was an international star and icon during Hollywood's silent and classic periods. Many of Garbo's films were sensational hits, and all but three were profitable...

 was one of a kind, she went to Thalberg and "demanded recognition as one of another kind". It was just one of the many visits she paid to his office, always to plead for better material, better parts. Thalberg would listen patiently, then invariably advise Norma to keep toeing the line, that MGM knew best, and that the movies she complained about had made her a popular actress. Occasionally Shearer would burst into tears, but this seemed to make "no more impression than rain on a raincoat."

Privately, Thalberg was very impressed by Shearer. In a story conference, when her name was suggested to him for the part of a girl threatened with rape, Thalberg shook his head and, with a wry smile, said: "She looks too well able to take care of herself."

Shearer, for her part, found herself increasingly attracted to her boss. "Something was understood between us, an indefinite feeling that neither of us could analyse." Thalberg's appeal was not primarily sexual. What attracted Shearer was his commanding presence and steely grace; the impression he gave that wherever he sat was always the head of the table. In spite of his youth, Thalberg became a father figure to the 23-year-old actress.

At the end of a working day in July 1925, Shearer received a phone call from Irving's secretary, asking if she would like to accompany Thalberg to the premiere of Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin
Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, KBE was an English comic actor, film director and composer best known for his work during the silent film era. He became the most famous film star in the world before the end of World War I...

's The Gold Rush
The Gold Rush
The Gold Rush is a 1925 silent film comedy written, produced, directed by, and starring Charlie Chaplin in his Little Tramp role. The film also stars Georgia Hale, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Henry Bergman, Malcolm Waite....

. That night, she and Thalberg made their first appearance as a couple. A few weeks later, Shearer went to Montreal to visit her father. While there, she had a reunion with an old school friend, who remembered: "At the end of lunch, over coffee, Norma leant in across the table. 'I'm madly in love', she whispered. 'Who with?' I asked. 'With Irving Thalberg,' she replied, smiling. I asked how Thalberg felt. 'I hope to marry him,' Norma said, and then, with the flash of the assurance I remembered so well, 'I believe I will.'"

"It is impossible to get anything major accomplished without stepping on some toes. Enemies are inevitable when one is a ‘doer’." — Norma Shearer


Over the next two years, both Shearer and Irving would see other people, but Hollywood insiders knew it was something of a charade - she was just waiting for him to propose. Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks
Mary Louise Brooks , generally known by her stage name Louise Brooks, was an American dancer, model, showgirl and silent film actress, noted for popularizing the bobbed haircut. Brooks is best known for her three feature roles including two G. W...

 remembered: "I held a dinner party sometime in 1926. All the place cards at the dinner table were books. In front of Thalberg's place was Dreiser's Genius and in front of Norma's place I put The Difficulty of Getting Married. It was so funny because Irving walked right in and saw Genius and sat right down, but Norma kept walking around. She wouldn't sit down in front of The Difficulty of Getting Married – no way!"

By 1927, Shearer had made a total of thirteen silent films for MGM. Each had been produced for under $200,000 and had, without fail, been a substantial box office hit, often making a $200,000+ profit for the studio. She was rewarded for this consistent success by being cast in Ernst Lubitsch
Ernst Lubitsch
Ernst Lubitsch was a German-born film director. His urbane comedies of manners gave him the reputation of being Hollywood's most elegant and sophisticated director; as his prestige grew, his films were promoted as having "the Lubitsch touch."In 1947 he received an Honorary Academy Award for his...

's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, also known as The Student Prince and Old Heidelberg, is a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1927 silent film based on a novel by Wilhelm Meyer-Förster. Ernst Lubitsch directed the picture...

, her first prestige production, with a budget of over $1,000,000. While she was finishing The Student Prince, Shearer received a call summoning her to Thalberg's office. She entered to find Thalberg sitting at his desk before a tray of diamond engagement rings. He granted her the option to choose her own ring; she picked out the biggest. After weeks of rumors, provoked by wearing the ring, it was announced in August 1927 that the couple was to wed. On September 29, 1927, they were married in the Hollywood wedding of the year. Shearer had two children with Thalberg, Irving Junior (1930–1988) and Katherine (1935–2006). Before they were married Shearer converted to Judaism
Judaism
Judaism ) is the "religion, philosophy, and way of life" of the Jewish people...

 so that she could marry Thalberg.

Early talkies


One week after the Thalberg marriage, The Jazz Singer
The Jazz Singer (1927 film)
The Jazz Singer is a 1927 American musical film. The first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences, its release heralded the commercial ascendance of the "talkies" and the decline of the silent film era. Produced by Warner Bros. with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system,...

was released. The first feature-length
Feature film
In the film industry, a feature film is a film production made for initial distribution in theaters and being the main attraction of the screening, rather than a short film screened before it; a full length movie...

 motion picture with sound, it effectively changed the cinematic landscape overnight and signaled the end of the silent motion picture
Silent film
A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially with no spoken dialogue. In silent films for entertainment the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, pantomime and title cards...

 era. It also spelled the end of many silent careers, and Shearer was determined hers would not be one of them. Her brother, Douglas Shearer
Douglas Shearer
Douglas G. Shearer was a Canadian-born pioneer sound designer and recording director who played a key role in the advancement of sound technology for motion pictures.-Early life and career:...

, was instrumental in the development of sound at MGM, and every care was taken to prepare her for the microphone.

Her first talkie, The Trial of Mary Dugan
The Trial of Mary Dugan
The Trial of Mary Dugan is a play written by Bayard Veiller.The melodrama concerns a sensational courtroom trial of a showgirl accused of killing of her millionaire lover. Her defense attorney is her brother, Jimmy Dugan. It was first presented on Broadway in 1927, with Ann Harding in the title...

(1929), turned out to be a tremendous success. Shearer's "medium pitched, fluent, flexible Canadian accent, not quite American but not at all foreign" was critically applauded, and thereafter widely imitated by other actresses, nervous about succeeding in talkies. Despite the popularity of her subsequent early talking films, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929 film)
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney is a 1929 American comedy film directed by Sidney Franklin. The screenplay by Hanns Kräly is based on the 1925 play of the same name by Frederick Lonsdale...

and Their Own Desire
Their Own Desire
Their Own Desire is a 1929 American romantic drama film starring Norma Shearer, Belle Bennett, Lewis Stone, Robert Montgomery, and Helene Millard. The movie was adapted by James Forbes and Frances Marion from the novel by Sarita Fuller, and was directed by E. Mason Hopper...

(both 1929), Shearer feared the public would soon tire of her "good girl" image, and took the advice of friend and co-star Ramón Novarro
Ramón Novarro
Ramón Novarro was a Mexican leading man actor in Hollywood in the early 20th century. He was the next male "Sex Symbol" after the death of Rudolph Valentino...

 to visit an unknown photographer named George Hurrell
George Hurrell
George Hurrell was a photographer who made a significant contribution to the image of glamour presented by Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s.-Early life:...

. There she took a series of sensual portraits which convinced her husband that she could play the lead in MGM's racy new film, The Divorcee
The Divorcee
The Divorcee is a 1930 American drama film written by Nick Grindé, John Meehan and Zelda Sears, based on the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott. It was directed by Robert Z. Leonard, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director...

(1930).

Pre-Code


Shearer won an Academy Award for Best Actress
Academy Award for Best Actress
Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role is one of the Academy Awards of merit presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize an actress who has delivered an outstanding performance while working within the film industry...

 for her role in The Divorcee, and a series of highly successful pre-Code
Pre-Code
Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines. Although the Code was adopted in 1930, oversight was poor and it did not become rigorously...

 films followed, including Let Us Be Gay (1930), Strangers May Kiss (1931), A Free Soul
A Free Soul
A Free Soul is a 1931 Pre-Code film which tells the story of an alcoholic defense attorney who must defend his daughter's ex-boyfriend on a charge of murdering the mobster she had started a relationship with; a mobster whom her father had previously got an acquittal for on a murder charge...

(1931), Private Lives
Private Lives
Private Lives is a 1930 comedy of manners in three acts by Noël Coward. It focuses on a divorced couple who discover that they are honeymooning with their new spouses in neighbouring rooms at the same hotel. Despite a perpetually stormy relationship, they realise that they still have feelings for...

(1931) and Riptide (1934). All of these were box-office hits, placing Shearer in competition with Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo as MGM's top actress through the remainder of the decade.

Shearer's marriage to Thalberg gave her a degree of power in Hollywood that was resented by rivals such as Crawford, who complained that Shearer would always be offered the best roles and best conditions: "How can I compete with Norma when she's sleeping with the boss."

Shearer mixed pre-Code films with period dramas and theatrical adaptations. Smilin' Through
Smilin' Through (1932 film)
Smilin' Through is a 1932 MGM film based on the play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin, also named Smilin' Through.The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1932. It was adapted from Cowl and Murfin's play by James Bernard Fagan, Donald Ogden Stewart, Ernest Vajda and Claudine...

(1932), which co-starred Fredric March
Fredric March
Fredric March was an American stage and film actor. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1932 for Dr. Jekyll and Mr...

, was one of the most successful films of its year. An adaptation of Eugene O'Neill
Eugene O'Neill
Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was an American playwright and Nobel laureate in Literature. His poetically titled plays were among the first to introduce into American drama techniques of realism earlier associated with Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and Swedish...

's four hour experimental Strange Interlude
Strange Interlude (1932 film)
Strange Interlude is a 1932 American romantic drama film directed by Robert Z. Leonard. The film stars Norma Shearer and Clark Gable, and is based on the play Strange Interlude by Eugene O'Neill.-Plot:...

(1932), which also starred Clark Gable
Clark Gable
William Clark Gable , known as Clark Gable, was an American film actor most famous for his role as Rhett Butler in the 1939 Civil War epic film Gone with the Wind, in which he starred with Vivien Leigh...

, was critically panned but managed to turn a profit at the box office.

The Queen of MGM


The enforcement of the Production Code
Production Code
The Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of the vast majority of United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It is also popularly known as the Hays Code, after Hollywood's chief censor of the...

 in 1934 forced Shearer to drop her celebrated "free soul" image and move exclusively into period dramas and "prestige" pictures. Of these, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) would prove her most successful at the box office, making a profit of $668,000. In that movie, she played the part made famous by Katharine Cornell
Katharine Cornell
Katharine Cornell was an American stage actress, writer, theater owner and producer. She was born to American parents and raised in Buffalo, New York.Cornell is known as the greatest American stage actress of the 20th century...

. Shearer also took on another play popularized by Cornell in Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written early in the career of playwright William Shakespeare about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. It was among Shakespeare's most popular archetypal stories of young, teenage lovers.Romeo and Juliet belongs to a...

(1936) (her first film of the 30's to lose money) and Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette (1938 film)
Marie Antoinette is a 1938 film produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was directed by W. S. Van Dyke and starred Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette...

(1938) (a budget of almost $2,500,000 was too great for the studio to expect a profit), though their elaborate sets and costumes helped make the films immensely popular with audiences.

Shearer was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress
Academy Award for Best Actress
Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role is one of the Academy Awards of merit presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize an actress who has delivered an outstanding performance while working within the film industry...

 on six occasions, winning only for her role in The Divorcee in 1930. She was nominated the same year for Their Own Desire, for A Free Soul
A Free Soul
A Free Soul is a 1931 Pre-Code film which tells the story of an alcoholic defense attorney who must defend his daughter's ex-boyfriend on a charge of murdering the mobster she had started a relationship with; a mobster whom her father had previously got an acquittal for on a murder charge...

in 1931, The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1934, Romeo and Juliet in 1936, and Marie Antoinette in 1938. Marion Davies
Marion Davies
Marion Davies was an American film actress. Davies is best remembered for her relationship with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, as her high-profile social life often obscured her professional career....

 later recalled that Shearer came to a party at San Simeon in her Marie Antoinette costume, which required removing the door so she could enter, and four chairs so she could sit at the table.

In 1939, she attempted an unusual role in the dark comedy Idiot's Delight, adapted from the 1936 Robert E. Sherwood
Robert E. Sherwood
Robert Emmet Sherwood was an American playwright, editor, and screenwriter.-Biography:Born in New Rochelle, New York, he was a son of Arthur Murray Sherwood, a rich stockbroker, and his wife, the former Rosina Emmet, a well-known illustrator and portrait painter known as Rosina E. Sherwood...

 play. It was the last of Shearer's three films with Clark Gable
Clark Gable
William Clark Gable , known as Clark Gable, was an American film actor most famous for his role as Rhett Butler in the 1939 Civil War epic film Gone with the Wind, in which he starred with Vivien Leigh...

, after A Free Soul (1931) and Strange Interlude
Strange Interlude (1932 film)
Strange Interlude is a 1932 American romantic drama film directed by Robert Z. Leonard. The film stars Norma Shearer and Clark Gable, and is based on the play Strange Interlude by Eugene O'Neill.-Plot:...

(1932). The Women
The Women (1939 film)
The Women is a 1939 American comedy-drama film directed by George Cukor. The film is based on Clare Boothe Luce's play of the same name, and was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, who had to make the film acceptable for the Production Code in order for it to be released.The film...

(1939) followed, with an entirely female cast of more than 130 speaking roles.

Shearer was also one of the many actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara
Scarlett O'Hara
Scarlett O' Hara is the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone with the Wind and in the later film of the same name...

 in Gone With The Wind
Gone with the Wind (film)
Gone with the Wind is a 1939 American historical epic film adapted from Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer-winning 1936 novel of the same name. It was produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Victor Fleming from a screenplay by Sidney Howard...

(1939). However, Shearer expressed no interest, joking, "Scarlett is a thankless role. The one I'd really like to play is Rhett (Butler)
Rhett Butler
Rhett Butler is a fictional character and one of the main protagonists of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.-Role:In the beginning of the novel, we first meet Rhett at the Twelve Oaks Plantation barbecue, the home of John Wilkes and his son Ashley and daughters Honey and India Wilkes...

!"

Critics praised the suspenseful atmosphere in her next film, Escape
Escape (1940 film)
Escape is a 1940 drama film about an American in pre-World War II Nazi Germany who discovers his mother is in a concentration camp and tries desperately to free her. It starred Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, Conrad Veidt and Alla Nazimova...

(1940), where she played the lover of a Nazi general who helps an American free his mother from a concentration camp. With increasing interest in the war in Europe, the film performed well at the box office, but Shearer made errors in judgment, passing up roles in the highly successful films Now, Voyager
Now, Voyager
Now, Voyager is a 1942 American drama film starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains, and directed by Irving Rapper. The screenplay by Casey Robinson is based on the 1941 novel of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty....

and Mrs. Miniver
Mrs. Miniver (film)
Mrs. Miniver is a 1942 American drama film directed by William Wyler, and starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, and Teresa Wright. Based on the fictional English housewife created by Jan Struther in 1937 for a series of newspaper columns, the film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture,...

, in order to star in We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover
Her Cardboard Lover
Her Cardboard Lover is a 1942 American comedy film directed by George Cukor. The screenplay by Jacques Deval, John Collier, Anthony Veiller, and William H. Wright is based on the English translation of Deval's play Dans sa candeur naïve by Valerie Wyngate and P.G. Wodehouse...

(1942), which both failed at the box office. In 1942, Shearer unofficially retired from acting.

Retirement and death


After Thalberg's death, Shearer retained a lawyer to ensure that Thalberg's percentages of films he had worked on were still paid to his estate, which was contested by MGM, even though Thalberg's estate was worth around three million dollars. When she took the story to gossip columnist Louella Parsons
Louella Parsons
Louella Parsons was the first American news-writer movie columnist in the United States. She was a gossip columnist who, for many years, was an influential arbiter of Hollywood mores, often feared and hated by the individuals, mostly actors, whose careers she could negatively impact via her...

, the studio was forced to give in and granted all the profits from MGM movies made and released from 1924 to 1938, meaning the estate eventually received over $1.5 million in percentage payments. Nevertheless, Shearer's contract was renewed for six films at $150,000 each. During this time she embarked on romances with the then married actor George Raft
George Raft
George Raft was an American film actor and dancer identified with portrayals of gangsters in crime melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s...

, Mickey Rooney
Mickey Rooney
Mickey Rooney is an American film actor and entertainer whose film, television, and stage appearances span nearly his entire lifetime. He has won multiple awards, including an Honorary Academy Award, a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award...

, and James Stewart
James Stewart (actor)
James Maitland Stewart was an American film and stage actor, known for his distinctive voice and his everyman persona. Over the course of his career, he starred in many films widely considered classics and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one in competition and receiving one Lifetime...

.

Following her retirement in 1942, she married Martin Arrougé (March 23, 1914 – August 8, 1999), a former ski instructor twelve years her junior. Although often attending public events in her later life, Shearer withdrew from the glamor side of Hollywood and preferred anonymity, with her secretary stating in 1960: "Miss Shearer does not want any publicity. She doesn't talk to anyone. But I can tell you that she has refused many requests to appear in motion pictures and TV shows." They were still married at the time of her death on June 12, 1983 (from pneumonia
Pneumonia
Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition of the lung—especially affecting the microscopic air sacs —associated with fever, chest symptoms, and a lack of air space on a chest X-ray. Pneumonia is typically caused by an infection but there are a number of other causes...

 and Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer's disease also known in medical literature as Alzheimer disease is the most common form of dementia. There is no cure for the disease, which worsens as it progresses, and eventually leads to death...

) at 80 years old, although in her declining years she repeatedly called Martin "Irving". She spent her last days at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California.

Legacy


Shearer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Hollywood Walk of Fame
The Hollywood Walk of Fame consists of more than 2,400 five-pointed terrazzo and brass stars embedded in the sidewalks along fifteen blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and three blocks of Vine Street in Hollywood, California...

 at 6636 Hollywood Boulevard. She is entombed in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park
Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale
Forest Lawn Memorial Park is a privately owned cemetery in Glendale, California. It is the original location of Forest Lawn, a chain of cemeteries in Southern California. The land was formerly part of Providencia Ranch.-History:...

 in Glendale, California
Glendale, California
Glendale is a city in Los Angeles County, California, United States. As of the 2010 Census, the city population is 191,719, down from 194,973 at the 2000 census. making it the third largest city in Los Angeles County and the 22nd largest city in the state of California...

, in a crypt marked Norma Shearer Arrouge, along with her first husband Irving Thalberg. Her friend Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s. Known as the "Blonde Bombshell" and the "Platinum Blonde" , Harlow was ranked as one of the greatest movie stars of all time by the American Film Institute...

 is in the crypt next door. Thalberg's crypt was engraved "My Sweetheart Forever" by Shearer.

On June 30, 2008, Canada Post issued a postage stamp in its "Canadians in Hollywood" series to honour Norma Shearer, along with others for Raymond Burr
Raymond Burr
Raymond William Stacey Burr was a Canadian actor, primarily known for his title roles in the television dramas Perry Mason and Ironside. His early acting career included roles on Broadway, radio, television and in film, usually as the villain...

, Marie Dressler
Marie Dressler
Marie Dressler was a Canadian-American actress and Depression-era film star. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930-31 in Min and Bill.-Early life and stage career:...

, and Chief Dan George.

Sources

  • Jack Jacobs and Myron Braum:; The Films of Norma Shearer, A. S. Barnes and Company, South Brunswick and New York 1976 ISBN 0-498-01552-1

External links