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Norma Shearer

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Also Known As: Edith Norma Shearer Died: June 12, 1983
Born: August 10, 1902 Cause of Death: bronchial pneumonia
Birth Place: Montreal, Quebec, CA Profession: actor, model, piano player in movie theater, music store clerk

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

A child model and bit player in New York-based films whose appearance in "The Stealers" (1920) caught the attention of producer Irving Thalberg. Thalberg signed Shearer to a long-term contract with MGM in 1923 and she quickly became a popular star in such films as "He Who Gets Slapped" (1924), "His Secretary" (1925) and "The Student Prince" (1927), typically as a gentle but vivacious ingenue. Thalberg married his star in 1927, after which she had her pick of films, parts and directors. A striking and often lovely brunette actress with a great profile, Shearer compensated for a slight lack of conventional beauty with great poise, elegance and charm. She played a wide range of roles in a glittering array of films; among her most notable efforts were "The Divorcee" (1930), for which she won an Oscar, "A Free Soul" (1931), "Private Lives" (1931; an especially fine and rare comic performance at this stage in her career), "Smilin' Through" (1932; one of her loveliest performances, and most romantic films) and "Romeo and Juliet" (1936).One of MGM's biggest stars of the 1930s, the ultra-chic Shearer eschewed the more innocent image of her silent stardom during the racy pre-Code period of the early 30s to...

A child model and bit player in New York-based films whose appearance in "The Stealers" (1920) caught the attention of producer Irving Thalberg. Thalberg signed Shearer to a long-term contract with MGM in 1923 and she quickly became a popular star in such films as "He Who Gets Slapped" (1924), "His Secretary" (1925) and "The Student Prince" (1927), typically as a gentle but vivacious ingenue. Thalberg married his star in 1927, after which she had her pick of films, parts and directors. A striking and often lovely brunette actress with a great profile, Shearer compensated for a slight lack of conventional beauty with great poise, elegance and charm. She played a wide range of roles in a glittering array of films; among her most notable efforts were "The Divorcee" (1930), for which she won an Oscar, "A Free Soul" (1931), "Private Lives" (1931; an especially fine and rare comic performance at this stage in her career), "Smilin' Through" (1932; one of her loveliest performances, and most romantic films) and "Romeo and Juliet" (1936).

One of MGM's biggest stars of the 1930s, the ultra-chic Shearer eschewed the more innocent image of her silent stardom during the racy pre-Code period of the early 30s to play a series of wronged wives who fight the double standard by turning into silken sinners in films including "The Divorcee", "Strangers May Kiss" (1931) and "Riptide" (1934). She quickly became, along with Garbo, the studio's resident "prestige" star, and later in the decade played in several classy costume dramas, the most popular of which was "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1934, as poet Elizabeth Barrett).

Shearer lost interest in her career after Thalberg's death in 1936; this, coupled with a poor choice of roles (she turned down the leads in "Gone With the Wind" 1939 and "Mrs. Miniver" 1942 and opted instead for fluffy comedies) led her to retire from the screen in 1942. She did, however, leave her admirers with two excellent performances, easily among her finest, in two of her best-remembered films: as the tragic title heroine of the lavish, underrated "Marie Antoinette" (1938); and as the cheated-upon husband who must endure the "help" of her catty girlfriends in the all-star, all-female comedy, "The Women" (1939, in which she was first-billed over longstanding rival Joan Crawford).

As with Garbo, Shearer did receive offers after she left MGM and considered return vehicles to the cinema; in several cases, she backed out or else the projects never really got off the ground. Her glamorous image, though, was more accessible, less distant than Garbo's and so her absence from films never really contributed to any aloof star mystique; as the decades progressed she unjustly became somewhat forgotten and by the time the vogue in classical Hollywood nostalgia reached its apex her health had already begun to decline. Shearer did enjoy four decades of marriage, though, to her second husband, a former ski instructor and land developer she met and married in 1942. Her brother, Douglas Shearer (1899-1971), was a pioneering sound technician who won 12 Oscars and developed several key technical innovations.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992) (Archival Footage)
2.
 We Were Dancing (1942) Vicki Wilomirska
3.
 Her Cardboard Lover (1942) Consuelo Croyden
4.
 Escape (1940) Countess [Ruby] Von Treck
5.
 Idiot's Delight (1939) Irene
6.
 The Women (1939) Mrs. Stephen Haines, Mary
7.
 Marie Antoinette (1938) Marie Antoinette
8.
 Romeo and Juliet (1936) Juliet, daughter to Capulet
9.
 The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) Elizabeth Barrett
10.
 Riptide (1934) [Lady] Mary [Rexford]
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1920:
Moved with mother, brother, and sister to New York; began appearing in films in bit parts (e.g., "The Flapper" and D.W. Griffith's "Way Down East")
:
Worked as model; appeared as "Miss Lotta Miles" in tire advertisements
1923:
Signed with MGM; moved to California
1924:
Began appearing in leading roles; had major successes in "He Who Gets Slapped" and "The Snob"
1925:
Appeared in single loan-out during two-decade tenure at MGM, in "Waking Up the Town"
1929:
Made successful talkie debut, "The Trial of Mary Dugan"
1932:
Appeared on exhibitors' poll of ten most popular boxoffice stars for three years in a row, in sixth, ninth and tenth place, respectively
1933:
Took lengthy vacation in Europe with Thalberg as he recovered from heart attack
1934:
Returned to films; made two popular films, "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" and "Riptide"
1935:
Took another year off from filmmaking to give birth to daughter Katherine; began preliminary work toward the end of the year on "Romeo and Juliet" (1936)
:
Death of Thalberg; retreat into seclusion; contracted pneumonia
1937:
Resisted a flat settlement with MGM regarding Thalberg's estate; held MGM executives to an agreement Thalberg had forged: successfully fought for her stock and for a percentage of the profits made on all films produced from the inception of MGM in 1924 through the end of December, 1938
1937:
Successfully returned to films to make "Marie Antoinette", which Thalberg had prepared for production; signed six-picture deal with MGM at $150,000 per film
:
Turned down starring roles in "Gone With the Wind" and "Mrs. Miniver" (dates approximate)
1939:
Starred in what is perhaps her best-remembered film, the all-star, all-female "The Women"
1942:
Last film, "Her Cardboard Lover"
1943:
Turned down co-starring but secondary role opposite Bette Davis in "Old Acquaintance"
1946:
Made preliminary agreement to star in films for producer David Lewis' Enterprise Productions; company had financial problems; no films made
1947:
Discovered Janet Leigh (nee Jeanette Morrison) while on skiing vacation; helped set up screen test for her at MGM
:
Turned down offer by producer David Merrick to star in Broadway revival of "Lady in the Dark" in the early 1950s
1957:
Selected Robert Evans to play the role of Irving Thalberg in a film about the life of film star Lon Chaney, "Man of a Thousand Faces"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Westmount High School: -
Montreal High School for Girls: Montreal , Quebec - 1912 - 1914

Notes

Some sources list August 11 as the date of Ms. Shearer's birth, but public records indicate that the August 10 date is correct.

Besides Oscar win for "The Divorcee" (1930), Shearer was also nominated for "Their Own Desire" (1930, multiple nominations for the same year then possible under Academy rules of the time), "A Free Soul" (1931), "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1934), "Romeo and Juliet" (1936), and "Marie Antoinette" (1938).

Shearer had a slight cast in her left eye as a child which became less noticeable as she grew into adulthood. The observant can still notice it in some shots in her films, but cinematographers filmed her carefully and Shearer did therapeutic exercises to minimize its presence.

Among Shearer's admirers were F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wanted her to play Nicole in a film version of his novel, "Tender Is the Night" and used her as the model for a character in his short story, "Crazy Sunday".

Actor Robert Morley, appearing with Shearer in "Marie Antoinette" (1938), reportedly once asked her, "How did you become a movie star?" She replied, "I wanted to!" --reported by Lambert's "Norma Shearer" 1990.

"In her final years, Norma Shearer, looking and behaving more like Miss Haversham than one of the 1930s big movie stars, would clutch the wrists of friends visiting her at the Motion Picture Country House hospital in the San Fernando Valley and ask, 'Are you Irving? Were we married?'" --Leah Rozen in her review of Gavin Lambert's "Norma Shearer" in People, June 25, 1990.

In his later years, Alfred Hitchcock would reportedly lament the absence of movie queens in contemporary cinema by asking, "Where are the Norma Shearers?" --reported by Gavin Lambert in his 1990 biography "Norma Shearer".

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
Irving G Thalberg. Producer, executive. Born on May 30, 1899 with congenital heart defect in Brooklyn; married from September 29, 1927 until his death on September 14, 1936 of lobar pneumonia; nicknamed 'The Boy Wonder' and 'The Oracle' for his rapid rise to executive status and his ability to produce hit films.
companion:
James Stewart. Actor. Involved after Thalberg's death.
companion:
George Raft. Actor. Popular star in action films and melodramas of the 1930s and 40s; became romantically involved with Shearer in 1940; attempted to get a divorce from his estranged wife, but she refused; relationship ended later that year.
companion:
Howard Hughes. Producer, industrialist. Had relationship after Thalberg's death.
companion:
Mickey Rooney. Actor. Rooney was still a teenager when they embarked on their relationship.
husband:
Martin Jacques Arrouge. Ski instructor, later real estate developer and entrepreneur. Born on March 23, 1914 in San Francisco; married from August 23, 1942 until Shearer's death; remarried in 1985; died in L.A. on August 8, 1999 at age 85.
VIEW COMPLETE COMPANION LISTING

Family close complete family listing

grandfather:
James Shearer. Carpenter, later a successful timber merchant. Grew up in northern highlands of Scotland; moved to Canada in 1843.
father:
Andrew Shearer. Born c. 1864; died in 1944; took over father's business, which later failed; divorced from Shearer's mother; remarried c. 1931, second wife's name Elizabeth.
mother:
Edith Shearer. Born in 1873 in Islington, Ontario; left her husband with the children after he was unable to provide for them.
brother:
Douglas Shearer. Sound technician and designer. Born on November 17, 1899; died in 1971; long with MGM.
sister:
Athole Shearer. Born in 1900; married to film director Howard Hawks c. 1928-40; died in 1984.
son:
Irving Thalberg Jr. Professor of philosophy. Born August 25, 1930; died of cancer in 1987 at age 57.
daughter:
Katherine Stirling. Bookstore owner. Born on June 13, 1935; at one time married to actor Richard Anderson (perhaps best remembered from TV's "The Six Million Dollar Man"); as of September 1991 owner of the Explorers Bookshop in Aspen, Colorado; married to Bill Stirling.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"The Films of Norma Shearer" Citadel Press
"Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer" St. Martin's Press
"Norma Shearer" Alfred A. Knopf

Contributions

Frederick Bristol ( 2006-06-23 )

Source: The Norma Shearer Yahoo Group.

Katherine Thalberg passed away on January 5, 2006 after a two-year battle with cancer, at the age of 70.

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