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1942 was a memorable year for MGM: it marked the departure of two of its greatest icons, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. Crawford, Shearer's long-time screen rival, was unceremoniously dumped by Mayer and later found success at Warner Brothers. Shearer, however, was irrevocably shaken from her string of celluloid failures, missed casting opportunities, and - at 42 - the sad realization of no longer being the young, alluring starlet she once was. After the underwhelming performance of Her Cardboard Lover (1942), Shearer made her decision with understated finality. From her bio by Gavin Lambert, "When Norma turned down Mayer's offer of a new contract, she didn't say that she had decided to retire from the screen, only that she needed a long vacation 'to think things over.' As her limousine left the studio, there was no farewell, and to the gateman, The Queen of the Lot was simply going home."
Twenty-two years earlier, Edith Norma Shearer was eking out a living using whatever god-given talents and the make-up palette could provide. Author Jane Ellen Wayne describes the actress in The Golden Girls of MGM, "In spite of a cast in one eye, lack of facial bone structure and a stubby figure, she personified glamour through sheer determination. She was not a great actress but she learned the tricks of the trade and used them to her advantage." Signed to MGM by her future husband and studio wunderkind Irving Thalberg in 1923, Shearer appeared in the Lon Chaney classic silent He Who Gets Slapped (1924), but after her 1927 marriage to Thalberg, she had her pick of the scripts. (During the engagement, a frustrated Crawford lamented, "What chance do I have? She's sleeping with the boss.") Shearer had a total of five Oscar® nominations for Best Actress and one win, for The Divorcee (1930). George Cukor had directed her in Romeo and Juliet (1936) and The Women (1939), with Crawford in second billing. When Shearer selected the farcical comedy Her Cardboard Lover over Now, Voyager (1942) as her next project, Cukor was tapped again. Irving Thalberg, Jr. was quoted as saying, "I recall my mother's admiration for Cukor, and her feeling that he got top performances from her and many other actors and actresses." Shearer's costar in Escape (1940), Robert Taylor was cast as her love interest and George Sanders as her other love interest.
Cukor had another connection to the production: he had directed the theatre version with Laurette Taylor and Leslie Howard in the 1920's, making his only work to appear on stage and screen. The film rights to Her Cardboard Lover were originally purchased by MGM as a silent vehicle for Marion Davies, long-time paramour of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, in 1928. Buster Keaton starred in a talkie version titled Le Plombier Amoureaux (The Passionate Plumber, 1932). The story had its variations, but the basic premise of a woman employing a hired man to pose as her lover in order to dissuade an insistent ex-husband bent on reconciliation remained essentially the same. Timing is everything, and in George Cukor by Gene D. Phillips, the author explains, "By the time the Cukor version came along, however, the Legion of Decency had been formed to rate the moral suitability of films for its Roman Catholic constituency; and the Legion frowned on divorce as a plot ingredient for a film." In the absence of a formal rating system, the Legion of Decency was a powerful force to be reckoned with in those days. As a result, the plot was quickly altered to feature an ex-boyfriend, rather than ex-husband. This change, while seemingly minor, served to undermine the driving action of the film; critics and audiences wondered why a character would go to such lengths to fend off an old suitor.
This plot device, however, was the least of Her Cardboard Lover's concerns. There was an even more critical factor in the lackluster success of the film. Although Cukor readily agreed to helm the film, he later admitted, "But now I wish I hadn't. The plot was already too dated to engage a wartime audience." Indeed, with the United States in the throes of World War II, moviegoers were much more attracted to patriotic dramatic fare like Mrs. Miniver (1942). The film that made a star of Greer Garson was passed on by Shearer, who balked at the thought of playing a middle-aged woman. It was just one more example of a golden opportunity refused by the actress (Now, Voyager was a huge hit for Bette Davis). Even co-star Robert Taylor put it bluntly: "There was a war going on so I had more important things on my mind." The coup de grace was the Queen herself: after over two decades in film, she no longer had the drive or ambition of her youth. Her biography explains, "During Her Cardboard Lover, Cukor had noted that Norma's creative energy was lower than usual. Because he knew how to handle her as an actress, and was personally fond of her, he succeeded in recharging it. She worked at the part, not just at fabricating a youthful image...but 'there were times when she seemed distracted.'" For a woman whose career was defined by drive and determination, it was the end of the road, and for film, the end of an era. She exited quietly and with grace, commenting shortly after the film's opening, "An actress must never lose her ego - without it, she has no talent."
Producer: J. Walter Ruben
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Jacques Deval, John Collier, Anthony Veiller, William H. Wright
Cinematography: Robert H. Planck, Harry Stradling, Sr.
Film Editing: Robert Kern
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Burton Lane, Franz Waxman
Cast: Norma Shearer (Consuelo Croyden), Robert Taylor (Terry Trindale), George Sanders (Tony Barling), Frank McHugh (Chappie Champagne), Elizabeth Patterson (Eva).
by Eleanor Quin