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Star of the Month: Norma Shearer
Remind Me

Norma Shearer Profile

Get one idea out of your head right now: Norma Shearer did not become the queen of the MGM lot because of her marriage to production-chief Irving G. Thalberg. Sure, he had done his bit to help her career, making sure she was dressed, made up and photographed well, and he bought prestigious properties to showcase her talents. But he couldn't force audiences to buy tickets to her films. And they did, particularly large numbers of young women who embraced her as one of their own. Shearer's fans went to her films to learn how to dress and how to behave, but they kept coming back because her portrayals of demure women with a fire burning inside taught them how to dream.

In truth, Shearer's stardom was a product of one of the strongest wills in Hollywood. She literally willed herself to be glamorous, beautiful and a star. After some modeling work as a child, she convinced her mother to take her to New York in pursuit of acting roles. And even though Broadway producer Flo Ziegfeld and film legend D.W. Griffith told her she wasn't beautiful enough to become a star, she kept working, rising from extra work to featured roles to leads.

A supporting role as a sweet young thing in Warner's Lucretia Lombard (1923) caught the eye of Irving G. Thalberg, who signed her to the fledgling Metro Productions and set out to make her a star. Her career took a big jump in 1924 when Thalberg cast her opposite established stars Lon Chaney and John Gilbert in the first MGM release, He Who Gets Slapped. Shearer would later speak kindly of Chaney's help on the film and the influence he had on perfecting her acting style.

Shearer had no trouble making the transition to talking films, possessing a simple, natural delivery with a musical lilt to it. Her growing legions of fans got their first earful when Thalberg had a talking sequence added to the end of The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), one of the many hit plays he bought for her. Often she wound up playing roles created on Broadway by some of the stage's greatest legends. She inherited her first all-talkie, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929), from Ina Claire; The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) from Katharine Cornell; Strange Interlude (1932) from Lynn Fontanne; and Private Lives (1931) from Gertrude Lawrence. According to Hollywood legend, Thalberg even made a film of Lawrence and co-stars Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier performing the latter play so the movie's cast could "steal" their performances, although any such film appears to have been lost.

Another 1929 film set the tone for many of Shearer's roles in the early sound days. In Their Own Desire, she played a young woman who falls in love with a young man (Robert Montgomery) who turns out to be the son of the woman who stole her father from his family. The film's combination of slightly daring sexual material with romance, sparkling wit and some sentiment would prove a surefire box office hit.

Shearer's marriage almost proved a disadvantage when MGM picked up the screen rights to a daring tale of divorce and infidelity, The Divorcee (1930). Thalberg didn't think she was sexy enough for the role of a woman who decides to match her straying husband infidelity for infidelity. To win the role, she enlisted George Hurrell, whom she would help become one of Hollywood's top still photographers, to shoot her in a variety of sexy poses. Thalberg gave her the role, which won her an Oscar® for Best Actress.

More sexy roles followed, most notably as the society girl involved with brutal gangster Clark Gable in A Free Soul (1931). Thalberg decided to make their scenes more powerful by having Gable rough Shearer up on camera. It made Gable a star and Shearer an even bigger star. This was also one of the first films for which, at her urging, designer Adrian had undergarments built into her slinky, bias-cut evening gowns. Even though Jean Harlow would eventually be most associated with that style, Adrian would always refer to them as "Norma's nightgowns." After another of her steamy romances, Riptide (1934), in which she leaves snobbish husband Herbert Marshall for old flame Robert Montgomery, Shearer cut back on her screen appearances, partly to care for her husband, who had developed heart problems, and partly to confine herself to prestige productions like Romeo and Juliet (1936).

When Thalberg died in 1936, she took a year off and wanted to retire from the screen, but MGM's stockholders convinced her to sign a new, five-year contract. At the same time, studio head Louis B. Mayer tried to con her out of her husband's MGM stock holdings, only to discover just how tough Shearer could be.

Thalberg had been planning another prestige production for Shearer when he died, and that would be her first film back at MGM. In period regalia and with an impressive cast including John Barrymore and Tyrone Power, she dominated the screen as the flighty Marie Antoinette (1938). But without Thalberg guiding her career, she started to falter at the box office. Idiot's Delight (1939) proved a mistake, with most critics comparing her unfavorably to Fontanne. Fortunately she bounced back with The Women (1939), standing toe-to-toe with accomplished comic actresses like Rosalind Russell and Mary Boland to play a woman fighting to win her husband back from opportunistic shop girl Joan Crawford.

Shearer ushered in the '40s with Escape (1940), a daring for its time anti-Nazi film. But then she took on two ill-advised stage adaptations. Adapted from a short play by Noel Coward, We Were Dancing (1942) seemed out of touch with the times, casting Shearer as a socialite in love with society freeloader Melvyn Douglas. It was a rare box-office dud for the star. When she followed it the same year with Her Cardboard Lover, adapted from a stage farce that had worked for Jeanne Eagels and Tallulah Bankhead (in the '20s), the film's failure convinced her to retire from the screen.

Earlier, Shearer had turned down the role of Scarlett O'Hara, knowing producer David O. Selznick had only offered it to her as a courtesy. She had even quipped that she'd rather play Rhett Butler. The year she retired, she turned down Mrs. Miniver (1942) because she didn't want to play a woman with a grown son. Shortly after her retirement, she shocked Hollywood by marrying a ski instructor 20 years her junior (but not until he'd signed one of the industry's first pre-nuptial agreements).

Shearer lived out her retirement in luxury. Although she never acted again, she maintained her ties with the industry and even recommended Janet Leigh for an MGM contract. When Universal filmed Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), the biography of Lon Chaney, she personally chose garment district executive Robert Evans to play her late husband, launching the career of one of Hollywood's most successful modern producers.

by Frank Miller

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