Norma Shearer, like some of her
contemporaries – most famously the queen of the silent era and movie mogul
Mary Pickford – originally hailed from north of the border
in Canada. From these beginnings
(some would argue they were humble), she went on to become a huge movie star,
earning the moniker of The First Lady of MGM. Queen Norma, as she was also
called, has rightfully earned her place on the marquees of our collective
imagination, especially as we look back and remember the era before the movies
could talk and the flagrant gestures of the silent era were quelled.
Norma Shearer was born Edith Norma
Shearer – after her mother – on August 10, 1900, in Montréal, Quebec, Canada.
While her father served loyally to his country, working as a policeman for the
famed (and often spoofed) Royal Canadian Mounted Police, it seems her mother was
more cosmopolitan by nature, exposing her two daughters to what the world had to
offer. After a modest, typical childhood, Norma’s good looks were becoming
increasingly noticed; she won a beauty pageant when she was fourteen.
In 1920, Edith Shearer took Norma and
her sister to New York City, where – and here’s where Norma’s story doesn’t
follow the traditional trajectory – she was actually turned down when she tried
to become a Ziegfeld Follies girl, a role that made so many other young ladies
famous at that time, and one so iconic that several feature films were made that
harkened back to the Ziegfeld days of burlesque entertainment. As an aside, it
should also be noted at this point that Norma wasn’t the only daughter trying to
break into the biz – her sister Ahtole Shearer was also trying to become an
entertainer. While she only ended up doing extra work on a few films in 1920,
she is probably more notable for who she married: none other than Howard Hawks,
legendary Hollywood director of some popular and critically acclaimed films in
the 1930s and 1940s. Norma and Athole’s brother Douglas was also afflicted with
the movie bug – he became a noted (some might say maverick) sound engineer,
doing recording for over 900 films between 1928 and 1955.
But back to Norma – once she left
Canada, she never looked back. After being rejected by Ziegfeld, she didn’t give
up, and began her career doing extra work. It was here that the petite beauty
(she was 5”1 inches) caught the attention of future mogul Irving Thalberg, and
when he ultimately joined Louis B. Mayer at what would become MGM, he procured a
five year contract for her. This was 1923, and it wasn’t only the beginning of
her working relationship with Thalberg – they soon married, in 1927. She also
converted to Judaism, and eventually had two children with Thalberg. So when her
contract was up he thought she should throw in the towel and become more …
domesticated, but she was an ambitious young actress and wanted to move forward
with her career.
Norma, like most of her peers, worked
very prolifically during the silent era, making such films as:
The Flapper, Way Down East,
Restless Sex (with her sister, all 1920); The Sign on the Door
(1921); The Man Who Paid (1922); The Devil’s Partner (1923);
The Trail of the Law, Blue Water (both 1924); Waking Up the Town,
Pretty Ladies (1925); The Devil’s Circus (1926); and The Demi-Bride
and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927).
Norma then went on to do
what many of her peers could not: she began (successfully) making films in the
talkie era. Her first sound film
was The Trial of Mary Dugan(1929, a
film that shows how genres, like crime-centered biopics, tend to get recycled
over the decades). She continued to go strong, making three more films before
she tackled a starring role in The Divorcée (1930). Her hard work paid
off; she won the Best Actress Academy Award for this role. This film would also
inaugurate her involvement in a series of films that were made before the 1934
Production Code took effect – the Code severely limited the amount of lewdness
that could be shown on screen, and Norma thus became one of Hollywood’s first
uninhibited screen sirens. These films included turns alongside up and coming
leading men such as Robert Montgomery in Private Lives (1931) and
Riptide (1934) and Clark Gable in A Free
Soul (1931) and Strange Interlude (1932). She was also nominated in 1930 for her role in Their
Own Desire, also featuring Montgomery, though sadly not available today.
At this point in her
career, however, Norma was ready to slow down, and she began to be more
selective with her film choices; she morphed from “modern girl” to doing more
restrained, quiet dramatic roles, in both the comedic and tragic genres. Many of
the roles she did end up taking were big, starring roles in some of Thalberg’s
more high-profile projects. Among these were: Private Lives (1931),
Smilin’ Through (1932), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), and
Romeo and Juliet (1936, a role which earned her a fifth Oscar nomination).
Tragically, two years later, Thalberg died at the young age of 37, of pneumonia.
After this, Norma
strongly desired retirement, but she was stuck; MGM was making a lot of money
off of her, and more or less coerced her into a six-film contract under the
tutelage of David O. Selznick. To be fair, he wanted great things for her; he
even offered her the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, but
by then there was a public outcry about this choice, so the role went to Vivien
Leigh – according to the New York Times, Norma received a lot of fan mail
telling her she was unsuited to the part, and the MGM publicity department
Her persona remained
recognizable throughout her career, but after Thalberg’s death, she seemed to
prefer to take roles in smaller, more quirky films, and she excelled at this as
well. She did, though, star in Marie Antoinette (1938, apparently her
favorite role, for which she garnered another Oscar nomination), and then in
The Women (1939, with Joan Crawford, their only role together amid a rumored
rivalry), big roles in their own right. She was offered the lead in Mrs. Miniver (1942), and she (unwisely) turned it down; it ended up becoming one
of MGM’s top-grossing films to date and by far the most popular of the “British
films” made in Hollywood about WWII during the war.
Norma actually ended up
retiring that year. Her last film was the underwhelming The Cardboard Lover,
which she completed and happily moved onto a life out of the razzle dazzle of
Hollywood. After several affairs with celebrities – including Mickey Rooney –she
remarried that year, to a ski instructor in Sun Valley, Martin Arrouge, 27 years
her junior. By then she already wasn’t in the greatest of health, and she turn a
major turn for the worse in the last ten years of her life. She died on June 12,
1983 in Woodland Hills, California, also of pneumonia, and is buried next to
In the case of Norma
Shearer, her legend precedes her, and these words can only begin to do justice
to the ethereal beauty and magnetic screen life she enjoyed for so many years,
in so many different types of films, and to such great acclaim. She is truly the
stuff Hollywood is made of.
# Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of
Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Tammy invites you to write her at email@example.com with any questions or comments on her column.