As we seem to be on somewhat of a birthday kick here at Backlots (so many stars were born in August!), this week we are celebrating the August 10 birthday of Norma Shearer, an actress personifying, for me, what it truly means to be a star. She began her career in silents, and unlike many of her contemporaries, eased seamlessly into talking pictures without blinking an eye. Her soothing, gentle voice was a real asset to her in making that transition, and her charming demeanor appealed to audiences both in the silent era and after movies began to talk.
She was born Edith Norma Shearer in Montréal, Quebec to a financially stable but emotionally volatile family. Her father had his own construction company, but struggled with what is now termed bipolar disorder, which would also affect Norma’s older sister Athole. Her mother Edith was a flamboyant socialite who encouraged her daughter to become a concert pianist–but when Norma showed more interest in becoming an actress, her mother was not opposed. She was concerned, however, about what she thought to be Norma’s lack of beauty–shoulders too broad, hands too big, and a lazy right eye–and this was something that Norma noticed, too. Despite her reservations, she became determined to overcome these obstacles in her appearance, moved to New York, and landed a small role in a picture called The Stealers at Universal in 1921. She eventually made the trip to Hollywood, and having undergone treatment for her eye, she managed to procure a contract with Mayer Studios (soon to become MGM), headed by Louis B. Mayer and vice-president Irving Thalberg.
After a rocky start there, she was cast in Pleasure Mad, and when the company became MGM Studios in 1924, she was already becoming a big star. She was cast in their first official production, entitled He Who Gets Slapped (see Backlots’ review of this film here), and soon afterward she fell in love with MGM’s vice president, Irving Thalberg. They were married in 1927, and remained so until his death in 1936.
Shearer began in talking pictures in 1929, two years after The Jazz Singer (credited as the first “talking picture”) was released. The picture, The Trial of Mary Dugan, was a tremendous success, and Shearer’s career in talking pictures was assured. In 1930 she convinced her husband to allow her to play the lead role in a new film entitled The Divorcée, a racy piece about a woman who has an affair with her husband’s best friend. That film, too, was a hit, and Shearer won the Academy Award for Best Actress of 1930 for her role.
By this time, because of her success in films as well as her marriage to Thalberg, Shearer was known as “The Queen of MGM.” She was nominated 6 times for the Academy Award, and Joan Crawford, her MGM rival, famously complained that it was impossible to compete with her because “she’s sleeping with the boss.” Ironically enough, Crawford was Shearer’s stand-in during the filming of Lady of the Night (1925), in which Shearer played a dual role, when Crawford was an aspiring starlet.
After her husband’s death in 1936, Shearer began to cut back on film roles. She starred in Idiot’s Delight with Clark Gable in 1939, followed by The Women, a hilarious comedy starring an all-female cast, also in 1939. She retired for good in 1942, and married a second husband, Martin Arrougé. She lived a secluded life after retirement, and died in 1983 following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Norma Shearer is one of the great ladies of the early motion picture years. I am always happy when I see her movies playing at the classic movie theaters around my house, because it means that her glamor, acting talent, and beauty (and yes, she WAS beautiful, despite all she thought to the contrary) are not forgotten.
Here are some clips. Happy birthday, Norma!
Lady of the Night, 1925
The Women, 1939
Idiot’s Delight (1939) had two endings. Here are both of them. For those who haven’t seen the movie, I won’t say which is the real one!