Shearer was one of the most popular actresses in the world from the mid-1920s until her retirement in 1942. Her early films cast her as the girl-next-door but after her 1930 film The Divorcee, she played sexually liberated women in sophisticated contemporary comedies and dramas, as well as several historical and period films.
Unlike many of her MGM contemporaries, Shearer's reputation went into steep decline after her retirement. By the time of her death in 1983, she was in danger of being known only for her "noble" roles in the regularly-revived The Women and Romeo and Juliet or, at worst, as a forgotten star.
However, Shearer's legacy began to be re-evaluated in the 1990s with the publication of two biographies and the TCM and VHS release of her films, many of them unseen since the implementation of the Production Code some sixty years before. Focus shifted to her pre-Code "divorcee" persona, and Shearer was rediscovered as "the exemplar of sophisticated [1930's] woman-hood... exploring love and sex with an honesty that would be considered frank by modern standards. Simultaneously, Shearer's ten year collaboration with portrait photographer George Hurrell and her lasting contribution to fashion through the designs of Adrian were also recognized.
Today, Norma Shearer is widely celebrated as one of cinema's feminist pioneers: "the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen.
Norma’s childhood was spent in Montreal and was one of privilege due to the success of her father’s construction business — but the marriage between her parents was not a happy one. Andrew Shearer was prone to manic depression and “moved like a shadow or a ghost around the house”, while Edith was attractive, flamboyant and stylish, prompting gossip that she was a heroin addict and unfaithful to her husband. Neither rumor was ever proven, but Edith was clearly bored with her marriage very early on and focused her energy on Norma, whom she decided would one day become a famous concert pianist.
Talented, outgoing Norma did have an ear for music, but after seeing a vaudeville show for her ninth birthday, announced her intention to become an actress. Edith offered support but, as Norma entered adolescence, became secretly fearful that her daughter’s physical flaws would jeopardize her chances. Fortunately, Norma herself “had no illusions about the image I saw in the mirror”. She knew that she had a dumpy figure, with shoulders too broad, legs too sturdy, hands too blunt — and was also acutely aware of her small eyes that appeared crossed due to a cast in her right eye. But by her own admission, Norma was “ferociously ambitious, even as a young girl” and planned to overcome her deficiencies through careful camouflage, sheer determination and by wielding her greatest asset: charm.
The childhood and adolescence that Norma once described as “a pleasant dream” ended in 1918, when her older sister, Athole, suffered her first serious mental breakdown and her father’s company collapsed. Forced to move into a small, dreary house in an inferior Montreal suburb, the sudden plunge into poverty only strengthened Norma’s determined attitude: “At an early age, I formed a philosophy about failure. Perhaps an endeavor, like my father’s business, could fail, but that didn’t mean Father had failed.”
Edith Shearer was not so generous. Within weeks, she had left her husband and moved into a cheap boarding house with her two daughters. A few months later, encouraged by her brother, who believed his niece should try her luck in “the picture business”, then operating largely on the East Coast, Edith sold Norma’s piano and bought three train tickets for New York. Also in her pocket was a letter of introduction for Norma, acquired from a local theater owner, to Florenz Ziegfeld, currently preparing a new season of his famous Follies.
In January 1920, the three Shearer girls arrived in New York, each of them dressed up for the occasion. “I had my hair in little curls,” Norma remembered, “and I felt very ambitious and proud.” Her heart sank, however, when she saw their rented apartment: “There was one double bed, a cot with no mattress and a stove with one gas jet. The communal bathroom was at the end of a long dimly lit hallway. Athole and I took turns sleeping with mother in the bed, but sleep was impossible anyway — the elevated trains rattled right past our window every few minutes.”
The introduction to Ziegfeld proved equally disastrous — he turned Norma down flat, reportedly calling her a “dog”, and criticized her crossed eyes and stubby legs. But while most 17 year-olds might have been defeated by his cruel dismissal, Norma continued doing the rounds with her determination undimmed: “I learned that Universal Pictures was looking for eight pretty girls to serve as extras. Athole and I showed up and found fifty girls ahead of us. An assistant casting director walked up and down looking us over. He passed up the first three and picked the fourth. The fifth and sixth were unattractive, but the seventh would do, and so on, down the line until seven had been selected — and he was still some ten feet ahead of us. I did some quick thinking. I coughed loudly and, when the man looked in the direction of the cough, I stood on my tiptoes and smiled right at him. Recognizing the awkward ruse to which I’d resorted, he laughed openly and walked over to me and said, ‘You win, Sis. You’re Number Eight.’”
Other extra parts followed, including one in Way Down East, helmed by legendary director, D.W. Griffith. Taking advantage of a break in filming and standing shrewdly near a powerful arc light, Norma introduced herself to Griffith and began to confide her hopes for stardom. “The Master looked down at me, studied my upturned face in the glare of the arc, and shook his eagle head. Eyes no good, he said. A cast in one and far too blue; blue eyes always looked blank in close-up. You’ll never make it, he declared, and turned solemnly away.”
Still undeterred, Norma risked some of her savings on a consultation with Dr. William Bates, a pioneer in the treatment of incorrectly aligned eyes and defective vision. He wrote out a series of muscle-strengthening exercises that, after many years of daily practice, would successfully conceal Norma’s cast for long periods of time on the screen.
Norma spent hours in front of the mirror, exercising her eyes and striking poses that concealed or improved her physical flaws. At night, she sat in the galleries of Broadway theaters, studying the entrances of Ina Claire, Lynn Fontanne and Katherine Cornell — an education in star behavior that would serve as Norma’s only technical training as an actress.
In desperate need of money, Norma resorted to some modeling work, proving surprisingly successful. “I could smile at a cake of laundry soap as if it were dinner at the Ritz,” she later boasted. “I posed with a strand of imitation pearls. I posed in dust-cap and house dress with a famous mop, for dental paste and for soft drink, holding my mouth in a whistling pose until it all but froze that way.” Most famously, she became the new model for Springfield Tires, was bestowed with the title “Miss Lotta Miles” and depicted seated inside the rim of a tire, smiling down at traffic from a large floodlit billboard. Years later, MGM rival Joan Crawford would disparagingly refer to Shearer as “Miss Lotta Miles”.
Finally, a year after her arrival in New York, she received a break in film: fourth billing in a B-movie titled ‘The Stealers’ (1921). More silent films followed, all largely forgettable, but enough to bring her to the attention of producer Hal Roach, out from Hollywood searching for new talent. Early in 1923, after a successful meeting, Roach made Norma an offer on behalf of the Mayer Company, presided over by mogul Louis B. Mayer. After three years of hardship, Norma found herself signing a contract for $250 a week for six months, with options for renewal and a test for a leading role in a major film called ‘The Wanters’.
Norma left New York in the spring of 1923. Accompanied by her euphoric mother, with a signed contract in her luggage, Norma felt "dangerously sure of herself as her train neared Los Angeles. With the aura of a star, she disembarked, smiled and waited. And waited. After an hour, Norma realized that there would be no roses, no limousine — not even a welcome from her new studio. Dispirited, she allowed Edith to hail them a taxi.
The next morning, Norma went to the Mayer Company on Mission Road to meet with the Vice-President, Irving Thalberg. Still annoyed by the station debacle, she introduced herself to the receptionist in a haughty manner. A moment later, a young man appeared. “Miss Shearer,” he said, “we’ve been expecting you.” Impressed with the high tone and good manners of Mr. Thalberg’s office-boy, Norma followed him down a corridor and into a small, modest office. There, to her amazement, he sat behind the desk, put his feet up and calmly and critically looked Norma up and down. “I’m Irving Thalberg,” he said, with a smile.
At only 23, Irving Thalberg was already a legend: Vice President of Mayer Productions, the youngest and most creative executive in the picture business. Although dubbed “The Boy Wonder” and famous for his exhaustive supervision of every picture produced by the studio, Irving was also physically frail, having suffered from a heart condition since childhood, and was not expected to live past thirty. Norma was momentarily thrown by their confused introduction, but soon found herself "impressed by his air of dispassionate strength, his calm self-possession and the almost black, impenetrable eyes set in a pale olive face.
Shearer was less impressed, however, with her first screen test: “The custom then was to use flat lighting — to throw a great deal of light from all directions, in order to kill all shadows that might be caused by wrinkles or blemishes. But the strong lights placed on either side of my face made my blue eyes look almost white, and by nearly eliminating my nose, made me seem cross-eyed. The result was hideous.”
The day after the test had been screened — disastrously, to Mayer and Thalberg — cameraman Ernest Palmer found Norma frantic and trembling in the hallway. Speaking with her, he was struck by her fierce, almost raging disappointment and, after viewing the test himself, agreed that she had been poorly handled. Under Palmer’s own supervision, a second test was made and judged a success by the studio brass. Norma was elated. The lead in ‘The Wanters’ seemed hers — until the film’s director objected, finding her “unphotogenic”. Again, Norma was to be disappointed, relegated to a minor role.
She accepted her next role in ‘Pleasure Mad’, knowing “it was well understood that if I didn’t deliver in this picture, I was through.” After only a few days of shooting, things were not looking good. Norma was struggling. Finally, the film’s director complained to Mayer that he could get nothing out of the young actress, and when summoned to Mayer’s office, Norma fully expected the axe to fall: “But to my surprise, Mr. Mayer’s manner was paternal. ‘There seems to be a problem,’ he said, ‘tell me about it.’ I told him that the director had shouted at me and frightened me. Nobody had warned me that Mayer was a better actor than any of us, and I was unprepared for what happened next. He staged an alarming outburst, screaming at me, calling me a fool and a coward, accusing me of throwing away my career because I couldn’t get on with a director. It worked. I became tearful, but obstinate. ‘I’ll show you!’ I said to him. ‘You’ll see!’ Delighted, Mayer resumed the paternal act. ‘That’s what I wanted to hear,’ he said, smiling.” Returning to the set, Norma plunged into a particularly emotional scene. “I took that scene lock, stock, and barrel, fur, fins and feathers,” she remembered, earning her the respect of her director and her studio. As a reward, Thalberg cast her in six films in eight months.
It was an apprenticeship that would serve Norma well. By the time Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was formed in 1924 and she was cast in the studio's first official production, He Who Gets Slapped, she was one of the best silent actors in the business, able to visually display subtle and believable thought on screen. Her physical deficiencies were no longer evident — in fact, the camera loved her.
So did the public. Norma’s improved looks and sharpened skills had turned her into one of MGM’s biggest box-office attractions. In 1925, she signed a new contract paying her $1,000 a week, rising to $5,000 over the next five years. Soon after, she bought a house for herself and Edith, right under the Hollywood Sign, at 2004 Vine. Despite endless setbacks and discouragement, Norma’s childhood ambition had become reality. She was a star.
Having become a star, Norma’s new challenge was to remain one. There were many other talented actresses at the studio and she realised she would have to fight hard to stay ahead of the pack. Seeing that sensational newcomer Greta Garbo was one of a kind, she went to Thalberg and "demanded recognition as one of another kind". It was just one of the many visits she paid to his office, always to plead for better material, better parts. Thalberg would listen patiently, then invariably advise Norma to keep toeing the line, that MGM knew best, and that the movies she complained about had made her a popular actress. Occasionally Norma would burst into tears, but this seemed to make “no more impression than rain on a raincoat”
Privately, Thalberg was very impressed. He admired Norma as a person as well as an actress: responding to her ambition and her capacity for hard work, her intelligence and sense of humour. Most of all, he identified with her determination to overcome physical obstacles that most people would have considered insurmountable. In a story conference, when Norma’s name was suggested to him for the part of a girl threatened with rape, Thalberg shook his head and, with a wry smile, said: “She looks too well able to take care of herself.”
Norma, for her part, found herself increasingly attracted to her boss. “Something was understood between us,” she claimed later, “an indefinite feeling that neither of us could analyse.” Irving’s appeal was not primarily sexual — what attracted Norma was his commanding presence and steely grace; the impression he gave that wherever he sat was always the head of the table. In spite of his youth, Thalberg became a father figure to the 23 year-old actress — the first real candidate for the role in her life.
At the end of a working day in July 1925, Norma received a phone call from Irving’s secretary, asking if she would like to accompany Mr. Thalberg to the premiere of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Suspecting that Irving was listening silently on the line, Norma told the secretary she would be delighted. That night, she and Thalberg made their first appearance as a couple.
A few weeks later, Norma went to Montreal to visit her father. While there, she had a reunion with an old school friend, who remembered: "At the end of lunch, over coffee, Norma leant in across the table. "I’m madly in love," she whispered. "Who with?" I asked. "With Irving Thalberg," she replied, smiling. I asked how Thalberg felt. "I hope to marry him," Norma said, and then, with the flash of the assurance I remembered so well, "I believe I will.
This was no impulsive whim on Norma’s part: she had given the idea years of thought. Love aside, she realized that marriage to the boss was a unique opportunity for her career — her wedding to Irving would, essentially, be a double ceremony, also seeing her crowned Queen of the MGM Lot. She also realized she would have to work quickly, for Irving was not only the youngest member of Hollywood’s ruling class, but also its only bachelor. With the same formidable will that had made her a movie star, Norma began rehearsing for her next assignment, the most important role of her life: Mrs. Irving Thalberg.
She could not afford to be subtle about it. To Joan Crawford, whose humiliating first job at MGM was to double for Norma in 1925’s Lady of the Night, it was obvious that the star was playing up to the boss — and that he was responding. “I don’t get it.” Joan commented. “She’s cross-eyed, knock-kneed and she can’t act worth a damn. What does he see in her?” Possessed of similar ambition and drive, Crawford would go on to become Norma’s chief rival at the studio.
"It is impossible to get anything major accomplished without stepping on some toes. Enemies are inevitable when one is a ‘doer’.” — Norma Shearer
Over the next two years, both Norma and Irving would see other people, but Hollywood insiders knew it was something of a charade — she was just waiting for him to propose. Louise Brooks remembered: “I held a dinner party sometime in 1926. All the place cards at the dinner table were books. In front of Thalberg’s place was Dreiser’s ‘Genius’ and in front of Norma’s place I put ‘The Difficulty of Getting Married’. It was so funny because Irving walked right in and saw ‘Genius’ and sat right down, but Norma kept walking around. She wouldn’t sit down in front of ‘The Difficulty of Getting Married’ – no way!”
Perhaps writer Anita Loos made the most astute comment: “Norma was intent on marrying the boss and Irving, preoccupied with his work, was relieved to let her make up his mind...”
By 1927, Shearer had made a total of thirteen silent films for MGM. Each had been produced for under $200,000 and had, without fail, been a substantial box office hit, often making a $200,000+ profit for the studio. She was rewarded for this consistent success by being cast in Ernst Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg — her first prestige production, with a budget of over $1,000,000. Although it was her first film to lose money, it was well received by critics and the public. Today, it is the best remembered of Shearer's silent films (most of her silent work is considered lost).
While she was finishing ‘The Student Prince’, Norma received a call summoning her to Thalberg’s office. She entered to find Irving sitting at his desk before a tray of diamond engagement rings. Looking up with a smile, he asked her to choose the one she liked best. Norma picked out the biggest.
On 29 September 1927, Norma and Irving were married in the Hollywood wedding of the year.
One week after the Thalberg marriage, The Jazz Singer was released. The first feature-length motion picture with sound, it effectively changed the cinematic landscape overnight and signaled the end of the silent motion picture era.
It also spelled the end of many silent careers — and Norma was determined hers would not be one of them. Fortuitously, her brother Douglas Shearer was instrumental in the development of sound at MGM, and every care was taken to prepare Norma for the microphone.
Her first talkie, The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), turned out to be a tremendous success. Shearer's "medium pitched, fluent, flexible Canadian accent — not quite American but not at all foreign was critically applauded, and thereafter widely imitated by other actresses, nervous about succeeding in talkies.
Despite the popularity of her subsequent early talking films, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and Their Own Desire (both 1929), Shearer knew the public would soon tire of her "good girl" image, and took the advice of friend and costar Ramon Novarro to visit an unknown photographer named George Hurrell. There she took a series of sexy portraits which convinced her husband that she could play the lead in MGM's racy new film, The Divorcee (1930).
Shearer won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in The Divorcee, and a series of highly successful pre-Code films followed, including Let Us Be Gay (1930), Strangers May Kiss (1931), A Free Soul (1931), Private Lives (1931) and Riptide (1934). All of these were box office hits, placing Shearer in competition with Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo as MGM's top actress through the remainder of the decade
Shearer's marriage to Thalberg gave her a degree of power in Hollywood that was resented by rivals such as Crawford, who complained that Shearer would always be offered the best roles and best conditions: "...after all, she's sleeping with the boss..
In the years following Norma's retirement, with many of her best performances rarely seen, Crawford's quote became the accepted truth, and Shearer was regarded as the ambitious but not overly talented actress who cunningly managed to marry the boss and become a big star. In reality, she was already MGM’s biggest female box-office attraction when she wed Thalberg, and would probably have become a star even if she’d never met him. Her reign as "Queen of MGM" did not end with Thalberg's death from pneumonia in 1936 but continued until her retirement. In fact, she remained a major asset for MGM, who lavished more attention and money on her post-1936 films than ever before.
Shearer showed her versatility by mixing her pre-code films with period dramas and theatrical adaptations. The sentimental Smilin' Through (1932), which co-starred Fredric March, was one of the most successful films of its year. An adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's four hour experimental Strange Interlude (1932), which also starred Clark Gable, was critically panned but still managed to turn a profit at the box office.
The enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 forced Shearer to drop her celebrated "free soul" image and move exclusively into period dramas and "prestige" pictures. Of these, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) would prove her most successful at the box office, making a profit of $668,000. The production costs of Romeo and Juliet (1936) (her first film of the 30's to lose money) and Marie Antoinette (1938) (a budget of almost $2,500,000) were too great for the studio to expect a profit, though their elaborate sets and costumes helped make the films immensely popular with audiences.
Shearer was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress on six occasions, winning for her role in The Divorcee in 1930. She was nominated the same year for Their Own Desire, for A Free Soul in 1931, The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1934, Romeo and Juliet in 1936, and Marie Antoinette in 1938 — reportedly her favorite role. Marion Davies later recalled that Shearer came to a party at San Simeon in her Marie Antoinette costume, which required removing the door so she could enter, and four chairs so she could sit at the table.
The Women (1939) followed, with an entirely female cast of more than 130 speaking roles. Although Shearer played the lead and received top-billing, her character was deemed too noble by critics and, to her chagrin, her long time rival Joan Crawford and a resurrected Rosalind Russell received the best reviews.
Norma Shearer was also one of the many actresses who was considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in [Gone With The Wind] (1939). However, Shearer had no interest whatsoever in the film. This is reflected in the statement: "I don't want to play Scarlett. The role I'd like to play is Rhett Butler!"
Critics praised the suspenseful atmosphere in her next film, Escape (1940), where she played the lover of a Nazi general who helps an American free his mother from a concentration camp. With increasing interest in the war in Europe, the film performed well at the box office, but Shearer was losing ground at MGM. A new breed of younger actresses was rising through the ranks, most notably Greer Garson, who began to be first choice for roles which (in Thalberg's time) would assuredly have been earmarked for Shearer.
Shearer also made some serious errors in judgement, passing up roles in Gone With the Wind, Now, Voyager and Mrs. Miniver. Instead, she made the forgettable We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover (1942), which both failed at the box office.
In 1942, Shearer unofficially retired from acting.
A year later, she was personally approached by Bette Davis to return to the screen as her co-star in Old Acquaintance, but Shearer refused to play the unsympathetic role of the catty best friend and hack romance novelist. The film was eventually made with Miriam Hopkins.
Following her retirement in 1942, she married Martin Arrougé (March 23, 1914-August 8, 1999), a former ski instructor twelve or fourteen years her junior. Confounding the skeptics, they were still happily married at the time of her death (from pneumonia and Alzheimer's disease) at 80 years old, although in her declining years she reportedly called Martin "Irving".
Shearer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6636 Hollywood Boulevard. She is entombed in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, in a crypt marked Norma Shearer Arrouge, along with her first husband Irving Thalberg. Her friend Jean Harlow is in the crypt next door. Thalberg's crypt was engraved "My Sweetheart Forever" by Shearer.