JAN / FEB 2016: BY LILA DONOVAN
Norma Shearer (August 10, 1902-June 12, 1983) was born to a wealthy family in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Around World War I her family lost their fortune. Certain sources say she was born in 1900 and others claim she was born in 1904. Many actresses in Hollywood’s Golden Age lied about their age and backgrounds so they could get a foot in the door in Hollywood.
Shearer’s mother decided to take her and her sister Athole to New York City for a new start, leaving her husband and son behind. Shearer was a child model and won a beauty contest when she was 14. Her mother had high hopes that she could restore their family fortune.
In New York City, Shearer was rejected by Ziegfeld’s Follies by Ziegfeld himself for having “stubby” legs and looking cross eyed. She was turned down by D.W. Griffith for similar reasons. She eventually decided to get help from Dr. William Bates, who had some controversial theories on treating unaligned eyes and bad vision. Even to this day many doctors don’t agree with his methods. He gave Norma a series of eye exercises that she believed helped her in her acting career.
Eventually she landed modeling jobs and a few small acting roles. Shearer first started appearing in movies in the early Roaring Twenties. It was an exciting time to be alive, especially because there were many cultural, social, and artistic events and changes around the world. Art deco and jazz music were popular, patriotism was encouraged, and flappers challenged the roles of women in society.
Society became industrialized as people left farms for cities, women won the right to vote, and there was a widespread of technology among the masses such as telephones, movies, air conditioning, refrigerators, cars, etc. Norma was even in a movie that paid homage to the changing times, she was cast uncredited in The Flapper, and eventually after a few years in New York City, she was invited to come to Hollywood to do a screen test. She had to retake it, since the first one was a disaster. She blamed the strong lights on making her cross-eyed. Even after the retake, it still took some time to find a leading role. Norma was able to secure a contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
Her brother Douglas visited them and decided to remain in Hollywood. He was also able to secure a job at MGM in the sound department. Douglas helped Norma transition from silent to “talkie” films. When talkies became popular many famous A-list actors and actresses didn’t have the voices to make a successful transition, so Douglas prepared his sister so she would sound good when she spoke into a microphone.
In 1925 her career took off and once she married MGM studio head Irving Thalberg in 1927, he gave her a pick of roles, co-stars, directors, and helped her avoid being typecast. He guided her career. She was nicknamed “The First Lady of MGM” and was one of the top actresses along with Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.
Up until 1934, Norma made a lot of films; some like The Divorcee were considered risqué. It deals with infidelity on both parties, scheming, and finally divorce. These movies are Pre-Code. Many Roman Catholics and Protestants found the Pre-Code films offensive and organized boycotts. Sometimes the boycotts didn’t work as they made people want to see the films even more. In 1934 there was an enforcement for films to have morals called the Motion Picture Production Code. This was supposed to take out sexual innuendo, profanity, violence, promiscuity, infidelity, and anything else considered degenerate out of films.
I do understand why many Americans were upset with Pre-Code films because when you see infidelities, divorce, and drug use consistently in movies and TV shows, it seems like Hollywood studios want to normalize it. Some of the Pre-Code movies showed characters profiting from their evil. At the same time when Hollywood wanted to address social issues on screen and not normalize them, they sometimes couldn’t due to the censorship of the production code. The production code had both good and bad consequences.
Norma enjoyed a thriving film career throughout the twenties and thirties. She had two children with Thalberg. In 1936, he passed away and even though she was financially comfortable Norma decided to continue acting. She turned down leads for Gone with the Wind and Mrs. Miniver. She decided to make Marie Antoinette (1938) and The Women (1939). In 1942 her film Her Cardboard Lover flopped. Norma never made any statements about retiring but she decided to take an early retirement. After Thalberg, Norma dated and even had an affair with a married George Raft. However, Raft’s wife wouldn’t allow a divorce and Norma was pressured by a studio head to end the affair and move on.
She eventually did move on and found a former ski instructor, Martin Arrougé; she was married to him until her death. Today, Norma is remembered for Marie Antoinette (1938) and The Women (1939). She’s also remembered for Pre-Code films like The Divorcee and Smilin’ Through. Not all of Norma’s pre-code films were scandalous, Smilin’ Through (1932) deals with ex-lovers reunited after the war. It’s a bittersweet drama. Toward the end of her life, Shearer retreated from the Hollywood social scene and led a more private life. Shearer has both a Canadian and Hollywood Walk of Fame and has enjoyed a revival to new generations on Turner Classic Movies. ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lila Donovan is a Christian and a university student. She loves to read, draw, write, and has a blog.