Norma Shearer: The Forgotten Queen of Hollywood

The camera did not love Norma Shearer.  

According to Adele Roger St. John, a contributor to Photoplay, one of America’s first film fan magazines founded in 1911,

“She had the slowest rise to stardom than any actor or actress I’ve seen.”

Her body had odd proportions. Arms and legs were short and squat and chubby. Two of the premier impresarios of entertainment in the 1910’s (D.W. Griffith & Florenz Ziegfeld) told the young Norma she would never be a star. But when asked on the set of her career’s crown jewel, 1938’s Maria Antoinette how she became a star, she replied,

“Because I wanted to.”

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Despite the fact that she was a driven woman, despite the fact that she married the producer prince, Irving Thalberg and became the Queen of MGM, and by default the Queen of Hollywood, and ignoring her six Oscar nominations for best actress, she has largely been forgotten by today’s generation. But why? Perhaps because she wasn’t as subdued and exotic as Greta Garbo or as physically striking as Joan Crawford, her MGM contemporaries. Norma didn’t linger like Joan Crawford, who went on to receive three Oscar nominations at other studios and would continue on until her last film in 1970.  However, Shearer, like Garbo, retired from the screen permanently at the age of 42, compared to Garbo’s 36; both in 1942.

Throughout the 1960’s and into the 1980’s it was popular to say Norma Shearer only became a star because of her husband. It is worth noting that the availability of her Oscar winning film, 1930’s The Divorcee, and her other pre-code films were not readily available during that time.  But with Ted Turner’s launch of TCM in 1994, people began to reevaluate Norma Shearer. Suddenly people were able to see her play a wife who sleeps with her husband’s best friend to exact revenge for his infidelity, to which she admits to him with the classic line, “I’ve balanced our accounts.” Then we got to see her play a lawyer’s daughter who sleeps with her father’s gangster client, played by Clark Gable in his first starring role, in 1931’s A Free Soul. She seduces him wearing a braless gown; she gently lies back on a bed, arches her back, and reaches out for him saying, “C’mon, put ‘em around me.”

Perhaps more importantly in justifying her timeless stardom should be in noting that her two most famous films, 1938’s Marie Antoinette and 1939’s The Women came out after her husband’s death. It has been said that the 1937 death of Irving Thalberg is what derailed her emotionally. After his death she renewed her contract with MGM for six additional films, fought studio head Louis B. Mayer over financial benefits promised in her deceased husband’s contract, and then shortly after completing the second film in her contract (The Women) she just lost interest in her career.

Shearer in Marie Antoinette (far right)

Shearer in Marie Antoinette (far right) // photo courtesy of Warner Bros. and IMDB.com

Shearer in The Women (far right)

Shearer in The Women (far right) // photo courtesy of Warner Bros. and IMDB.com

Again, like Garbo, Norma ended her career with an out-of-date comedy unfit for wartime audiences. 1942’s Her Cardboard Lover was a flop critically and financially, she turned down a star making role in Mrs. Miniver, which turned Greer Garson into a household name (for the time) and won her an Oscar and Now, Voyager which is today remembered as one of Bette Davis’ greatest roles and earned her an Oscar nomination as well.  I should also point out that Norma Shearer had her pick of story material at MGM when she personally chose Her Cardboard Lover. A role that had been turned down by Joan Crawford, who was slowly being nudged out by the studio, and relative newcomer, Hedy Lamarr.

After the failure of Her Cardboard Lover, MGM still offered her a new contract to which she decided to “think on it” before signing on for more films. Norma drove out the studio gates, no fuss, no party, it was just like every other day except she would never return to the studio as one of their “stars”.  People have of course speculated over why she chose not to return, again like Garbo, she attempted to return to films in the late 40’s but projects fell through. One of Norma’s hobbies included finding undiscovered talent and representing them as they started their own careers. Producer Robert Evans (Godfather, Urban Cowboy) and actress Janet Leigh (Psycho, Touch of Evil) were her two most prominent discoveries.

The same year she retired from the screen was the same year she married ski instructor, Martin Arrouge; a man 11 years her junior. She remained married to him until her death in 1983.

It was during the early 1960s when she began to become a recluse to those outside of her family and close friends. The only one of her films she cared to watch in her later life was 1936’s Romeo and Juliet. During her last decade her health began to fail and she moved into The Motion Picture Company Home for her last three years, and then she began to suffer from dementia.  She would constantly mistake her husband of forty years for Irving Thalberg , to whom she had only been married to for ten and who had been dead for 46 years.

It is my hope that over the next few years people will begin to discover Norma Shearer again. With the new availability of her classic films (Marie Antoinette, The Women) as well as some of her forgotten gems (Escape, The Barrets of Wimpole Street, Idiot’s Delight) we now have a fantastic opportunity to reevaluate the career of one of our greatest motion picture actresses who has been looked over for too long.   

You can watch Shearer in 1939’s The Women below.

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