Friday, August 10, 2012

Why Norma Shearer is Signficant

It was 110 years ago today, on 10 August 1902, that actress Norma Shearer was born. Today her name is probably recognisable only to classic film buffs and people over a certain age, but the fact is that in the long run Norma Shearer may have been more significant than many of her fellow actors of the Silent Era and the days of the early talkies.

Indeed, Norma Shearer was one of those stars whose career spanned the Silent Era and the Golden Age of the Hollywood Talkie. Her first film role came with a bit part in 1919 in The Star Boarder. With He Who Gets Slapped in 1924 she became one of MGM's biggest stars. While a few stars of the Silent Era saw their careers end with the advent of talkies, Norma Shearer continued to be a major box office attraction. In fact, throughout the Thirties she continued to be one of MGM's major stars. From 1932 to 1935 Miss Shearer ranked in the Quigley's poll of the top box office stars three years in a row. She retired in 1942 after the failure of We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover at the box office. We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover were perhaps the first Norma Sheaerer movies to fail in years, so that over all she had a much more successful career than many more well known actors today.

Now it is a myth that many stars saw their careers either end or go into decline with the advent of talkies. And some might argue that the fact that Norma Shearer maintained her stardom after sound came to the movies is not that important, especially as there were other actors who also maintained their stardom or even became bigger stars (a prime example is Joan Crawford). That having been said, there were a few stars of the Silent Era, some of whom are better known names than Norma Shearer is now, who did not maintain their stardom following the advent of sound. There is perhaps no better example than Mary Pickford, arguably the biggest star of the Silent Era. Mary Pickford spent much of her career playing ingénues--young women if not outright little girls. In 1929 she attempted a more mature role in Coquette. While the film would earn her a Best Actress Award at the Oscars, it was not accepted by the public. Her next film, The Taming of the Shrew, bombed at the box office. With her movie going public refusing to accept her in more sophisticated roles and not being particularly fond of sound in film, Mary Pickford retired from acting in 1933.

Like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow is a better known name today than Norma Shearer, yet her stardom did not last very long into the era of the talkies either. Contrary to popular belief, it was neither Miss Bow's voice nor her Brooklyn accent that ended her career. Neither her fans nor Paramount had any objections to the quality of her voice. In fact, as of 1931 the  "It" Girl was still a top box office star. Instead Clara Bow's career ended due to a combination of personal crisis and a dislike of sound films. In 1931 she was beset by various scandals, including a court trial in which her former secretary, Daisy Devoe, was charged with stealing personal records and then blackmailing her. These scandals nearly drove Miss Bow to a nervous breakdown. As it was, she was not particularly fond of the talkies. She said in an interview published in The Motion Picture Classic, September 1930, "I hate talkies, they're stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there's no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me." Not particularly fond of talkies and with the stress of Hollywood stardom affecting her health, Clara Bow retired in 1933 after the success of her last two movies,  Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoop-La (1933).

While there were other actors who would maintain their stardom into the Talkie Era, then, there were those major stars who did not. The fact that Norma Shearer had a very successful career after the advent of sound film then makes her very significant. While she may not be a household name today, she maintained a career long after the advent of the talkies, something which neither Mary Pickford nor Clara Bow managed to do. In fact, it can be argued that Norma Shearer's career actually came into its own with the talkies.

Indeed, Norma Shearer accomplished something that Mary Pickford never did--she made dramatic shifts in the sort of roles she played throughout her career. During the Silent Era, Miss Shearer was generally cast as the "girl next door." Her breakthrough role in He Who Gets Slapped is to a large degree typical of her early roles. She played Consuelo, the beautiful horseback rider who becomes the love object of former scientist and circus clown Paul (Lon Chaney) and fellow horseback rider Bezano (John Gilbert). She played a similar role in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), that of Kathi, the love interest of Crown Prince Karl Heinrich (Ramón Novarro).  With the coming of the talkies and the advent of the Pre-Code Era, however, Norma Shearer's career would make a dramatic shift.

In most respects Miss Shearer's image in her early sound films was a continuation of her image during the Silent Era. In The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929) and Their Own Desire (1929) she played the same sort of "good girl" roles for which she was known. Even though all three movies were very successful, Norma Shearer worried that audiences might tire of her and thought perhaps she should change her image. Photographer George Hurrell took a number of photographs of Miss Shearer in a more erotic light that convinced producer and husband Irving Thalberg to cast her in The Divorcee (1930), one of the early, sexually suggestive, pre-Code films. Not only was The Divorcee a success, but Norma Shearer won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in the film.

The Divorcee marked a complete turnaround in the sort of roles Norma Shearer played. No longer did Miss Shearer play the girl next door, but instead a modern, sexually liberated woman. She would play such roles in Let's Be Gay (1930), Strangers May Kiss (1931), A Free Soul (1931), Private Lives (1931) and Riptide (1934). All of the films did very well at the box office, and she would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for A Free Soul. In the end Norma Shearer's pre-Code films would make her one of MGM's biggest stars, alongside Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. It would be a position she would maintain for the rest of the decade.

Norma Shearer's transformation from an actress who played the girl next door to an actress who played sexually liberated women is significant for more than its effect on her career. Norma Shearer was one of the very first actresses who played women who were in control of their own sex lives, who did not worry about what others might think of them, and who were largely in charge of their own destinies. Never mind that her pre-Code films were more sexually mature than many films released in the Silent Era, they were also among the earliest examples of independent women in American film. Indeed, it would seem that in many respects Norma Shearer should be a feminist icon.

Of course, during the Pre-Code Era, Norma Shearer did not only appear in racy comedies. In 1932 she appeared in the romantic drama Strange Interlude, set during World War I. The film would point to the next phase of Norma Shearer's career. In 1934 strict enforcement of the Production Code began, seriously restricting what could be said and shown on screen. This meant an end to the sort of racy comedies for which Norma Shearer had become known. It was then that Miss Shearer once more made a change in her career as she began appearing in "serious" films and period pieces. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), which centred on the romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) and Robert Browning (Fredric March), proved to be one of the most successful films of her career. Thereafter Miss Shearer appeared in several period pieces, including Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Marie Antoinette (1938). She was among the actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), although she was not interested in the role at all, going so far as to joke that she would rather play Rhett Butler. Miss Shearer would also appear in both classics The Women (1939) and Escape (1940).

In the end Norma Shearer was not only one of the most successful stars of the Twenties and Thirties, but she was also a pioneer, having played some of the earliest independent, sexually liberated women on screen. Some might attribute much of Norma Shearer's success to her marriage to Irving Thalberg, producer and vice president in charge of production at MGM. And there were those in the Thirties who certainly thought so. Joan Crawford, one of her rivals at MGM, once complained, "How can I compete with Norma when she's sleeping with the boss?" Certainly, her marriage to Irving Thalberg did have an impact on Norma Shearer's career. After all, it was due to Mr. Thalberg that she was cast in her breakthrough role in The Divorcee. That having been said, one should perhaps not overestimate the impact of Irving Thalberg on Norma Shearer's career. After all, Mary Pickford was not only married to a powerful film producer (Douglas Fairbanks), but was a powerful film producer and studio executive (at United Artists) herself, yet she failed to expand beyond the ingénue roles she had always played and did not last long in the Sound Era. If Irving Thalberg had not been a part of Norma Shearer's life, then it seems likely that she would have still had a sterling career.

Norma Shearer may not be a household name today, but there is every reason she should be. Her career spanned the Silent Era and the Sound Era, and she was a star during both. She successfully changed the sort of roles she played, not once but twice. Initially playing the girl next door, she switched to playing sexually liberated women and then to playing in period pieces and prestige pictures. She was a pioneer as an actress in that she was one of the first actresses to play sexually liberated women on screen. Her Pre-Code comedies were sophisticated and seem starkly modern in their honest approach to love and sex. While today Norma Shearer may not be as well known as Clara Bow or Joan Crawford, then, there is every reason she should be.


Unknown said...

I keep trying to ask people (sorry this is not relevant,) how you can follow a blogger blog now, because there isn't a "follow this blog" thing at the top anymore. And this is the one place where I actually do (or did) that.

Um, good essay!

grandoldmovies said...

I agree with your point that Shearer would probably have been a big star without Thalberg. She had the ambition, talent, willingness to work, and career savvy to make good choices (although having Thalberg to back her up no doubt did help a bit). And she was one of the great stars of the pre-Code era, whose films should be looked at as much as Stanwyck's or Harlow's. Thanks for a lovely tribute.

Raquel Stecher said...

::clapping:: spot on Terry! This is a very thorough and informative essay on Norma Shearer's great career. I love how you compare her with other major movie stars who didn't quite transition to the sound era. I didn't know about Mary Pickford and Clara Bow's issues with the transition! Very informative.

Norma Shearer was versatile and I love how she demonstrated to her husband, with the George Hurrell photo shoot, how she could do different roles, including those sexy ones from the Pre-Code era.

I totally think people should give Norma Shearer a chance!

Thanks for this post Terry!