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Norma Shearer: Queen of the MGM Lot

Norma Shearer: Hollywood's First Lady and MGM's Queen of the Lot.
Image: Wikimedia

She reigned as the supreme queen of Hollywood's supreme studio, MGM, from the mid-1920s until her retirement in 1942. She was a fashion icon, darling of press, certified screen diva, and acting great, and considered one of Hollywood's most glamorous stars, appearing as one the silver screen's 10 box-office attractions in the early 1930s. She loved stardom and the man who gave it to her, Irving Thalberg. But after his untimely death in 1936, she seemed to lost interest in making picture and seven years later, she abandoned the home that honed and reared her for the past twenty years.

However, no one could forget Norma Shearer, also called "Queen Norma," who, during her heyday was peerless by any of her contemporaries, not even by her closest rival and fellow queen, Joan Crawford. No one could parallel her, such that Alfred Hitchcock later said, "Where are the Norma Shearers?" when bona fide movie actress of high caliber started to diminish from Hollywood landscape.

Birth and Childhood

Edith Norma Shearer was born in Montreal, Canada in August 10, 1902, to an upper-middle class family, thanks to her father's construction business, which allowed her and her family to enjoy a comfortable means of living. Nevertheless, Norma's parents were unhappy with each other. Later, after Norma's father's construction business faltered, she, her mother, and her sibling lefts for New York where she worked as a model and a stage actress to augment her family's income.

Early Career

After a year in New York, she was finally offered fourth star billing in a Hollywood B-picture, The Stealer (1920). Then, her streak of good luck continued after producer Irving Thalberg discovered her and signed her for a long-term contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Her image as a girl-next-door in such films as He Who Gets Slapped (1924), His Secretary (1925), and The Student Prince (1927) proved to be a box-office draw and she instantly became a star during the last years of the silent film era. By 1925, she received a new contract, indicating she would earn $1,000 a week and this amount would rise to $5,000 for the next five years. In 1927, after a well-known romance, she married Irving Thalberg. Thereafter, Shearer appeared in box-office hit after box-office hit films, each film raking in not less than $200,000 profits for the studio.

Queen of the Lot

Norma Shearer with husband Irving Thalberg. Image: Wikimedia
At the advent of the “talkies,” Shearer was one of the few silent film actresses to successfully transition into the talking films. This move proved to be more beneficial for her film career as she became a superstar of the 1930s. During this period, she appeared in a variety of films, from girl-next-door image, to independent, unfaithful wives popularized during the Pre-Code years.

Her first talking picture was The Trial of Mary Dugan (1930). A runaway blockbuster, it signaled Shearer's transition as a successful actress in the talkies. In the words of Lambert (1990), Shearer's voice was "medium pitched, fluent, flexible Canadian accent, not quite American but not at all foreign," something uncommon in Hollywood that time. It was applauded by critics and audience alike and no sooner than later did other actresses began imitating her.

Afraid that the public might soon grow weary of her girl-next-door roles, she followed the advice of friend and fellow actor Ramon Novarro. She went to then-unknown George Hurrell, who took photographs of her in somewhat daring poses. She took these photographs to Irving Thalberg, her husband, whom she eventually convinced that she was the right person to play the lead role in the pre-Code film, The Divorcee.
Shearer's pre-Code glory was at its height after she won the Academy Award for The Divorcee (1930). She solidified her image as a bankable actress with a series of pre-Code box-office hits, with Strangers May Kiss (1931), and Riptide (1934) under her belt, all well-received by audience, making her, alongside Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, the queen of MGM. Aside from pre-Code dramas, she also appeared on costume dramas and adaptations, the most notable were the top-grossing Smilin' Through (1932), and Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude (1932), a critically panned but money-making film.

Shearer's marriage to Thalberg gave her considerable clout to choose her films. This was resented by her rivals, particularly Joan Crawford, who mentioned that Shearer got meatier roles because she is "sleeping with the boss

The restrictions on movie making imposed by Production Code of 1934 forced shearer to stop making films that showcased her "free soul" image. Instead, she cut the number of films she made and exclusively lent her star power on period dramas and prestige films, with the The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), and Marie Antoinette (1938) as the most popular.

In The Barretts of Wimpole Street, she starred as the poetess Elizabeth Barrett, in the real-life romance of poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. She then starred in the film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (1936), opposite Leslie Howard. Although a top moneymaker, the film failed to earn profits because of the huge production cost, amounting to $2.5 million.

Shearer took time off from the screen after the untimely death of Thalberg. She came back in 1938 and hit the screen with another box office costume biopic Marie Antoinette.

In 1939, Shearer tried her hand in comedy with Idiot's Delight and The Women,the former being her last collaboration with Clark Gable while the latter featured an an entire cast of female stars.

Her next film Escape (1940), did well at the box office and her role as lover of a Nazi general who helped an American son and mother escaped a concentration camp was widely praised by critics.

Shearer however committed the mistake of turning down meaty roles in Now, Voyager and Mrs. Miniver. Instead, she appeared in lackluster roles in We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover (both 1941), before retiring in 1942.

Fashion Queen

Aside from her reign as the first lady of Hollywood, Shearer was also a leading fashion icon of the 1930s. Her ten-year collaboration with famous Hollywood photographer George Hurrell and the wardrobes she wore designed by Adrian landed her the celebrity best dress lists there were in Hollywood.


After Shearer made her last film, she married Martin Arouge, a ski instructor 12 years her junior. Nevertheless, she she attended numerous functions and public appearances until the 1960s she was began shunning publicity and the glitz of Hollywood. She also developed Alzheimer's disease and eventually succumbed to pneumonia on June 12, 1983.

He Who Gets Slapped (1924): Norma Shearer's
breakthrough. Image: Wikimedia

A Free Soul, 1930. Image: Wikimedia

Norma Shearer won an Oscar for her role in
The Divorcee, 1930. Image: Wikimedia

The Barretts of Wimpole Street, 1934.
Image: Wikimedia

Romeo and Juliet, 1936. Image: Wikimedia

Marie Antoinette, 1938. Image: Wikimedia

The Women, 1939. Image: Wikimedia

Here is a complete list of the films Shearer starred in:

• The Star Boarder (1919)
• The Flapper (1920)
• Way Down East (1920)
• The Restless Sex (1920)
• Torchy's Millions (1920)
• The Stealers (1920)
• The Sign on the Door (1921)
• The Leather Pushers (1922)
• The End of the World (1922)
• The Man Who Paid (1922)
• Channing of the Northwest (1922)
• The Bootleggers (1922)
• A Clouded Name (1923)
• Man and Wife (1923)
• The Devil's Partner (1923)
• Pleasure Mad (1923)
• The Wanters (1923)
• Lucretia Lombard (1923)
• The Trail of the Law (1924)
• The Wolf Man (1924)
• Blue Water (1924)
• Broadway After Dark (1924)
• Broken Barriers (1924)
• Empty Hands (1924)
• Married Flirts (1924)
• He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
• The Snob (1924)
• Excuse Me (1925)
• Lady of the Night (1925)
• Waking Up the Town (1925)
• Pretty Ladies (1925)
• A Slave of Fashion (1925)
• The Tower of Lies (1925)
• His Secretary (1925)
• The Devil's Circus (1926)
• Screen Snapshots (1926)
• The Waning Sex (1926)
• Upstage (1926)
• The Demi-Bride (1927)
• After Midnight (1927)
• The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927)
• The Latest from Paris
• The Actress (1928)
• Voices Across the Sea (1928)
• A Lady of Chance (1928)
• The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929)
• The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929)
• The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)
• Their Own Desire (1929; Academy Award for Best Actress)
• The Divorcee (1930; Academy Award for Best Actress)
• Let Us Be Gay (1930)
• Strangers May Kiss (1931)
• The Stolen Jools (1931)
• A Free Soul (1931; nominated, Academy Award for Best Actress)
• Private Lives (1931)
• Smilin' Through (1932)
• Strange Interlude (1932)
• Riptide (1934)
• The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934; Nominated, Academy Award for Best Actress)
• Romeo and Juliet (1936; Nominated, Academy Award for Best Actress)
• Marie Antoinette (1938; Nominated, Academy Award for Best Actress)
• Idiot's Delight (1939)
• The Women (1939)
• Escape (1940)
• We Were Dancing (1941)
• Her Cardboard Lover (1941)

Norma Shearer receives her Oscar for Best Actress. Image: FlickR

Academy Award
• Academy Award for Best Actress, The Divorcee (1929)
• Nominated, Academy Award for Best Actress, Their Own Desire (1930)
• Nominated, Academy Award for Best Actress, A Free Soul (1931)
• Nominated, Academy Award for Best Actress, The Barretts of Wimpole Street(1934)
• Nominated, Academy Award for Best Actress, Romeo and Juliet (1936)
• Nominated, Academy Award for Best Actress, Marie Antoinette (1938)

Venice Film Festival
• Volpi Cup for Best Actress, Marie Antoinette (1938)

About the Author

Christian George Acevedo is a book worm, mentor, and scholar of wide-ranging interests. He has authored hundreds of articles for various websites, and his expertise ranges from online marketing and finance to history, entertainment and many more. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Tumblr. Contact Christian at


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