Monday, February 15, 2010

Norma Shearer (1902-1983)



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It would be easy (and more than a little cruel) to assert that Norma Shearer kept her job by marrying the boss. But MGM production chief Irving Thalberg couldn't have maintained Shearer's star status indefinitely if she hadn't been able to deliver the goods-and she did, time after time, in the vehicles he lovingly produced for her. A former child model who began her screen career in 1920's The Flapper she was signed by Thalberg in 1923 after making a strong impression in Lucretia Lombard He brought her to Metro (where he had recently set up shop after a stint at Universal) and groomed her for stardom, seeing that she got the best makeup, the smartest gowns, and the ablest cinematographers on the lot. (She had unconventional beauty and charm, but also had a pair of oddly focused eyes that had to be photographed just right.) Shearer appeared in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Pretty Ladies, Tower of Lies (both 1925), The Devil's Circus, Upstage (both 1926), Ernst Lubitsch's delightful The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), A Lady of Chance and The Latest From Paris (both 1928), among other silent films. Thalberg married her in 1927, from which time she got preferential treatment, including first choice of hot properties bought for or developed by MGM. She made her talkie debut in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929), and followed it up later that year with two better films, The Trial of Mary Dugan and Their Own Desire (for which she was Oscarnominated). Shearer won an Oscar for her starring performance in The Divorcee (1930), playing a tolerant young society wife who finally tires of her husband's indiscretions and decides to match them with her own. She snagged another nomination for her turn as the spoiled lawyer's daughter who falls for exonerated racketeer Clark Gable in A Free Soul (1931). That same year she appeared with frequent costar Robert Montgomery in the delightfully witty adaptation of Noël Coward's Private Lives Thalberg guided Shearer's career choices, making sure she got the most sophisticated and elegant female parts MGM had to offer; he even took to buying established stage properties, such as Strange Interlude and Smilin' Through (both 1932), specifically for her. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), a literate, tasteful screen adaptation of the 19th-century romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, featured another Oscar-nominated Shearer performance, as did Romeo and Juliet (1936, opposite Leslie Howard) for which Shearer, who tried valiantly in the role, was far too old to be totally convincing. Thalberg's untimely death in 1936 devastated Shearer, who nonetheless went ahead with the filming of Marie Antoinette (1938), the last project he had developed for her. She earned yet another nod from the Academy. In blond wig for her role in Idiot's Delight (1939), again opposite Clark Gable, she was annoyingly mannered and, for the first time, seemed ill at ease. The Women (1939) gave her a more down-to-earth characterization, which she carried off admirably. But her career was nearly over; after finishing Escape (1940), and a pair of duds, Her Cardboard Lover and We Were Dancing (both 1942), she retired from the screen. Left very well off by Thalberg, Shearer remarried happily and lived in contentment until mental problems plagued her in her final years. Her last contributions to movies were in the guise of talent scout: she spotted Janet Leigh's picture while vacationing at a ski resort and arranged for an MGM screen test in the late 1940s; then, in the 1950s, she spotted handsome garment center executive Robert Evans alongside a swimming pool, thought he bore a strong resemblance to her late husband, and suggested him to play Thalberg in the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces launching Evans' short-lived acting career. Her brother Douglas was MGM's Sound Department head for decades, winning 12 Oscars for achievement on individual pictures and developing many technical innovations now considered commonplace.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, this is Jaemac from swap-bot following your intriguing blog. I can't wait until you cover my favorite actress Katherine Hepburn. I would have to say my favorite movie of hers was "Guess who's coming to Dinner?". This blog was an enjoyable read. :o) Have a great week!
    ~Jennifer (jaemac)

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