Norma Shearer Fights For The Title


“It is impossible to get anything made or accomplished without stepping on some toes; enemies are inevitable when one is a doer.” No doubt when she made that quote Norma Shearer was well aware of all the toes she stepped on and the enemies she made.

Shearer was recognized as the reigning Queen of Hollywood. In the opinion of many people it had less to due with her acting talents and more (much more) due to the fact she married the Boy Genius of film Irving Thalberg who along with Louie B Mayer had turned MGM into the gold standard of movie studios.

It’s not so much that MGM movies were better than any other studio. A case can be made that reel for reel other studios were making better films. But MGM had stars. More than there were in heaven as their publicity department proudly advertised and none burned brighter than Norma Shearer.

Joan Crawford:”I resented the hell out of Norma Shearer; the only reason she got plum roles was because she married Irving Thalberg. I cried buckets when they gave her “Idiot’s Delight.” No doubt Crawford was expressing the general sentiment of many people in front of and behind the camera not only at MGM but the industry as a whole.

But that opinion seems to overlook a few basic realities. One is through her own hard work and determination Shearer succeeded. The other is no matter how much influence Irving Thalberg had he could not force movie audiences to like Norma Shearer. If the talent and star quality and likeability factor were not present then Thalberg would have been wasting his time as well as MGM’s money.  His battles with director Eric Von Stroheim in regards to the skyrocketing cost over the movie Greed showed that was not an option.

Being married to Thalberg didn’t hurt but Shearer delivered the goods again and again. From He Who Gets Slapped to The Barretts of Wimpole Street the actress for more than a decade was one of the top box-office stars in Hollywood.

Norma After Being Told She Wasn't Glamourous Enough
Norma After Being Told She Wasn’t Glamourous Enough

Along the way Shearer became a pioneer in the way the modern woman was portrayed on the screen.  In 1930 she won the Academy Award as Best Actress for her role as Jerry Martin in The Divorcee. This was the beginning of PreCode and the start of showing women in a more independent light. Successful on their own terms while making no apologies for being liberated and in these types of performances Shearer truly excelled.

Yet it is one of her lesser known films that demonstrate what this artist was truly capable of. In the film Strange Interlude she plays Nina Leeds and is required to age over several decades. Shearer pulls it off beautifully.  Her speech, gestures, movements are so spot on that you believe she really has aged.  It shows a woman in complete command of her craft.

People can dispute whether she deserved the title Queen of Hollywood or even the influence Thalberg had on her career. But with or without him Shearer was going to make it to the top and it was a given she was going to step on a few toes along the way.

Below. Norma puts on a clinic in style.

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