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Norma Shearer: 'Queen of MGM' & 'Liberated Woman'

Norma Shearer movies liberated woman and Queen of MGMNorma Shearer movies: Hollywood's early 'liberated woman' and 'Queen of MGM' remembered.

Norma Shearer movies: Early 'liberated woman' & Best Actress Academy Award winner was the 'Queen of MGM'

For decades a largely forgotten name, in the 1930s Norma Shearer was known as the Queen of MGM. The fact that this good-looking, talented, and ambitious actress – one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history – was the wife of the studio's second-in-command, Irving G. Thalberg, surely was no handicap.

Paradoxically, Shearer's personal association with Thalberg, so helpful in her heyday, has possibly hindered her legacy as a performer. For some, Shearer – along with fellow Old Hollywood actresses Merle Oberon (associated with British-based film mogul Alexander Korda), Marion Davies (publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst), and Jennifer Jones (producer David O. Selznick) – remains little more than “the wife/companion of.”

That's not only a shame, but a woefully inaccurate notion of Hollywood history.

Star of the Month

So it's great news that Norma Shearer (born Aug. 10, 1902, in Montreal) is Turner Classic Movies' Star of the Month of Nov. 2015. The not-so-good news is that even though its parent company, Time Warner, owns most of her movies, TCM isn't airing any premieres.

In case you were expecting to check out a youthful Shearer in The Devil's Circus, Upstage, and/or After Midnight, you're out of luck – I've seen all three; they're all worth a look. In fact, it's a cinematic crime that, music score or no, restored print or no, TCM/Time Warner don't make available for viewing the numerous silent films gathering dust in their archives.

Norma Shearer Lady of the Night Outstanding as sex worker and good girlNorma Shearer in 'Lady of the Night': Outstanding as both sex worker and 'good girl.'

'Lady of the Night': Excellent double performance

Speaking of silents…

In the view of San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mike LaSalle, Norma Shearer “was at her best in the films no one sees: her silents. When you see her in the masterpieces she made with [1920s MGM director] Monta Bell … there's no question that she was a great silent film actress.”

A rarity until a few years ago, when it was first aired on Turner Classic Movies, Lady of the Night (1925) is a fantastic Shearer showcase. This socially conscious drama directed by the then prominent but now utterly forgotten Monta Bell and featuring Shearer in a dual role – young women from disparate socioeconomic backgrounds – was presented last week.[1]

In case you haven't seen Lady of the Night, make sure to check it out next time it's aired. An unpretentious, straightforward effort, it features Shearer at her unaffected best.

Additionally, the film boasts impressive double-exposure special effects. One twin-sisterly hug inside a car is amazingly photographed/edited – partly courtesy of Joan Crawford, at the time known as Lucille Le Sueur, in make-up to look, for a second or two, like one half of the film's star.

Lovely Heidelberg barmaid

Another exceptional Norma Shearer performance during the silent era is her Heidelberg barmaid Kathi, falling desperately in love with Ramon Novarro's Prince Karl Heinrich in Ernst Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927). Kathi could have been a one-note character, as the role doesn't seem to require much; Shearer, however, gives the small-town barmaid the breath of multi-dimensional life: her subtle, delicate portrayal goes from hope-filled exuberance to disillusioned heartbreak – a not uncommon trajectory in her films – without ever striking a false note.

See also: 'The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg' review.

Creaky early talkies

Back to Norma Shearer today, Nov. 10. TCM is presenting six early talkies showcasing the silent era veteran, who, like most Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stars of the late 1920s, easily survived the coming of sound. Indeed, Shearer shone brighter as a “talkie star.”

She made her talkie debut in Bayard Veiller's courtroom drama The Trial of Mary Dugan, a 1929 release that TCM is strangely not showing this evening. Instead, scheduled are two other Shearer star vehicles that came out that same year: Their Own Desire (no relation to either Greta Garbo's As You Desire Me or Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms) and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (no relation to either Lon Chaney or Lon Chaney Jr.).

The former is a silly melodrama the likes of which were quite popular during the silent era and which, according to Shearer biographer Gavin Lambert, she utterly “despised.” (More on the latter title further below.)

'Their Own Desire': Mama loves (my girlfriend's) papa

In all fairness, the problem with Their Own Desire doesn't lie with the story itself: a young couple (Shearer, Robert Montgomery) have trouble with the fact that their parents (her dull father, Lewis Stone; his worldly mother, Helene Millard) are having an affair.

In their own manner, filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Pedro Almodóvar could easily have avoided the pitfalls inherent to this type of plot. The prolific – and now largely forgotten – E. Mason Hopper,[2] however, doesn't even try. In fact, Hopper and Frances Marion, Hollywood's top screenwriter at the time, strike every melodramatic note they can.

But why on earth would they do that? Well, they knew their audience. Budgeted at $351,000 (not including prints and advertising), Their Own Desire was a respectable box office hit (worldwide rentals – the studio's share – of $855,000), resulting in $188,000 (approx. $2.6 million today) in profits.

Genuine feeling underneath the histrionics

It's hard to imagine anyone in the early 21st century finding Their Own Desire “a pleasure to watch,” but those curious to check out what passed for entertainment nearly a century ago will likely find the experience at the very least interesting.

Norma Shearer, for her part, acquits herself moderately well. Throughout most of the film she is pert and lively, while perilously teetering on the edge of preciousness. Or is is on the edge of mental unbalance? Sometimes it's impossible to tell.

Later on, when things take a swift dramatic turn, Shearer gives her all; in other words, she overacts silent-movie style. Yet, underneath the exaggerated facial expressions and melodramatic dialogue delivery, there's genuine feeling. Considering the material (and surely the direction) she was given, that's a remarkable thespian feat.

Norma Shearer The Last of Mrs. Cheyney Basil Rathbone First Lady of the Talkies in successful early sound filmNorma Shearer in 'The Last of Mrs. Cheyney,' with Basil Rathbone: The 'First Lady of the Talkies' in a successful early sound version of Frederick Lonsdale's play.

'The Last of Mrs. Cheyney': The thief, the lord, his aunt and her jewels

Even more successful than Their Own Desire was Sidney Franklin's The Last of Mrs. Cheyney,[3] a somewhat stilted – though perfectly watchable – sophisticated comedy based on Frederick Lonsdale's stage hit.

Having been coached by stage legend Mrs. Leslie Carter during filming, Norma Shearer stars as a jewel thief who becomes romantically entangled with English Lord Basil Rathbone, whose aunt (stage and screen veteran Maude Turner Gordon) – and her pearl necklace – are to become the next targets of the elegant thief and her gang.

Definitely an A release, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney had a relatively hefty $569,000 budget. MGM's gamble eventually paid off, as the film earned the studio $1.12 million in worldwide rentals. Profits totaled $128,000 ($1.8 million today) – only slightly less than the more modestly budgeted Their Own Desire.

No Galatea

Regarding his The Last of Mrs. Cheyney co-star (and later fellow Romeo and Juliet player), Basil Rathbone would recall in his 1962 autobiography In and Out of Character:

In all the years we [Rathbone and wife Ouida Bergère] have known her, Norma Shearer has never changed one iota. Her charm and warm friendship and her classic beauty are as gracious and warm and classic today as on the first day we met her. If she and I had not both been so happily married I am quite sure I would have fallen very much in love with her!

At TCM.com, Rathbone is also quoted discussing Shearer (their source is unclear):

I got tired of hearing that she was Galatea to Irving's Pygmalion; she was a very strong character on her own, very much of a self-starter, with true self-sufficiency … And I was not at all surprised when some of her finest performances came in the years after her husband's death [in 1936], when she was very much on her own.

At 7:38, Conrad Nagel presents his fellow The Divorcee player, Norma Shearer, with the Best Actress Academy Award of 1929–30. (Nagel says it's for the year 1930, but that's not exactly accurate.)

Double Best Actress Academy Award nominee

Norma Shearer's fourth 1929 release was Charles Reisner's all-star The Hollywood Revue of 1929 – one of MGM's biggest blockbusters of the year and another Shearer movie not on TCM's schedule.

She is briefly seen in a two-color Technicolor comedy sketch, playing the screen version of herself playing a funky Juliet (a role she would tackle in earnest seven years later) opposite John Gilbert's Romeo. Lionel Barrymore “directs” the couple.[4]

Billed by some (MGM's publicity department?) as the “First Lady of the Talkies,” in the period 1929-30 Norma Shearer was a double nominee for the recently founded Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Best Actress Academy Award.

Back then, nominees could be shortlisted for more than one film; Shearer was in for both Their Own Desire and the 1930 release The Divorcee. When the winners were announced, it was revealed that she had won only for the latter.[5]

Norma Shearer The Divorcee had to prove to husband Irving Thalberg she could be sexyNorma Shearer in 'The Divorcee': She had to prove to husband Irving G. Thalberg that she could be sexy.

Modern woman in 'The Divorcee'

In Robert Z. Leonard's The Divorcee, Norma Shearer was cast in the risqué title role after convincing MGM's second-in-command – reminder: her husband – that she could be as dangerously sexy as silent era vamps Theda Bara and Louise Glaum combined.

How did she accomplish that? Not at home, apparently.

As the story goes, Shearer learned from her The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg co-star Ramon Novarro that there was this great, young photographer named George Hurrell, capable of glamorizing the most ordinary of subjects.

The story has a happy ending:

  • Impressed with his wife's new look, Irving Thalberg had her cast in The Divorcee, which turned out to be a major box office hit (worldwide rentals of $1.22 million).
  • George Hurrell became a top Hollywood glamour photographer.
  • Norma Shearer ended up winning her one and only Best Actress Academy Award.

Cutesy modern woman & 'vulgarized' 'Private Lives'

In The Divorcee, Shearer plays a sophisticated woman who, having been cheated on by her handsome husband (Chester Morris), decides to have some fun of her own with family friend Robert Montgomery.

Although her portrayal is capable enough – unlike the dreck frequently honored by the Academy during the Oscars' first decade – Shearer's “modern woman” is rendered less believable by her overuse of coy smiles and cutesy inflections, a problem that plagued some of her sound era characterizations.

She also overdoes the cuteness in Sidney Franklin's Private Lives, MGM's version of Noël Coward's play that on stage had starred Coward himself opposite Gertrude Lawrence.

Unfortunately, the merely watchable Private Lives seems to have been, to quote Coward himself, “vulgarized” to please the palate of the average moviegoer.

'A Free Soul': Worst Best Actor Academy Award winner ever?

Even so, Private Lives is a major classic if compared to another 1931 Norma Shearer star vehicle, Clarence Brown's A Free Soul. The melodrama actually starts out well, what with the star as a spoiled rich brat who enjoys being slapped around by thug Clark Gable.

But about halfway through the pre-Code proceedings, A Free Soul goes all moralistic, with Shearer tragically redeeming herself, going back to staid boyfriend Leslie Howard, who gets to be defended at a court trial by her own Daddy, alcoholic attorney Lionel Barrymore – brother of John Barrymore and Ethel Barrymore, great-uncle of Drew Barrymore, and delivering what must be, despite strong competition, the very worst performance ever to win the Best Actor Academy Award. It truly must be seen to be believed.

Also for A Free Soul, Shearer was shortlisted in the Best Actress category for the period 1930–31[6], thus becoming the first performer to officially receive two back-to-back Academy Award nominations. She lost to another MGM star, Marie Dressler, for George W. Hill's Min and Bill.

Norma Shearer Let Us Be Gay Marie Dressler Pre-Code almost liberated woman in subversive coming apart taleNorma Shearer in 'Let Us Be Gay,' with Marie Dressler: Pre-Code liberated woman – or almost – in subversive 'coming apart' tale.

'Let Us Be Gay' goes disgracefully straight before final fade-out

Much more entertaining than A Free Soul is Robert Z. Leonard's 1930 comedy-drama Let Us Be Gay, needless to say not a coming out tale. Hollywood's Pre-Code era was at times more liberal-minded than much of the world (including the American film industry) in the early 21st century, but there were limits.

So instead of a gay couple trying to live together in freedom, Let Us Be Gay offers its viewers a heterosexual couple (Norma Shearer, Rod La Rocque) trying to live apart in freedom.

Like in The Divorcee, Shearer – in a role Tallulah Bankhead originated on stage – sets out to become a woman of the world, leaving behind all social constraints. In that regard, she comes across as a more blatantly stylish version of Alice Joyce's wife and mother in Herbert Brenon's even more daring 1926 drama Dancing Mothers.

It's all beautifully subversive until the last few minutes, when Irving Thalberg (or perhaps MGM top dog Louis B. Mayer) crushes the liberated woman with a yell-and-throw-things-at-the-screen reactionary ending that should please only the most rabid of moralists.

But while the fun lasts, Let Us Be Gay is not only a movie well ahead of its time, it's well ahead of our time. Rod La Rocque, a popular silent player (The Ten Commandments, Forbidden Paradise) isn't the most exciting of leading men, but Shearer is at her very best here, keeping at bay the coy mannerisms. As icing on the cake, Marie Dressler is at her humorous best, all but stealing the show.

Norma Shearer Marie Antoinette actress' greatest dramatic showcaseNorma Shearer in 'Marie Antoinette': Opulent semi-historical melodrama was the actress' greatest dramatic showcase.

More Norma Shearer

Nov. 24 update: Turner Classic Movies' Norma Shearer month comes to a close this evening, with the presentation of the last six films of Shearer's two-decade-plus career. Two of these are remarkably good; one is schizophrenic, a confused mix of high comedy and low drama; while the other three aren't the greatest.

Yet all six are worth a look even if only because of Norma Shearer herself – though, in truth, they all have more to offer than just the presence of one of Hollywood's most charismatic stars.

'Marie Antoinette': 'The Thalberg widow' proves she could be a superb tragedienne

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, the no-expense-spared Marie Antoinette (1938) – at $2.9 million, one of the costliest movies made up to that time – stars the Canadian-born Queen of MGM as the Austrian-born Queen of France. This was Shearer's first film in two years (since Romeo and Juliet) and her first release following husband Irving G. Thalberg's death at age 37 on Sept. 13, 1936.

A lavish production in every regard, Marie Antoinette, unlike so many big-budget “epics,” never loses focus on its characters. That helps to explain the film's array of memorable performances – besides Shearer, the first-rate cast includes Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Robert Morley, Gladys George, Joseph Schildkraut, a scenery-chewing John Barrymore, and many others. The one exception here is Tyrone Power, a victim of a non-role and an unbecoming blond wig.

Indelible look

As Marie Antoinette, Shearer, then in her mid-30s, is initially seen as a hopeful teenager, all sweetness and light.[7] Following her sexually and emotionally unfulfilling marriage to King Louis XVI (Morley), she evolves into a bejeweled & bewigged woman of the world.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, she has become a tragic, ruined figure. Shot in close-up on her way to the guillotine, the actress known as the embodiment of style and glamour is all but unrecognizable without make-up. The expression on her face as she approaches death is one of the indelible screen images of the 1930s – or rather, one of the indelible screen images in film history.

Record-breaking Oscar nominations

For her efforts, Norma Shearer was deservedly shortlisted for her fifth – the most of any performer up to that time – and final Best Actress Academy Award. Sympathy votes or no, the Widow Thalberg lost to up-and-coming Warner Bros. star Bette Davis in William Wyler's Jezebel.

A pity. Shearer deserved to win that year.

For the record: the New York Film Critics Circle chose Margaret Sullavan as the year's Best Actress for her work in Frank Borzage's Three Comrades. Sullavan was also a Best Actress Oscar nominee.

Also for the record: Norma Shearer's two mid-decade Best Actress Academy Award nominations were for Sidney Franklin's The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934, one of her weakest performances, but it's a good film) and Romeo and Juliet (1936). The winners were, respectively, Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night and Shearer's fellow MGM contract player Luise Rainer for The Great Ziegfeld.

'The Women' works despite Norma Shearer

George Cukor's The Women (1939) is one of the best comedies of the studio era – in spite of Norma Shearer, not because of her.

Admittedly, Shearer's performance isn't bad, but her devoted, cuckolded Wife and Mother feels more than a tad calculated, while her by then patented coy mannerisms seem out of place for a woman pushing 40.

The Women's supporting cast, however, is mostly terrific, especially Shearer's MGM “rival” Joan Crawford as a husband-stealing shop girl, Rosalind Russell as an unscrupulous busybody, and publicité-conscious Mary Boland as an unlikely cougar.

Norma Shearer Idiot's Delight Clark Gable schizophrenic comedy-drama featured Greta Garbo parodyNorma Shearer in 'Idiot's Delight,' with Clark Gable: schizophrenic comedy-drama featured Greta Garbo parody.

Schizophrenic 'Idiot's Delight': Greta Garbo spoof as world plummets down the abyss

Based on Robert E. Sherwood's antiwar play starring Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, Clarence Brown's Idiot's Delight (1939) is a bizarre mix of sophisticated comedy and heavy-handed political drama that fails to gel.

In the first half of the film, we get Clark Gable playing (the screen version of) himself while romancing a thoroughly unconvincing Norma Shearer, amping up her cloying, patented girlishness (see The Women segment above) in an attempt to pass for a woman half her age.

In the second half of the film, the dark-haired, innocent Shearer, now transmogrified into a worldly blonde, is nothing short of sensational while spoofing Greta Garbo. If only she had brought such unconstrained sense of parody to her characterization in The Women.

Norma Shearer Escape Robert Taylor fighting Nazis first subordinate roleNorma Shearer in 'Escape,' with Robert Taylor: Fighting Nazis in her first subordinate role since the silent era.

First subordinate role since the silent era

Whereas the politics of Idiot's Delight get swept under Norma Shearer's blond wig, they're almost everywhere you look in Mervyn LeRoy's Escape (1940),[8] in which an American-born countess (Shearer) and mistress of a Nazi officer (veteran Conrad Veidt, replacing Paul Lukas) attempts to help in the rescue of a renowned German actress (stage and silent era legend Alla Nazimova) who happens to be the mother of another American (Robert Taylor).

For the first time in about a dozen years, the top-billed Shearer – at times performing as if she were in a silent film – has a subordinate role, as the fast-ascending Robert Taylor gets most of the screen time in Escape. A bad miscalculation, as Shearer's and Conrad Veidt's characters are the most interesting ones in this political drama; Taylor's red-white-and-blue hero is by far the dullest.

'We Were Dancing' & 'Her Cardboard Lover' instead of 'Mrs. Miniver'

In the early 1940s, MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer offered Norma Shearer the title role in William Wyler's British-set World War II drama Mrs. Miniver. Shearer turned him down.

Instead, Shearer chose to star in two fluffy comedies: Robert Z. Leonard's We Were Dancing, opposite Melvyn Douglas, and George Cukor's Her Cardboard Lover, once again co-starring with Robert Taylor.

Unfortunately, despite the talent involved both We Were Dancing – Shearer's seventh and final collaboration with director Leonard – and Her Cardboard Lover are as unimaginative as most comedies made then or now. The star and her leading men deserved much better; in fact, these two films are worth a look merely because of their cast.

As for Mrs. Miniver, it ended up as one of the decade's biggest blockbusters. Besides, it solidified Greer Garson's stardom, earned her a Best Actress Oscar, and turned her into the newly crowned Queen of MGM.

Norma Shearer old turned down Mrs. Miniver won Greer Garson Best Actress OscarOlder Norma Shearer ca. 1960s. In the early 1940s, she turned down 'Mrs. Miniver,' which won Greer Garson the 1942 Best Actress Oscar.

Abdication of the queen

Luckier than the Queen of France, instead of getting beheaded, the Queen of MGM abdicated after these two box office misfires – and after having also turned down Madame Curie (another Greer Garson hit) and, at Warner Bros., Now, Voyager (one of Bette Davis' biggest hits).

In the ensuing years, Norma Shearer would remain a socially active member of Los Angeles' film community, taking part in various functions and events. In the mid-'40s, she was credited with the discovery of young Jeanette Morrison, who would develop into MGM contract actress Janet Leigh.

In 1948, Shearer married ski instructor Martin Arrougé. As explained in Gavin Lambert's Shearer biography, the couple didn't live happily ever after – there would be severe bouts of depression and at least one suicide attempt. But during of their time together the increasingly reclusive and mentally unstable former Hollywood superstar seemed content.

Nearly blind and suffering from dementia, Norma Shearer died of bronchial pneumonia at age 80 on June 12, 1983, at the Motion Picture Country Hospital in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles County. Arrougé died at age 85 in 1999.

See also:

Norma Shearer silent movies on TCM & briefly remembering the forgotten Monta Bell

[1] Early in November, TCM showed the following Norma Shearer silents:

  • He Who Gets Slapped (1924).
    Dir.: Victor Sjöström (a.k.a. Victor Seastrom).
    Cast: Lon Chaney. John Gilbert. Norma Shearer.
  • Lady of the Night (1925).
    Dir.: Monta Bell.
    Cast: Norma Shearer. Malcolm McGregor. George K. Arthur.
  • The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927).
    Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch.
    Cast: Ramon Novarro. Norma Shearer. Jean Hersholt.
  • A Lady of Chance (1928).
    Dir.: Robert Z. Leonard.
    Cast: Norma Shearer. Lowell Sherman. Gwen Lee.
Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford a.k.a. Lucille Le Sueur share the screen in 'Lady of the Night.' An impressive mix of clever cinematography, clever editing, and clever make-up job.

As per the IMDB, besides Lady of the Night Joan Crawford a.k.a. Lucille Le Sueur appeared in bit parts in two more 1925 Norma Shearer star vehicles: Pretty Ladies and A Slave of Fashion. The two MGM actresses would share the screen again – under radically different circumstances – fourteen years later in The Women.

Between 1920 and 1928, Norma Shearer was featured in about 40 silent movies. Other notable titles include Victor Sjöström's now lost The Tower of Lies (1925); Robert Z. Leonard's The Demi-Bride (1927); and Sidney Franklin's The Actress (1928), based on Arthur Wing Pinero's play.

Monta Bell, one of MGM's top directors in the second half of the 1920s, directed Shearer in six silents: Broadway After Dark (1924), The Snob (1924), Pretty Ladies (1925), Lady of the Night (1925), Upstage (1926), and After Midnight (1927).

In the early years of the sound era, Bell directed only a handful of films – away from MGM and none starring Shearer. Notable titles include:

  • Young Man of Manhattan (1930) at Paramount.
    Cast: Claudette Colbert. Norman Foster. Ginger Rogers.
  • East Is West (1930) at Universal.
    Cast: Lupe Velez. Lew Ayres. Edward G. Robinson.
  • Personal Maid (1931) at Paramount.
    Cast: Nancy Carroll. Pat O'Brien. Gene Raymond. Mary Boland.

Monta Bell died on Feb. 4, 1958 – one day before his 67th birthday.

E. Mason Hopper

[2] As found on the IMDb, E. Mason Hopper directed more than 70 films, including both features and shorts, beginning in 1911.

Titles include:

  • The Marion Davies vehicle Janice Meredith (1924).
  • The comedy Getting Gertie's Garter (1927), with Marie Prevost and Charles Ray.
  • Another 1929 release, the programmer Wise Girls (1929), toplining Elliott Nugent, who also penned the play on which the film was based.
Norma Shearer One of the greatest film starsNorma Shearer: One of the greatest film stars.

The other Mrs. Cheyneys

[3] Ina Claire had starred in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney on Broadway in 1925, while Joan Crawford would star opposite William Powell and Robert Montgomery in Richard Boleslawski's less professionally effective – but more entertaining – 1937 film remake.

Crawford's box office allure was down at the time the remake came out and would mostly continue that way for the remainder of her MGM tenure, even though her version of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney was profitable.

Another of the studio's Mrs. Cheyneys was Greer Garson, the Queen of MGM during the 1940s, who didn't have much luck with the 1951 remake retitled The Law and the Lady. (No connection to William Wilkie Collins' 1875 novel of the same name.)

Director Lionel Barrymore

[4] At the dawn of the sound era, stage and film veteran Lionel Barrymore directed a handful of films, notably (at MGM unless otherwise noted):

  • Madame X (1929).
    Cast: Ruth Chatterton. Lewis Stone. Raymond Hackett.
  • The Unholy Night (1929).
    Cast: Ernest Torrence. Roland Young. Dorothy Sebastian. Natalie Moorhead.
  • His Glorious Night (1930).
    Cast: John Gilbert. Catherine Dale Owen. Nance O'Neil.
  • The Rogue Song (1930).
    Cast: Lawrence Tibbett. Catherine Dale Owen. Stan Laurel. Oliver Hardy.
  • Ten Cents a Dance (1931; at Columbia).
    Cast: Barbara Stanwyck. Ricardo Cortez.

Double Academy Award nominees, single movie wins

[5] No one seems to know why the double nominees of the period 1929–1930 were named winners for only one performance. George Arliss was shortlisted in the Best Actor category for both The Green Goddess and Disraeli, but according to Oscar history boosk, won only for the latter. (However, in the 1930 Academy Awards' clip further up Conrad Nagel clearly says that Arliss won for both movies.)

About two years earlier (for the period 1927–1928), Best Actress Academy Award winner Janet Gaynor had taken home a statuette for three performances: Sunrise, 7th Heaven, and Street Angel, while that year's Best Actor winner, Emil Jannings, was singled out for two movies: The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command.

From the period 1930-1931 onwards, individual Academy Award nominees would be shortlisted for only one particular achievement. Moreover, no double nominations would be allowed in any of the acting categories.

Ruth Chatterton

[6] A Best Actress Academy Award nominee for the period 1929–30 for Sarah and Son, Ruth Chatterton had been “considered” the previous year for her work in Madame X. However, there were no official nominations for the period 1928–29.

As an aside, A Free Soul and RKO's Wesley Ruggles-directed Cimarron became the first movies to earn Academy Award nominations in both the Best Actor and Best Actress categories. Cimarron stars Richard Dix and Irene Dunne were shortlisted for their performances in the eventual Best Picture Academy Award winner for the period 1930–31.

Scarlett O'Hara

[7] While in her 30s, Norma Shearer got to play women a decade or two younger than she was. Besides the adolescent Marie Antoinette, there were also Shakespeare's Juliet and, at one point in the film, the female lead in Idiot's Delight.

Perhaps that's why some found it perfectly reasonable for her to bring to life Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's book. Shearer, however, was never a serious contender for the role that eventually went to Vivien Leigh.

The Nazi menace

[8] Escape, which at one point had been offered to Alfred Hitchcock, was one of several Hollywood movies denouncing Nazism – that totalitarian regime which had people wearing special ID badges and being rounded up because of their religion – before the U.S. became involved in World War II. Others include:

  • Warner Bros.' Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939).
    Dir.: Anatole Litvak.
    Cast: Edward G. Robinson. Francis Lederer. Paul Lukas. George Sanders.
  • United Artists' The Great Dictator (1940).
    Dir.: Charles Chaplin.
    Cast: Charles Chaplin. Paulette Goddard. Jack Oakie.
  • MGM's own The Mortal Storm (1940).
    Dir.: Frank Borzage.
    Cast: Margaret Sullavan. James Stewart. Robert Young. Frank Morgan.

Below are TCM's Norma Shearer film schedules for Nov. 10 & Nov. 24.

Norma Shearer A Free Soul Leslie Howard The lady felt more aroused with gangster Clark GableNorma Shearer in 'A Free Soul,' with a staid Leslie Howard. The lady felt more aroused while in the company of gangster Clark Gable.

Turner Classic Movies' Norma Shearer film schedule on Nov. 10 (PT)

5:00 PM PRIVATE LIVES (1931). Dir.: Sidney Franklin. Cast: Norma Shearer. Robert Montgomery. Reginald Denny. Una Merkel. B&W. 84 mins.

6:30 PM A FREE SOUL (1931). Dir.: Clarence Brown. Cast: Norma Shearer. Leslie Howard. Lionel Barrymore. Clark Gable. James Gleason. Lucy Beaumont. Uncredited: Roscoe Ates. Ann Brody. Edward Brophy. George Irving. Lee Phelps. Carl Stockdale. Claire Whitney. Sam McDaniel. Frank Sheridan. Phillips Smalley. B&W. 94 mins.

8:15 PM LET US BE GAY (1930). Dir.: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: Norma Shearer. Rod La Rocque. Marie Dressler. Gilbert Emery. Hedda Hopper. Raymond Hackett. Sally Eilers. Tyrell Davis. Wilfred Noy. William H. O'Brien. Sybil Grove. Uncredited: Helene Millard. Dickie Moore. Mary Gordon. B&W. 79 mins.

9:45 PM THE DIVORCEE (1930). Dir.: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: Norma Shearer. Chester Morris. Conrad Nagel. Robert Montgomery. Florence Eldridge. B&W. 82 mins.

11:15 PM THEIR OWN DESIRE (1929). Dir.: E. Mason Hopper. Cast: Norma Shearer. Robert Montgomery. Belle Bennett. Lewis Stone. Helene Millard. Cecil Cunningham. Henry Herbert. Mary Doran. June Nash. Uncredited: Bess Flowers. Kane Richmond. B&W. 65 mins.

12:30 AM THE LAST OF MRS. CHEYNEY (1929). Dir.: Sidney Franklin. Cast: Norma Shearer. Basil Rathbone. George Barraud. Herbert Bunston. Hedda Hopper. Moon Carroll. Madeline Seymour. Cyril Chadwick. George K. Arthur. Frank Finch Smiles. Maude Turner Gordon. B&W. 94 mins.

2:15 AM TCM PRESENTS ELVIS MITCHELL UNDER THE INFLUENCE: JOAN ALLEN (2008). Color. 27 mins. Letterbox.

Norma Shearer The Women best known movie role one of her most unusual Joan Crawford Rosalind RussellNorma Shearer in 'The Women' with Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. Shearer's best-known movie role is one of her most conventional – and most unusual.

Turner Classic Movies' Norma Shearer film schedule on Nov. 24 (PT)

5:00 PM MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938). Dir.: W. S. Van Dyke II. Cast: Norma Shearer. Tyrone Power. John Barrymore. Robert Morley. Anita Louise. Joseph Schildkraut. Gladys George. Henry Stephenson. Cora Witherspoon. Barnett Parker. Reginald Gardiner. Henry Daniell. Alma Kruger. Albert Dekker. Joseph Calleia. George Meeker. Marilyn Knowlden. Scotty Beckett.
Uncredited: King Baggot. Robert Barrat. Peter Bull. Mae Busch. Lane Chandler. Cecil Cunningham. Dorothy Christy. Howard Da Silva. Harry Davenport. Nigel De Brulier. Claire Du Brey. Barry Fitzgerald. Maude Turner Gordon. Al Ferguson. Lawrence Grant. Ben Hendricks Jr. Holmes Herbert. George Houston. Esther Howard. Mary Howard. Ruth Hussey. Victor Kilian. Claude King. George Kirby. Henry Kolker. Helene Millard. Horace McMahon. Moroni Olsen. Guy Bates Post. Rafaela Ottiano. Herbert Rawlinson. Carl Stockdale. Phillip Terry. Theodore von Eltz. Gustav von Seyffertitz. Luana Walters. Anthony Warde. Ian Wolfe. George Zucco. B&W. 157 mins.

7:45 PM THE WOMEN (1939). Dir.: George Cukor. Cast: Norma Shearer. Joan Crawford. Rosalind Russell. Paulette Goddard. Mary Boland. Joan Fontaine. Lucile Watson. Virginia Weidler. Phyllis Povah. Marjorie Main. Ruth Hussey. Virginia Grey. Muriel Hutchison. Florence Nash. Cora Witherspoon. Hedda Hopper. Mary Beth Hughes.
Uncredited: Judith Allen. Mary Anderson. Gertrude Astor. Betty Blythe. Marie Blake. May Boley. Lilian Bond. Lita Chevret. Nell Craig. Esther Dale. Natalie Moorhead. Mary Dees. Theresa Harris. Dot Farley. Flora Finch. Carol Hughes. Butterfly McQueen. Barbara Pepper. Aileen Pringle. Jo Ann Sayers. Dorothy Sebastian. Peggy Shannon. B&W. 133 mins.

10:00 PM IDIOT'S DELIGHT (1939). Dir.: Clarence Brown. Cast: Norma Shearer. Clark Gable. Edward Arnold. Charles Coburn. Joseph Schildkraut. Burgess Meredith. Laura Hope Crews. Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher. Peter Willes. Pat Paterson. Virginia Grey. Fritz Feld. Virginia Dale. Paula Stone. Joan Marsh.
Uncredited: Barbara Bedford. Clem Bevans. Hobart Cavanaugh. Frank Faylen. Bud Geary. Eddie Gribbon. Evalyn Knapp. Michell Lewis. Francis McDonald. Buddy Messinger. Claire McDowell. Adolph Milar. Robert Middlemass. Frank Orth. Paul Panzer. Emory Parnell. Lee Phelps. George Sorel. Joe Yule. B&W. 110 mins.

Norma Shearer in the 1940s: Only three movies

12:00 AM ESCAPE (1940). Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Norma Shearer. Robert Taylor. Conrad Veidt. Alla Nazimova. B&W. 98 mins.

1:45 AM HER CARDBOARD LOVER (1942). Dir.: George Cukor. Cast: Norma Shearer. Robert Taylor. George Sanders. Frank McHugh. Elizabeth Patterson. Chill Wills. Uncredited: King Baggot. Heinie Conklin. Richard Crane. Hobart Cavanaugh. Helen Dickson. Rex Evans. Bud Geary. Franklyn Farnum. Thurston Hall. Sam Harris. Winifred Harris. Raymond Hatton. Fred Kelsey. Louis Mason. Edmund Mortimer. William H. O'Brien. Gertrude Short. B&W. 93 mins.

3:30 AM WE WERE DANCING (1942). Dir.: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: Norma Shearer. Melvyn Douglas. Gail Patrick. B&W. 95 mins.

 

Norma Shearer notes

Cast info – including unconfirmed uncredited appearances – re: the various Norma Shearer movies via the IMDb.

Norma Shearer movies' TCM schedule via tcm.com.

Noël Coward quote about Private Lives via Gene Phillips' Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean.

Basil Rathbone and Norma Shearer The Last of Mrs. Cheyney image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, via the Basil Rathbone website. Rathbone's In and Out of Character quote about Shearer also via the Rathbone site.

Box office information on the Norma Shearer movies Their Own Desire, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, and The Divorcee via the Eddie Mannix Ledger found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Robert Taylor and Norma Shearer Escape image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, via timelessfilm.tumblr.com.

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer A Free Soul image: MGM.

Marie Dressler and Norma Shearer Let Us Be Gay image: MGM.

Norma Shearer Marie Antoinette and The Divorcee images: MGM.

Clip of Conrad Nagel presenting Norma Shearer with her Best Actress Academy Award for The Divorcee: © Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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8 Comments to Norma Shearer: 'Queen of MGM' & 'Liberated Woman'

  1. altfilmguide

    @Matt

    As initially explained in the first paragraph, the text was being revised and expanded. It has had that bit of info clarified.

  2. Matt

    But Crawford's Mrs. Cheyney WAS successful. According to Eddie Mannix's ledger the film cost $741,000 and grossed a total of $1,797.000 making a profit of $460,000.

  3. nisha

    I'd never heard of Norma Shearer until I began watching TCM on a regular basis about one or two years ago. I was at once impressed with her work and bewildered as to why I'd never heard of the actress before then. I'd never gone out of my way to hear/learn about the likes of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn or Joan Crawford but I'd heard of them none-the-less while growing up. Probably Shearer's decision to retire fairly early in her career had a lot to do with her obscurity. I think she possessed comparable talent on the same level of those ladies I mentioned. I would like to see more of her work.

  4. J. Smith

    Norma Shearer was wonderful in “Romeo and Juliet” as well. She was a beautiful and very talented performer. I hope people who watch Turner Classic Movies will become acquainted with that wonerful talent.

  5. James Bazen

    Well, I wouldn't say “stuck” with George K. Arthur. He was actually quite adorable. She could have done much worse-Say, Roy d'Arcy's shirtless appearence in The Temptress. But yes, the poor Norma goes with George K. Arthur to America, and society Norma gets Malcolm McGregor.

  6. Danny

    The rich Norma gets Malcolm McGregor at the end, while the poor Norma gets stuck with George K.Arthur.

    Danny

  7. Esther Cambridge

    My TiVo did not record the last 10 minutes of the movie “Lady of the Night” starring Norma Shearer.
    How does the movie end?????

  8. scottlord

    Lady of the Night was a great film and Norma Shearer plays a dual role.
    The ending is melodramtic in that it is an elongated Griffith last minute rescue.