Norma Shearer may not be a household name today, but back in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s all the way to the early 1940s, Shearer’s star shone brighter than most.
Turner Classic Movies is dedicating Thursday, Aug. 12, to the actress then known as MGM’s First Lady – who would have turned 108 on Aug. 10. As part of its “Summer Under the Stars” series, TCM will be presenting thirteen of the actress’ films, in addition to Hugh Munro Neely’s 2003 documentary Complicated Women, inspired by Mick LaSalle’s book of the same name and in which Shearer is extensively featured. (See Norma Shearer schedule further below.)
Now, Norma Shearer may take some getting used to. Her acting style may come across as coy and mannered to those unaccustomed to silent movies. Shearer, after all, went through nearly a decade appearing in dozens of silents before her transition to the more naturalistic style of talking pictures.
Having said that, let me (paradoxically) add that Shearer could be thoroughly naturalistic in her silents (He Who Gets Slapped, After Midnight), whereas she could be just as thoroughly artificial in her talkies, even the later ones (The Women, Escape).
So, which Norma Shearer movies would I recommend? Well, personally, I’d say all of them. Even at her most actressy and declamatory (Their Own Desire, A Free Soul, Smilin’ Through, Riptide), I still enjoy watching her – though, admittedly, I do catch myself cringing here and there at the uncontrolled histrionics of MGM’s second-in-command Irving G. Thalberg’s protegee/wife.
Among the TCM showings, my favorite Norma Shearer performances are those found in Lady of the Night (1925, right), in which she plays two roles (right/wrong side of the tracks); Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), looking fresh and lovely as the barmaid Kathy, enamored of Ramon Novarro’s equally flawless monarch-to-be; and W. S. Van Dyke’s Marie Antoinette (1938), in which, as the movie progresses, Shearer’s affected girlish mannerisms are replaced by a mature, darker demeanor that is unique in the actress’ career. The queen’s last scene, in which we get to see Shearer’s face devoid of make-up, is unforgettable.
Robert Morley’s Louis XVI is just as remarkable, but Tyrone Power’s fictionalized hero is totally out of place.
The very mainstream Romeo and Juliet (1936), directed by George Cukor, is the only (direct) screen adaptation of a Shakespeare work that I’ve enjoyed watching. (I find Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III hard to sit through.) Shearer, then 36, is surprisingly believable as the teenage Juliet, though fellow player Leslie Howard (then 43) is a less convincing Romeo.
In Clarence Brown’s Idiot’s Delight (1939) Shearer does a hilarious Greta Garbo impersonation, all but eviscerating Clark Gable (right) from the screen. She also holds her own as the betrayed wife in Robert Z. Leonard’s The Divorcee (1930), which won her a not-terribly-well-deserved Best Actress Academy Award. (That same year she was much more effective in Let Us Be Gay.)
In the ’30s, Shearer received more Oscar nods than any other performer. Her other nominations were for Their Own Desire (1929 – nominated the same year as The Divorcee), A Free Soul (1931), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934, one of her weakest performances, but it’s a good film), Romeo and Juliet, and Marie Antoinette.
MGM, currently facing bankruptcy, isn’t what it used to be. The studio’s former First Lady, however, remains as alluring as ever. Give her a try on Thursday.
Note: Norma Shearer can be briefly spotted – as Elizabeth Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street – in this montage featuring actresses from the 1920s to the 1950s, among them Jean Arthur, Patricia Neal, Teresa Wright, Laraine Day, Gail Russell, and Janet Gaynor.
Aug. 24 update
The Norma Shearer-Robert Montgomery-Herbert Marshall melodrama Riptide (1934); a remastered version of None But the Lonely Heart (1944), which earned Cary Grant his second and last Best Actor Academy Award nomination and veteran stage player Ethel Barrymore her only Oscar; and the biopic Song of Love (1947), starring Katharine Hepburn (as Clara Wieck), Paul Henreid (as Robert Schumann), and Robert Walker (as Johannes Brahms) are among the seven latest additions to the Warner Archives’ DVDs.
The other four movies are:
- Between Two Worlds (1944), the worlds being those of the living and the dead, with John Garfield, Paul Henreid, and Eleanor Parker;
- John Ford’s Flesh (1932), starring Wallace Beery, Ricardo Cortez, and Karen Morley;
- the film noir Crack-Up (1946), with Pat O’Brien and Claire Trevor;
- and The Conquerors (1932), RKO’s attempt to repeat the success of its Oscar-winning Cimarron, starring the earlier film’s leading man, Richard Dix, and Ann Harding.
Norma Shearer, Marie Antoinette
Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:
3:00 AM Lady of the Night (1924)
In this silent film, a young man must choose between a woman from the streets and a refined woman, both of whom are in love with him. Cast: Norma Shearer, Malcolm McGregor, George K. Arthur. Director: Monta Bell. Black and white. 61 min.
4:15 AM Lady Of Chance, A (1928)
In this silent film, a female con artist lures men to her apartment so she can blackmail them. Cast: Norma Shearer, Lowell Sherman, Gwen Lee. Director: Robert Z. Leonard. Black and white. 78 min.
5:45 AM Their Own Desire (1929)
A young couple’s affair is complicated by her father’s relationship with his mother. Cast: Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Lewis Stone. Director: E. Mason Hopper. Black and white. 65 min.
7:00 AM Complicated Women (2003)
Documentary that looks at the phenomenon of “pre-code women” during the years 1929-1934. Cast: Narrated by Jane Fonda. Director: Hugh Munro Neely. Black and white. 55 min.
8:00 AM Divorcee, The (1930)
The double standard destroys a liberal couple’s marriage. Cast: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery. Director: Robert Z. Leonard. Black and white. 82 min.
9:30 AM Barretts of Wimpole Street, The (1934)
An invalid poetess defies her father’s wishes to marry a dashing young poet. Cast: Norma Shearer, Fredric March, Charles Laughton. Director: Sidney Franklin. Black and white. 109 min.
11:30 AM Riptide (1934)
A chorus girl weds a British lord then falls for an old flame. Cast: Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Herbert Marshall. Director: Edmund Goulding. Black and white. 92 min.
1:04 PM Short Film: Minnesota “Land Of Plenty” (1942)
This “Traveltalk” explores the history, land, and culture of Minnesota. Cast: James A. Fitzpatrick C-10 min.
1:15 PM Escape (1940)
A Nazi officer’s mistress helps an American free his mother from a concentration camp. Cast: Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, Conrad Veidt. Director: Mervyn LeRoy. Black and white. 98 min.
3:00 PM Idiot’s Delight (1939)
A hoofer and a fake Russian countess are caught behind enemy lines at the outbreak of World War II. Cast: Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, Edward Arnold. Director: Clarence Brown. Black and white. 110 min.
4:51 PM Short Film: Victor Mclaglen Bio (1962)
5:00 PM Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, The (1927)
In this silent film, a young prince attending college falls for a barmaid below his station. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer, Jean Hersholt. Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Black and white. 106 min.
6:56 PM Short Film: Norma Shearer Biography (1962)
7:00 PM Private Lives (1931)
A divorced couple rekindles the spark after landing in adjoining honeymoon suites with new mates. Cast: Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Una Merkel. Director: Sidney Franklin. Black and white. 84 min.
8:30 PM Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Shakespeare’s classic tale of young lovers from feuding families. Cast: Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, John Barrymore. Director: George Cukor. Black and white. 125 min.
10:45 PM Marie Antoinette (1938)
Lavish biography of the French queen who “let them eat cake.” Cast: Norma Shearer, Tyrone Power, Robert Morley. Director: W.S. Van Dyke II. Black and white. 157 min.
1:30 AM Strangers May Kiss (1931)
A sophisticated woman risks her marriage for love of a ruthless schemer. Cast: Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Neil Hamilton. Director: George Fitzmaurice. Black and white. 81 min.
Turner Classic Movies website.