I have a friend — a female friend — who never talks about Norma Shearer (1902-1983) without talking about how ugly and unappealing she finds her. I suppose my friend looks at her and sees what Shearer herself saw (and apparently what the ungenerous Flo Ziegfeld saw when she auditioned for him): eyes that were too close together and even sometimes (from certain angles) crossed in the bargain, almost as though both peepers both pointed at her aquiline, George Washington-esque nose. But I’ve always found her powerfully attractive. It’s rare for people who don’t deviate in some way from the ideal to make an impression. Shearer makes an impression — not only because she’s beautiful, but also weighty, serious, strong-willed, confident: qualities you want in a dramatic actor.
Also, probably because of her quirky looks, she became much more chameleon-like than other leading ladies who were her contemporaries. I had a devil of a time finding a “representative” photo to head this post with. There is no such thing. Her characters all look quite a bit different from one another. I suppose the “archetypal” look I might be tempted to choose is from The Women — but she looks (intentionally) on the frumpy side through most of that picture — it’s the one in which she loses her husband to real life offscreen rival and schemer Joan Crawford. But in so many of her films she possesses real glamorous beauty, from flappers and vamps in the silent days to Marie Antoinette (one of my favorite of her films, and one of the best of all MGM films I think). The picture above was chosen almost at random, because I was tired of trying to find just the right one.
I didn’t discover Shearer until quite late in life. There are a bunch of stars like that, mostly of the Pre-Code era, and I’ve ended up being particular fans of their’s, maybe because I was old enough when I discovered them to pay particular close attention and to say “Oh my God, here is a WHOLE MOVIE STAR with a WHOLE CAREER I’ve never even looked at yet!” and to really appreciate and savor the experience. I think the only one of her movies I saw as a kid was that silly 1936 Romeo and Juliet where she and Leslie Howard are both 20 years older than their characters. I still haven’t seen most of her silent work as a star, only He Who Gets Slapped (1925) with Lon Chaney, and Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927). But by now I’ve seen a good deal of her sound work: The Hollywood Revue of 1929; her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcee (1930) opposite Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery; Noel Coward’s Private Lives (1931), again with Montgomery; The Barrets of Wimpole Street with Charles Laughton (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Marie Antoinette (1938), Idiot’s Delight (1939) and The Women (1939). She made three films afterwards which I’ve yet to watch.
The fact that some of her best work happened after her husband (and let’s face it, patron) Irving Thalberg died speaks to her hard won fitness for the role of movie star. But her last couple of films failed, and she retired young (age 40) a very rich woman.
Some interesting things about her early career, which initially prompted me to do this post. One is, that she was inspired to go into show business at age nine when she was taken to a vaudeville show in her native Montreal. Another is that her first movie job was the 1919 Larry Semon comedy The Star Boarder! (She was a member of the Big V Beauty Squad, Vitagraph’s attempt to compete with Mack Sennett’s Bathing Girls). She was also an extra in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East.
To learn more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold, and about silent film, Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc