Canadian born actress Norma Shearer was one of Hollywood’s most important and successful film star’s of the 1930’s. For the past few decades, film buff’s tended to remember her as the noble and suffering Mary Haines in The Women 1939. However, viewing Norma’s films (particularly her pre-code films prior to 1934) on DVD and broadcast on TCM, has led film historians to reevaluate her contributions and significance. In her pre-code films such as A Free Soul 1931 and The Divorcee 1930, though both a bit clunky given early sound production, her characters see themselves as equal to men, confront sex directly and engage in frank love relationships. Not mysterious like Garbo, not as sexy as Harlow or as fashion forward as Crawford, Shearer gave female film-goers of the 1930’s a more realistic (though still quite elevated) persona in which to relate and project themselves.
Norma Shearer was a fiercely ambitious woman who did not let anyone deter her from her goal of becoming a famous actress. Both Florenz Ziegfeld and D.W. Griffith told her she was unattractive, cross eyed and had a terrible figure. However, Norma seems to have been blessed with a positive outlook, no fear of hard work and a drive to move forward. Norma consulted a specialist in incorrectly aligned eyes whom provided muscle strengthening exercises to correct/conceal the issue and she was eventually able to camouflage the problem. She exercised to improve her figure, practiced movement and posing carefully to conceal her “flaws”. It is not that Norma was not a pretty woman, she was, Norma just was not as naturally photogenic as many film stars were during this time. Norma had to work at it.
Norma began to model and by the early 1920’s was working as an extra in films made in New York. Finally, in 1923, after three years of extra work and some small parts, Norma was offered a six month contract by Louis B. Mayer and his VP/Producer Irving Thalberg. After a few initial hiccups, Norma worked steadily for the next year and benefitted from the 1924 merger of Mayer’s studio with The Samuel Goldwyn Company, forming Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The merger enabled Norma to be cast opposite A list star’s Lon Chaney and John Gilbert in He Who Gets Slapped – 1924. The film was a great success and moved Norma further up the ladder.
Norma began dating MGM producer Irving Thalberg “The Boy Genius” in 1926. By all accounts the relationship was one based upon love and mutual respect and they were married in the Fall of 1927. Irving insured Norma was carefully transitioned into sound films. Norma’s clear, medium pitched voice and standard Canadian accent was ideal for early sound. Her not too high and not too low voice worked well for the sensitive early sound recording. Her accent sounded refined but still American.
Despite her success in early talkies such as The Trial of Mary Dugan 1929 and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney 1929, Norma wisely sensed times were changing and the public may tire of her squeaky clean ingenue image. Approaching 30, she realized a shift in image would be necessary if her career was going to have longevity. Norma began to campaign for a change of image and the lead role in The Divorcee 1930,a tale of a young wife who does not accept her husband’s infidelity passively and approaches infidelity in a what’s good for the goose is good for the gander manner.
Ironically, Norma’s supportive VP Producer husband, did not believe his wife was glamorous or sexy enough to pull off this type of role. Norma knew she needed to approach the problem from a professional angle and show Irving she could be sexy on camera. Norma enlisted the help of a young photographer named George Hurrell and the designer she had begun working with in 1928, Gilbert Adrian. The photographs by Hurrell show Norma draped in a clinging brocade and satin robe by Adrian, her hair loose and sporting a come hither stare, were enough to convince her husband she could play the part.
In The Divorcee 1930, designer Adrian showcases Norm’s character Jerry (note the masculine name) in loungewear, day suits and evening gowns. Simple lines, geometric details and startling contrasts make Norma stand out amongst the other female characters. Adrian wisely kept the other women cast members in dropped waistlines, uneven hems, making them appear slightly out of date and still locked in the 1920’s. Sporting raised waistlines, lounging pj’s and long sleeved evening gown’s Norma appears modern and firmly planted in the 1930’s. Adrian wisely raised the waistlines on Norma’s costume to elongate her short waist and legs, provide height (she was only 5’1″ or 5’2″) and followed the direction of recent Paris fashion in which Jean Patou raised waistlines to the natural waist and dropped hemlines. Aside from looking fabulous in her Adrian wardrobe, Norma would win the Academy Award for Best Actress that year.
Norma’s next few films such as, A Free Soul 1931, Strange Interlude 1932 and Riptide 1934, would further cement her image as a relatable modern woman, sophisticated, sexual without being overtly sexy, yet still relatable to her audience. These roles gave Adrian ample opportunities to showcase his sense for current fashion for the modern woman whom leads a life in which she explores relationships, sex and love as an equal to men.
For some of these roles Adrian showcases Norma in the 1930’s classic, bias cut satin sheath gown. This style is closely associated with Jean Harlow. However, Adrian placed Shearer in this style gown as early as A Free Soul 1931. Some sources say Adrian had bra support built into this dress at Norma’s request. However, having viewed the film recently, I see no evidence of this, Norma appears to be bra-less. Regardless, this style had such impact on both Shearer and Adrian, the designer would always refer to the bias satin sheath as “Norma’s Nightgowns”.
By 1934 Hollywood yielded to pressure from several powerful conservative religious groups (notably the Catholic Church) to form the National Legion of Decency which was dedicated to identifying and regulating objectionable content in motion pictures. This form of censorship would essentially remain in place in films until the mid 1960’s. Taste had to replace tease, sexual situations needed to be inferred or implied but never presented directly. For many performers, including Norma, this meant a change of image.
Now in her early 30’s, Norma would begin her period as “The First Lady of MGM”. Given the enforcement of the censorship codes beginning in mid 1934, Irving Thalberg wisely began selecting projects for his wife in which to distance the actress from her former “free soul” image. Prestigious period drama’s would follow, with Norma playing Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street 1934 (providing Norma with an Oscar nomination). Norma is gorgeously gowned Adrian, with much emphasis above the waist, as the character spends a good time sitting or reclining and resting due to her over protective father.
Romeo and Juliet 1936, was Norma’s only film of the 1930’s to lose money at the box office. Perhaps Leslie Howard at 42 and Norma at 35 were too old to play Romeo and Juliet, but having viewed the film recently they manage to sustain a certain illusion of the young lovers. Perhaps the film was too “arty” for general audiences at the time. However, Norma looks lovely and her costumes by Adrian reference 1300’s fashion with a Hollywood twist.
Sadly, Irving Thalberg died at the age of 37 on the evening of the premiere of Romeo and Juliet, in September of 1936. Now a young widow with two children, Norma would return to work in late 1937 to begin filming Marie Antionette 1938. The project had been green-lighted for Norma by Irving just prior to his death.
Originally slated to be shot in technicolor, Adrian traveled to France and Austria throughout 1937, buying fabric, researching the period and the doomed queen in extreme detail. Under garments, dress frames, wigs and jewelry were meticulously copied. The gowns were so heavy that special steel racks and hangers had to be built in order to hang them. The wedding dress Norma wears reportedly weighted 108 lbs. The pre-production costs on the film became so high that MGM decided not to shoot the film in technicolor. This is such a disappointment as the film cries for color. Adrian designed all the costumes for color. A floor length cape was trimmed with fur, dyed blue to match the exact color of Norma’s eyes. The costumes are some of the most spectacular ever created for a single film and the most extravagant of Adrian’s career. Many of these costumes would be reused for later MGM period films and still exist today.
Dramatically, the film is a wonderful turn for Norma. Surrounded by all the spectacle of the production she believably moves from naive teenager to a woman for whom life has lost all meaning. The last scenes of the film where Marie Antoinette’s children are taken from her are heart wrenching and the death scene is superbly underplayed by Norma. Adrian studied the sketches which exist of MA headed to the guillotine to provide an accurate recreation.
Norma would make a return to modern times with Idiots Delight and The Women both 1939. In Idiot’s Delight 1939, a anti-war propaganda comedy set in an Alpine ski resort in an unnamed country (most likely Switzerland), Norma plays an over the top fake Russian Aristocrat who is actually a trapeze artist from Omaha, Nebraska. Adrian’s wardrobe for the character is over the top as well and supports the narrative. Adrian’s design’s make Norma appear tall and regal, yet at the same time provide a sense of tongue and cheek with a bit of camp. An elaborate blonde wig (evidently copied from one worn by Lynn Fontanne in the stage version) adds to the effect.
As the noble and kind socialite Mary Haines, The Women 1939 would be Norma’s best remembered film and her only film to enter “pop culture” status, particularly within the gay community. The number of queens who have shouted “Jungle Red!” is immeasurable. Several Broadway revivals and film remakes would further interest in the original film.
Adrian’s costumes for Norma are very on trend and anticipate the next decade with shorter skirts, broader shoulders and elaborate hats.
Now near 40 and the world going to war, Norma needed a change in image. However, without Irving to guide her career, she made some unfortunate choices in roles for her next few films. In We Were Dancing 1942, with a new feathered hairstyle and Adrian providing full on 1940’s fashion, Norma physically steps into the decade fashion wise. However, at 40 and still very beautiful and well photographed, Norma is simply miscast as a young bride. The story and the characters seem more early 30’s, than early 40’s romantic comedy. In other words, the film seems behind the times and it lost money.
Norma’s last film at the age of 41, Her Cardboard Lover 1942 , a light comedy, seemed out of date with the times.
Norma turned down the lead female role Now Voyager 1942, a huge success for Bette Davis. However, Norma did not believe her audience would accept her as an ugly duckling transforming to a swan. In addition, Norma turned down Mrs. Miniver 1942, for which she was ideally suited being the right age, very attractive and a highly sympathetic character. Norma’s reasoning was she did not think she should play the Mother of an 18 year old son.
However, a few poorly received films and some misses on choosing the right roles probably did not end her career. Sources seem to indicate that Norma lost interest in acting, did not need the money and was ready to leave her audience while still looking good. Norma did not become a hermit like Garbo, she stayed very much on the social scene in Hollywood through the 1940s and 50’s and married again to a younger man. However, by the early 1960’s Norma preferred to remain private and pretty much withdrew from public life. Norma passed away in June 1983.
The First Lady of MGM