Thursday, October 2, 2014

7 reasons to start loving Norma Shearer & accepting her as a feminist icon

"I feel the morals of yesterday are no more. They are as dead as the day they were lived. Economic independence has put a woman on the same footing as a man. A discriminating man and a fastidious woman now amount to the same identical thing. There is no difference." ~ Norma Shearer

Usually when people ask me about my favorite actresses one of my immediate answers is: Norma Shearer, which usually results in confused looks "Who?". Since I am used to people not knowing her anymore and I accepted the ignorance of a lot of people who just do not know her, I usually either have the reply "Oh, she was an actress from the 1920s and 30s, but mainly 30s who was the queen back in the day and was amazing.", which would be the short version or I say something about her amazingly feminist pre-code roles and end up flailing about her. None of the answers do her justice.
And the fact that she had been badmouthed for a time - probably because her roles back in the day might have been just a bit too feminist for men then - and banning her pre-code movies are the reasons why not many people know her. 
I try to change that wherever I can but there are still a lot of people who still think she was some kind of cold-hearted, calculating witch. Since she was anything but that, I want to tell you why you should drop everything you do right now and accept Norma as a feminist icon and as a great legendary actress.

1. She showed courage in her film roles and became the epitome of the modern woman who is equal to a man in a men´s world with her movies.

Let´s start off with her movies (this point alone could fill entire books). She was an actress of the so-called pre-code Hollywood. Or rather; Shearer was the queen of the pre-code films.

"Pre-production code films were made from 1929-1934. They were interesting, because they explored subjects that would be relevant in today’s society. They had themes of violence, drug abuse, and sexuality. The thing that was so “naughty” about these films was that most of the sexual encounters were controlled by women. The actresses in these movies gave strong performances as intelligent, independent, and, yes, sexual people. The roles were such departures from the housewife/stereotypical characters women usually played in classic cinema.
There were some great actresses in pre-code films. There was Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, and Barbara Stanwyck. Actresses got to personify the promiscuity of the typical “male stereotype,” and turn it into many complex characters that were also successful and strong-willed. To me, it was so refreshing to find women get to be as comfortable in their sexuality as a man in the world. Even so, the women were so much more than that. It was inspiring to observe these powerful and strong characters, who just happened to be women." [source]

She opened up a new era of women in film when she played the leading role in the 1930s movie "The Divorcee", which earned her an Oscar. With her powerful portrayal of a woman who challenges the hypocrisy the double-standards after finding out that her husband has been cheating on her but tries to trivialize the matter, to leave Jerry (Shearer) holding the baby and make her feel guilty for reacting the way she did. Initially stating that the two are equals in the marriage, that both should be treated the same, she rebels against the patriarchal ideal of marriage, where a husband can betray the wife and get away with it but the wife cannot. Jerry does not accept her husband's affair and goes off and "balances their accounts". Her husband Ted finds this unacceptable. She leaves him declaring: "So look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man's pride with the rest. From now on, you're the only man in the world that my door is closed to."

No other movie at that time had as much impact like this one about the breakup of a marriage. And if you imagine this film today with an A-list actress, you will not find one: "It is one thing to accept that ´The Divorcee` was bold for 1930. The more profound realization is that it would be considered audacious today" (LaSalle). This movie was revolutionizing for the time and it is still regarded as one of the most important films of the pre-code era.

But that wasn´t the only movie where she set new standards and held up the mirror to the menfolk. Another movie of that calibre was "A Free Soul" (1931). Shearer, draped in gorgeous and very daring Adrian costumes plays the daughter of an alcoholic lawyer (Lionel Barrymore) who successfully defends a criminal of his murder charges. Jan Ashe (Shearer) takes up with the gambler (Clark Gable) who excites her. At first she is completely enchanted by his different life style and his world but eventually becomes disenchanted and sees him for what he is and tries to break away from him - whereupon he pushes her around. The character follows her own rules, she is not in love with the criminal, she just wants him for the excitement and sex. She applies men´s rules of "not wanting anything serious, just fun" and turns the tables on men once again.
"Yet even as the era hit full sail, it would usually be [Norma] Shearer who managed to be more daring than the rest [...] Shearer's films carried a social implication, suggesting that the stories were emblematic of larger truths. That consciousness of social purpose makes Shearer's movies especially satisfying to modern viewers searching for something racy and unexpected" (LaSalle, 2000: 12ff.).
A Free Soul (1931) - [source]

2. She was independent, determined and (to contrary believe) absolutely not dependable on anyone (least of all her husband)

I was always of the opinion that she would have made it to the top without any male help. Many people believed and still believe the opposite. They say she only got where she was because of "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg. Everyone who knew her agrees with me, however. As Robert Montgomery said:
"I was not the only one who felt Norma has such a strong inner drive, such a fierce discipline, she would have made it to all-out stardom no matter what the circumstances of her life."
photographer: George Hurrell
She was a lioness, who fought for the things she believed in and by virtue of her hard-won position during the 1930s as the First Lady of the Screen she collected no less than six Academy Award nominations and won once (as mentioned before). Yes, she was married to the gifted producer Irving Thalberg, but for the longest time she was forced to play the role of the sweet, innocent, madonna-like woman. She was a first-class talent and got restless with the roles her husband had for her. So she went out and looked for something new, something exciting. After reading Ursula Parrott's novel "Ex-Wife", she saw the potential of it and of the dramatic complexities it offered and was determined to play the role on screen (successfully). Her husband didn´t think much of that. He told her, she would not succeed in a sexy role and tried to talk her out of it. He did not believe in it at all. So she took matters into her own hand and secretly went unknown photographer George Hurrell who would become famous because of her. She worked with him and posed for him for several nights. The result were some very sophisticated yet sexy photographs, which she presented to her husband during breakfast soon after. He was amazed by what he saw and gave her the green light for the movie "The Divorcee".

It was a similar case with "A Free Soul". Thalberg had doubts that it might be too much but Norma Shearer did not agree with him at all. She knew how strong the female character was and fought tooth and nail to be able bring it onto the screen. She got Frances Marion to draft a script for a possible movie. Eventually her husband knuckled under from all the pressure and bought the novel on which the movie was based upon. It was shot and not only made her an even bigger superstar, it also made Clark Gable an over-night sensation.

Marie Antoinette was another example like this. But I will talk about that later on. These are just two examples who show very well that she got what she wanted and did not need a man to guide her and tell her what to do. Or as director Sam Wood put it, who claimed as well that she would have made it to top stardom with or without Thalberg:
"The drive, combined with that talent, and her wonderful capacity for discipline - she was a winner from the start. Some called her perfectionist - well, isn't genius the capacity for taking infinite pains?"

3.  She once accidentally knocked out co-star Robert Montgomery (so much for men being physically stronger)

In 1931 she starred in the adaption of the Broadway comedy "Private Lives" opposite Robert Montgomery. Highlight of the play (and of the film) is a knock-down-drag-out fight between the two. Noel Coward voiced doubts that the two had the skills for such a man-woman fight but would have to be proven wrong. Norma would even accidentally knock her male co-star unconscious while filming this physical scene. 
"We were engaging in a no-holds barred fight scene and we were knocking each other around pretty hard. Norma could pack a mean left, and she got so carried away in her enthusiasm, her desire to give ‘em a show, that she knocked me into a screen and I landed flat on my derrière and went out cold. I remember her kneeling over me begging me to forgive her. It was a nice way to "come to" and of course I did forgive her - but Louella Parsons was wrong when she claimed in print that we sealed our reconciliation with a kiss - it was a handshake as I remember." [also to be found here on tumblr]
Private Lives (1931) - [source]
So much for men being superior over men physically.

4. She was a very kind, gracious and protective woman who listened to everyone's troubles

I always think a person´s smile tells a lot about someone. And in case of Norma's smile it fits 100%. The way she smiled was her character, the way she treated others. Look at her smile and you know the person behind it. Ramon Navarro with whom she worked on in "The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg"(1927) can vouch for that. According to him "people came to her as to a mother". She understood people and the inner agonies of men (and women too?) who were homosexual but had problems dealing with it and dealing with the way society treated them. She had absolutely no problem with them, on the contrary. She became the recipient of many sad confidences over the years (even Charles Laughton confided in her). 

When she made "The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg" with Navarro she knew that he was gay. His sexual orientation was unofficially known to a lot of people, including director Ernst Lubitsch. While both stars (Shearer and Navarro) had problems adjusting to Lubitsch's approach, Navarro was the one who had to feel it the most. Lubitsch loved gossip and intrigue and found American puritanism amusing. He began injecting homosexual overtones in Navarro´s scenes with others, which Ramon only understood too well and felt unhappy and uncomfortable with. Norma played the peacemaker between director and actor quite a few times. But when things went too far, was when Norma stepped in, in her subtle way to help Ramon. Lubitsch had singled out (according to King Vidor) a gay young bit player for Navarro to place his arm around and laugh and sing with him. He kept demanding take after take until Shearer faked a fainting spell and released Navarro from his torture.

Other than those occasions she always helped young actors feeling comfortable in front of the camera, how to act, gave them tips and just made them feel comfortable. She was no scene stealer either. Of course she was aware of everything that went on (light, camera, angles etc.) and she watched that her scenes were perfect but she gave the other actors their scenes as they were a team and were working together and it would be no good if one actor steals all the scenes and the rest is being left behind. She was a great actress to work with. Just as Fredric March said, she always gave her best in front of the camera and expected the others to do the same. 

There are more occasions where she showed her graciousness (like helping actors getting money or keeping up the spirit of one actress/ friend who had cancer etc) but I think you get the picture here.

5. Once and for all, let´s get rid of the "she was a bad mom" rumor. She was not.

She was a wonderful mother, she was the motherly type. Hedda Hopper and Florence Eldrige are among the many who can tell you the opposite. Motherhood suited her. She was a hard-working actress, a determined one who had definite plans for her career and her future, and there was nothing that could stop her. But she would never let her children feel that. She always saved a few hours of the day to play with her children and be there for them. She never talked about them publicly or dragged them into the limelight either. It was one of her rules. She would not answer questions about them. They were protected, she was the lioness protecting her cubs - and you can take that literally. And they turned out to be decent people too. Irving Jr, (born 1930) was a scholarly, retiring man who shunned the Hollywood limelight and lifestyle and became a university professor of philosophy, while daughter Katherine (born in 1935) also shunned publicity and Hollywood settled for a career as a housewife and mother. Their children´s lives attest to her qualities as a great parent. (Besides if you look at her interacting with children in movies, it´s nothing but adorable).

6. She almost single-handedly got "Marie Antoinette" on its feet and done

on set [source]
This movie was her first after her husband's death. As one can imagine she was nervous, but equally determined to get this film done. She wanted to do it for her late husband and because she was fascinated by the French queen. After a script was finally ready, it began with a quarrel and a lot of tears about the director. Sidney Franklin was supposed to be the director - Norma´s favoured director. But Mayer would have none of that as he feared it would take too long aka it would cost too much. So, he assigned Woody "one take" Van Dyke who was known for shooting films at a neck-breaking pace and for only doing one take and going on to the next set ("The Thin Man" was shot in 2 weeks). And he did that with Marie Antoinette (not really caring what was going on in front as long as he got his shot). He shot a film with 162-minutes of length  in only ten weeks. Norma was left on her own and she was forced to deal with it on her own. She wanted the movie to be great. So she had to take the matter into her own hands. Quietly she took painstaking rehearsals with all the actors, so that everybody knew what to do when the shot was ready.
"She performed a miracle on that film. She actually ran the whole show, had her own part down pat, and was wonderfully resourceful in getting us all to play back to her on her own terms and on her own level. The picture would have been nothing without her." - Joseph Schildkraut
Her experience in film helped a lot, she had learned so much through the years from so many different directors, producers, cinematographers etc that she knew as much about lightning and camera angles as the cinematographer of the film. She had to show all her hidden strengths. She ended up having to function as director, producer, star, cinematographer and other roles. And the result is a masterpiece.

7. She fought powerful men and won

After Irving Thalberg's death a quarrel broke out between Mayer and Schenk and other MGM executives concerning how much the Thalberg estate would receive from the profits of future MGM movies. Mayer said that Thalberg was entitled to nothing because he was dead. So they basically wanted it all. After fighting a breakdown, pneumonia and depression Norma was by now back to her old self and she would have none of that. Her main concern was that her children´s future was to be secure. She fought like a lioness and made it very clear to Mayer and Schenk, that she and her lawyers would fight till the end, so that everything of her late husband's estate would be handed over to her. Long story short, she fought the two men fiercely and won.

As a final word that summarises Shearer's status as a sole woman in the acting business, screenwriter Anita Loos put it wonderfully:
"She owned a piece of the company, for heaven's sake! She got her full share of defence, believe you me! As an individual, she was actually more powerful than before Irving's death! And she knew it. No one tried to upstage her. She could be gracious and kind, but she was never weak or easy; always she uphelpd her hard-won prerogatives." 
Can you imagine such a woman with such star magnitude, influence and knowledge about any department in the film business in today's Hollywood? A woman who would be top director, a great cinematographer and the superstar (who was very good at "public relations" as well) all at once? People would adore her! Yet, they barely know her now. 

Other sources & recommended books:

  • LaSalle, Mick (2000). Complicated Women. Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.
  • Quirk, Lawrence J. (1988). Norma. The Story of Norma Shearer. New York: St. Martin's Press.


  1. Such an amazing post, I love Norma, she's a huge part of my life, I have a tattoo of her, she's the one I go when I can't find the way to smile, and 'till now, always work! Thanks for this! A lot of hugs from Argentina :)

    1. Thank you! I am glad you (as a Norma fan) liked it. And I am so glad that my message about her came across. I think that´s so important.

  2. Hello, I am working on a oral presentation about Norma Shearer, specifically about how she managed to pass from silent pictures to talkies and I discovered your blog. As you are a fan of Norma Shearer I wanted to ask you if you had sources to recommand me or something else to help me. thank you :)