This was a guest post on Silents and Talkies. Artwork is created by Kate Gabrielle. Go visit her new blog Scathingly Brilliant.
Norma Shearer was a sight to behold. She was simply stunning and had an elegance and grace that translated well on film and in photographs. Shearer loved the camera and the camera loved her, but their courtship started off on very rocky footing. Over the years Shearer, along with the help of studio stylists and photographers, developed tricks and techniques for her so that the camera always captured her in the best light possible.
If Norma Shearer was so beautiful, what could she have had to hide? Shearer's biggest physical flaw was the slight cast in one of her eyes. Technically it was not a lazy eye but it was ever so off center, enough to make her look cross-eyed. At one point she had surgery to correct this, but it never did fully go away. So what did she do? She dealt with it. If you watch Norma Shearer's films or see any of her photographs, she'd always tilted her head and face at an angle. It created a dramatic look, showcased her spectacular profile and hid her major flaw. It took years of practice and it wasn't until well into her talkie career in which her crossed eyes are completely unnoticeable. She learned an effective trick from photographer George Hurrell that if she looked towards directly in the camera's direction she had to look past it, as though she was looking beyond at something very far away.
As I got to learn more and more about Norma, I discovered that she had even more physical flaws that she withheld from the camera. She had a short dumpy figure, a result of thick legs and arms on a petite body. She was also knock-kneed, something clearly visible when you see her silent film He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Shearer learned to hide her legs with long skirts and dresses and showcase her torso which was slender. She got very knowledgeable about lighting and refused to be shot at any unflattering angle. This oftentimes made her clash with her co-stars who also wanted to look their best on screen. The most notable one is Clark Gable, Shearer's co-star in A Free Soul (1931), Strange Interlude (1932) and Idiot's Delight (1939). Gable had huge ears which were very noticeable and everything possible was done to hide them. He was banned from wearing bowler hats, he had to always look away from the camera and oftentimes his ears were taped to his head so they would lay flat. You can imagine all the work it took to get the best lighting and positioning for when Gable and Shearer shared a scene. It must have been quite a battle!
Beyond the physical, Norma used her natural charisma to enhance her beauty. She always had lively expressions and elegant hand and arm movements. Her vibrancy was electric and seemed to light up the screen. Who would be searching for flaws when they would be too busy being entranced by her charm?
So why do Norma's flaws matter? Norma Shearer acknowledged what she had and what she didn't and worked very hard to be her best. It's something that made her notorious as a diva but to me it showed her admirable diligence to overcome obstacles in her path. I've learned from her and even I've developed tricks so I can look my best on camera.