Sunday, March 29, 2009

From Montreal to Hollywood: Norma Shearer's Story

Edith Norma Shearer was born August 11, 1900 or 1902 in Montreal, Québec, Canada. It's unclear which year. Norma came from a privileged Scottish family. Her father Andrew Shearer owned his own business which was at first successful but eventually failed, leaving his family destitute. Norma's mother, Edith Shearer, had high hopes for herself, for her two daughters (Athole and Norma) and son (Douglas) and refused to settle for their current situation. Edith took the kids and eventually moved them to New York.

Edith at first wanted Norma to be a pianist, however Norma's early career involved bouts in vaudeville and modeling. She landed an infamous gig as the Springfield Tires billboard girl Miss Lotta Miles which her future rival Joan Crawford loved to poke fun at.

One day, almost out of the blue, Norma decided she wanted to be an actress and she and Athole auditioned and got bit parts in the Olive Thomas film The Flapper (1920). Edith joined in on the fun and they all became extras in the barn dance scece in D.W. Griffith classic silent Way Down East (1920). Norma took that opportunity to meet the director so she stood under an arc-light to show off her features. Griffith gave her one good look and told her she would never become a star.

Norma continued to make films in New York and got noticed in The Stealers (1922) and with the help of producer Hal Roach, she made her way over to Hollywood. The day after her arrival she met with producer Irving Thalberg of MGM (then known as The Mayer Company). He was so young she mistook him for an office boy until she saw him sit behind the producer's desk and put his feet up. They were both impressed by each other, Irving by Norma's charisma and drive and Norma by Irving's power and work ethic.

Norma signed with MGM and made many movies with MGM's top stars Lon Chaney Jr., Conrad Nagel and John Gilbert. She wasn't an instant success but with each film her star rose higher and higher in the Hollywood heavens. After various affairs with other people, Thalberg proposed marriage to Shearer and she accepted. The marriage would make her the Queen of MGM and it was a union of business and mutual admiration and respect. Most say Shearer was an opportunist as the union helped get her lots of choice roles, but Shearer hard to work hard to prove herself.

In 1929, Norma helped usher in a new era of talking pictures with MGM's first talkie The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929). Her upper-class Canadian accent worked well and the transition was smooth for her. She was however very unhappy with her roles and wanted better parts. She proved to her husband Thalberg that she had potential beyond her "good girl" roles and she landed parts in pre-code classics such as The Divorceé (1930) and A Free Soul (1931), for which she won the Best Actress Academy Award. Her career boomed and she made lots of popular pictures with co-stars such as Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Leslie Howard. Most fans today love her Prestige Films which are those films she made from 1936-1939 including Marie Antoinette (1938) and The Women (1939).

Norma had two children with Irving: Irving Jr. (b. 1930) and Katherine (b. 1935). Irving's health was very poor due to a heart condition and he passed away in 1936 leaving Norma a widow. She continued to make films for MGM However, Norma was aging and becoming less and less believable in romantic leads. When Her Cardboard Lover (1942) proved to be a total flop, she made the decision to end her acting career.

Norma met ski instructor Martin Arrouge, a handsome strapping man some 12 years her junior and married him in 1942. Martin (whom she convinced to go by the name "Marti") and Norma were a very suitable pair. She wanted to continue living as a queen and he wanted someone to adore. They remained married until Norma's death.

What very few people realize is that Norma's family had a history of mental illness. Sister Athole was in and out of mental hospitals and her parents and her brother Douglas had their own manias. Norma was a very poor mother to her children and had very little in the form of maternal instincts. She became obsessed with her appearance (a trait she shared with her mother) and in her advanced years succumbed to failing eyesight and dementia, often calling her second husband Martin, "Irving". She passed away on June 12th, 1983.


Future posts will reveal even more about Shearer, her love life, her career, etc. so stay tuned!


  1. What do you mean you're not good at bios? This is amazing! Very well written. You've got lots of little tidbits here I didn't know. I had no idea that Norma's family was prone to mental illness. How tragic. I always wondered what kind of mother she was, too.

    Can't wait for the next installment! :)

  2. Wonderful post, Raquelle- I'm looking forward to this week so much :)

    "often calling her second husband Martin, "Irving" - That is so, so sad.

    Her brother Douglas was the MGM sound recorder, right?

  3. Raquelle,
    A truly swell mini-bio!
    I can hardly wait for the "suite".

  4. Casey - Thanks for the encouragement. This one was tricky to write, but I'm glad you enjoyed it. :-)

    Kate Gabrielle - Yes Douglas was a sound specialist. His career track at MGM was completely separate from Norma's. I didn't find much interesting info about him other than he was a workaholic and one of his wives killed herself. Eek!

    Jonas - Thank you Professor Jonas. I'm much more happy with the rest of the "suite" than this first installment.

  5. And here you claimed you aren't good at bios! You did a very good job. There are a few things that I didn't know about Norma Shearer that I learned from this. I didn't realise that she wasn't a particularly good mother and that mental illness ran in the Shearer family.

    I have said it before and I'll say it again. Norma was extremely beautiful. Indeed, it's hard for me to believe that Joan Crawford was counted as her rival. In terms of acting talent I'd say they were evenly matched. In terms of looks, I think Norma won hands down.

  6. I like how Shearer at first meeting mistook Thalberg as being an office boy, haha. I bet a lot of other people made the same mistook when they saw Thalberg.

  7. Great and amusing post! I can't wait for a sequel! Didn't Norma have some trouble with people saying she was cross-eyed?

  8. Robby - That's a favorite story of mine, and I like how Norma saved face by winning him over with her charm.

    Lolita- Ahhh!!! Don't jump the gun! Norma Shearer week has only just started...

  9. Very much enjoyed your post. As others have mentioned, the mental illness angle was new to me. I'll look forward to your next entries. And congrats on your post getting wider exposure on news websites!!

    Best wishes,

  10. Nice straightforward bio, Raquelle. I'm looking forward to the future installments.Her relationship with Irving has always seemed bathed in a kind of sacred glow, and I'd love to know more about it. I was also intrigued by how you say she liked to be treated like a queen and her second husband had a need to adore...

  11. Hi, I'm rather new to your blog and really enjoy it, especially since you are a huge Norma Shearer fan, as am I! I'm 20 so most of my friends don't know or care who she is, and don't share my passion for Old Hollywood. I still haven't been able to get my hands on Lambert's Norma bio (many copies sell for high prices) so I'm glad to have found someone who has read it. Could you tell me more about her as a mother? I was really intrigued when I read Annette Tapert's "The Power of Glamour" where she described Norma's lack of maternal instinct.



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