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Shearer, Douglas

SHEARER, Douglas

Sound Technician. Nationality: Canadian. Born: Westmont, Quebec, 17 November 1899. Family: Brother of the actress Norma Shearer. Married Avice (Shearer); two sons. Career: 1917—worked for Northern Electric Company; 1918–20—machinist and traveling representative for an industrial power plant firm; 1920—partner in Ford automobile dealership, Montreal; 1925—worked in MGM publicity department; 1925–28—prop man at Warner Bros. and assistant cameraman at MGM; 1927–28—head of MGM Sound Department (and director of Technical Research Department, 1955–68); made many technical innovations, including devising MGM's Camera 65. Awards: Academy Award for The Big House, 1929–30; Naughty Marietta, 1935; San Francisco, 1936; Strike Up the Band, 1940; Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, 1944; Green Dolphin Street, 1947; The Great Caruso, 1951; Academy Technical Award, 1936, 1937, 1941, 1955, 1959, 1963. Died: In Culver City, California, 5 January 1971.

Films as Sound Technician (selected list):


The Broadway Melody (Beaumont); Devil-May-Care (Franklin); Dynamite (DeMille); Hallelujah (K. Vidor); The Trial of Mary Dugan (Veiller); Voice of the City (Mack)


Anna Christie (Brown); The Big House (Hill); Call of the Flesh (Brabin); Let Us Be Gay (Leonard); Lord Byron of Broadway (Nigh and Beaumont); Madam Satan (DeMille); Min and Bill (Hill); The Rogue Song (L. Barrymore); The Sea Bat (Ruggles); The Unholy Three (Conway); Way Out West (Niblo)


The Thin Man (Van Dyke)


Naughty Marietta (Van Dyke); A Night at the Opera (Wood)


San Francisco (Van Dyke); Romeo and Juliet (Cukor)


Balalaika (Schünzel); Ninotchka (Lubitsch); The Wizard of Oz (Fleming)


Strike Up the Band (Berkeley); The Philadelphia Story (Cukor)


Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (LeRoy)


Green Dolphin Street (Saville)


The Asphalt Jungle (Huston)


The Great Caruso (Thorpe)


Singin' in the Rain (Kelly and Donen)


By SHEARER: articles—

"The ABC of Sound," in Cinema Arts, September 1937.

In Behind the Screen, edited by Stephen Watts, London, 1938.

In The Real Tinsel, by Bernard Rosenberg and Harry Silverstein, New York, 1970.

On SHEARER: articles:—

Beatty, Jerome, in American Magazine, May 1937.

Film Weekly (London), 10 May 1935.

* * *

Douglas Shearer represented an anomaly within the film industry during the introduction of sound: whereas the embryonic sound departments of studios like Warner Bros. and RKO were initially ruled by the college-educated technicians provided by the manufacturers of their systems, Western Electric and RCA, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer placed technical responsibility for its sound film production with Shearer, a 28-year-old Canadian high school dropout. Despite the lack of academic training, Shearer nevertheless headed both MGM's Sound Department and Technical Research Department for 41 years, winning many Oscars and holding patents ranging from studio dubbing processes to radio navigation systems for aircraft, and became perhaps one of Hollywood's most visible technicians.

In contrast to most of his counterparts at other studios, Shearer harkened back to the bricoleur era within the motion picture's technological evolution, when self-trained tinkerers like Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat represented the cutting edge of technical progress. Born near Montreal in 1899, Shearer left school before graduation to pursue a number of jobs, including a relatively long stint as a traveling representative for an industrial power plant firm which, according to Shearer, provided him with the broad background in matters mechanical and electrical that formed the technical foundation for his later pursuits in Hollywood. After visiting his sister Norma in Hollywood, Shearer decided to stay in the United States, securing various jobs at both Warner Bros. and MGM. While working in the MGM camera department in 1927, Shearer was appointed to create the studio's sound department despite his lack of specific training in the field. However, his appointment was perhaps not that unusual. Obviously, with his sister one of the studio's biggest stars and his brother-in-law being Irving Thalberg, MGM's powerful production chief, Shearer had studio contacts far beyond those of other middle echelon production employees. However, Shearer had also demonstrated prodigious technical proficiency at MGM before his assumption of sound duties, being involved in projects ranging from constructing optical printers to experimenting with early zoom lenses. Most important, perhaps, upon his arrival in Hollywood in 1925 Shearer engineered an early prompter system by which MGM publicity films shown in local theaters could be synchronized with the stars' voices broadcast over KPO radio, an audacious and early attempt at synchronized talking pictures. Also, Shearer, an attractive and athletic aviator, provided the studio with an ideal personality for publicizing the basically unglamorous technical aspect of sound film production.

During his tenure at MGM, Shearer was involved in virtually every aspect of the motion picture's technical evolution following the coming of sound; with John Arnold of the studio's Camera Department, Shearer established MGM at the forefront of studio-originated research into motion-picture technology. While disc systems were the industry standard, Shearer advocated the use of sound-on-film for production and subsequent transfer to disc, allowing far more efficient recording control and editing; later during the early days of sound, Shearer's department participated in the development of improved traveling microphones, blimped cameras, and mixing processes, and later new antiflutter mechanisms and biased push-pull recording systems. As a result, Shearer's department received early recognition, winning the first Oscar for sound recording in 1930, and consistently received Oscars throughout the years. During the remainder of his career, Shearer's accomplishments were not limited to sound. His other work included investigations of new color and projection processes, including MGM's Camera 65 widescreen process (for which he won an Oscar in 1953). Additionally, he served as a government consultant in the development of radar. By 1955, as the studio's technical research director, Shearer oversaw all aspects of the studio's technical concerns until retiring in 1968.

As the brother of one of the studio's major stars, MGM's publicity seized upon Shearer as a means of personalizing the studio's implementation of sound, promoting him as the originator of a number of technical innovations. As his patents and Oscars indicate, Shearer did possess a precocious technical mind. However, some of his technological accomplishments, like push-pull recording, undisputedly had their origins in the mammoth research laboratories of RCA and Bell Labs. Nevertheless, Shearer made a profound contribution to all aspects of motion picture technology, establishing MGM as a center of technical research while, more importantly, serving as the implementer into motion-picture practice of the technical amelioration effected by the nation's major electronic research laboratories at RCA and Bell.

—William Lafferty

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