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Shearer, Norma (1900–1983)

Shearer, Norma (1900–1983)

Canadian-born actress who was one of the major stars of 1930s Hollywood. Born Edith Norma Sheareron August 10, 1900, in Montreal, Canada; died at the Motion Picture Country Home on June 12, 1983; daughter of Andrew Shearer and Edith Mary (Fisher) Shearer; educated in the public schools of Montreal; married Irving G. Thalberg (the film producer), in 1928 (died 1936); married Martin Arrouge (a ski instructor), in 1942 (died August 8, 1999); children: (first marriage) Irving Thalberg; Katharine Thalberg .

Selected filmography:

The Flapper (1920); The Restless Sex (1920); Way Down East (1920); The Stealers (1920); The Sign on the Door (1921); Channing of the Northwest (1922); The Bootleggers (1922); The Man Who Paid (1922); The Devil's Partner (1923); A Clouded Name (1923); The Wanters (1923); Pleasure Mad (1923); Lucretia Lombard (1923); Man and Wife (1923); Broadway after Dark (1924); Trail of the Law (1924); Blue Water (1924); The Wolf Man (1924); Empty Hands (1924); Broken Barriers (1924); He Who Gets Slapped (1924); The Snob (1924); Married Flirts (1924); Lady of the Night (1925); Waking Up the Town (1925); Pretty Ladies (1925); A Slave of Fashion (1925); Excuse Me (1925); The Tower of Lies (1925); His Secretary (1925); The Devil's Circus (1926); The Waning Sex (1926); Up-stage (1926); The Demi-Bride (1927); After Midnight (1927); The Student Prince (1927); The Latest From Paris (1928); The Actress (1928); A Lady of Chance (1928); The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929); The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929); The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929); Their Own Desire (1929); The Divorcee (1930); Let Us Be Gay (1930); The Stolen Jools (comedy short, 1931); Strangers May Kiss (1931); A Free Soul (1931); Private Lives (1931); Strange Interlude (1932); Smilin' Through (1932); Riptide (1934); The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934); Romeo and Juliet (1936); Marie Antoinette (1938); Idiot's Delight (1939); The Women (1939); Escape (1940); We Were Dancing (1942); Her Cardboard Lover (1942).

After acquiring the unofficial title of "First lady of MGM" with her marriage to studio head Irving Thalberg in 1928, Norma Shearer reached stardom under her husband's artful supervision. "His handling of her career was a triumph,"

wrote David Shipman. Shearer, who was nominated for five Academy Awards and won the coveted trophy as Best Actress for her performance in The Divorcee (1930), continued her reign at MGM for several years after Thalberg's death in 1936.

She was born Edith Norma Shearer in 1900 in Montreal, Canada, the daughter of Edith Fisher Shearer and Andrew Shearer, a businessman. Attending public schools in Montreal, she enjoyed skating, swimming, and skiing, and also studied the piano. But when her husband's enterprise failed, Edith packed up her two daughters, Norma and Athole Shearer , and took them to New York, hoping to find work for them in show business. After failing an audition with Florenz Ziegfeld, who told her she would never make it because she was too short and had fat legs and a cast in one eye, Shearer modeled and worked as a film extra until she signed on with agent Edward Small; he got her a small role (fourth billing) as a minister's daughter in the silent movie The Stealers (1920).

Thalberg, then at Universal (though he would eventually transform MGM), saw her performance and set out to hire the young actress. But the Shearers, unable to find work in Hollywood, had gone back East. It was not until 1923, when he was about to join forces with Louis B. Mayer in the MGM studio, that Thalberg tracked her down. At that time, Shearer signed a five-year contract with the fledgling MGM and embarked on her debut film for that studio, Pleasure Mad (1923), which was marketed as "A Story of Today and the Mad Lust for Pleasure among the Bright Lights and Gilded Cafés." Shearer was then loaned out for several pictures before returning to Metro to play Consuelo, the bare-back rider, in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), opposite Lon Chaney. By 1925, the actress had made her mark in silent pictures and had also captured the heart of Thalberg, known as "the boy wonder," who began grooming her for stardom.

Shearer was savvy, and might indeed have made it big in the movies without Thalberg's assistance. Although she was not beautiful by Hollywood standards, or the most talented actress available, she was possessed with a driving ambition, great insight into the nature of filmmaking, and a canny ability to see where she fit in. She wisely resisted typecasting, and with Thalberg's help was able to balance her roles, doing both drama and comedy. Her husband was also able to surround her with the best writers, directors, and promoters. After their marriage, Shearer starred in some of MGM's finest movies, including the five for which she received Oscar nominations: Their Own Desire (1929), A Free Soul (1931), as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1936), and the title role of Marie Antoinette (1938). Following Thalberg's death in 1936, she played leading roles in two of the studio's best pictures of the decade (both 1939): the movie version of Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning Idiot's Delight, with Clark Gable, and Clare Booth Luce 's The Women, costarring Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell , and Joan Fontaine , among others, and featuring a screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin . Without Thalberg's guidance, however, Shearer turned down the starring roles in Gone With the Wind and Mrs. Miniver, appearing instead in the back-to-back flops We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover (both 1940). "On those two, nobody but myself was trying to do me in," she said. In 1942, she married ski instructor Martin Arrouge, 20 years her junior, and retired from the screen. The couple continued to live in the house Shearer had shared with Thalberg until they moved to a new home in West Hollywood in 1960. The actress was blind for many years before her death from bronchial pneumonia in 1983.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? 1st & 2nd series. NY: Crown, 1967.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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