In its heyday, Metro Goldwyn Mayer claimed its studio had "more stars than there are in heaven" due to the number of top quality, extremely popular actors and actresses it had under contract at any given time. Other studios had a handful of really big A-list stars but MGM had its stable full. Groomed from the time a contract was signed, its actors were pampered, supported, baby sat (you don't think they were all mature acting adults do you?), and trained to act, sing, dance or speak correctly. Overseeing all this regalia was the studio's head honcho, Louis B. Mayer but his production chief, the head creative administrator, was a frail, Brooklyn born genius named Irving Thalberg.
Due to problems with his heart, Thalberg was a very sickly and weak child and wasn't expected by doctor's to live past age thirty. While still a teenager, he started his career as an assistant to Carl Laemmle, who ran Universal studios. After a few years and a falling out with Laemmle, the young executive moved to head creative production as vice president to Mayer at what would become MGM in 1923. He was meticulous in his craft, personally overseeing every Metro production from 1924 to 1932. His perfectionism and high level of quality film making at such a young age (he was under 25) earned him the title "Boy Wonder" in Hollywood. In 1923, he met a young actress named Norma Shearer.
Born in Canada, Norma Shearer made her way to Hollywood via New York City, where she had been working as a model and had been rejected by impresario Florenz Ziegfeld for his acclaimed Follies. Besides modeling, Shearer would also play occasional bit parts in New York based films. In one such film, The Stealers (1920), she was spotted by Irving Thalberg and brought to Hollywood as star potential. Signed by MGM to a long term contract, she was groomed for stardom by Thalberg personally. In September 1927, the two were married in a lavish spectacle at the home of actress and mistress of publisher William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies in Beverly Hills. The marriage cemented Norma's place at Metro and she even began being billed by the studio as "The First Lady of the Screen." Under Thalberg's watchful eye, she had the choicest roles and directors at the studio. It was a point in later years that didn't go unnoticed by fellow MGM contractee Joan Crawford. The rivalry between Crawford and Shearer was well known around the set. Crawford, having clawed her way to stardom, resented Norma's position as "Queen of the Lot" at Metro. The feud culminated in grand performances by both as marital rivals in the classic comedy The Women (1939). A humorous side note, when Shearer was a young model in New York she was known as "Miss Lotta Miles" in an advertising campaign for Springfield Tires. Years later Crawford would throw jabs at her fellow diva by calling her "Miss Lotta Miles."
Although being married to the boss didn't hurt, Thalberg's guidance wasn't Shearer's only asset. Not classically beautiful, the actress had a graceful elegance, poise, and talent enough to rack up six Academy Award nominations, including a win for The Divorcee, all by 1938. As well as being at their peak professionally, the Thalbergs shared a glittering social life as toast of the Hollywood set. One of their weekend parties was the basis for the F. Scott Fitzgerald story "Crazy Sunday." But the pressure of such a demanding schedule took its toll on Irving. In 1932 he suffered a major heart attack. He and Shearer went to Europe for his convalescence. Louis B. Mayer had grown resentful of the power and stature obtained by his "right hand" and took Thalberg's absence as an opportunity to strip him of some of his responsibilities at the studio. When Irving returned to work at MGM in mid 1933, he returned merely as a unit producer, quite a step down from his previous lofty position. Nevertheless, he was instrumental in the creation of many classic films in the next few years.
Even after his illness, Thalberg was a very dominant force in the direction of his wife's career. After seeing a New York staging of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, he set about a filmization with Norma as Juliet. The film was released in August 1936, and three weeks after its New York premiere, Thalberg died of pneumonia. Even after his death, his hand was guiding Shearer's roles. He had begun work on her next project, Marie Antoinette, before he died, though it wouldn't be completed until 1938. Without her husband's influence and discretion in helping her choose appropriate parts, Shearer's career floundered. She would finish out the decade with two high profile films, Idiot's Delight and The Women but the tides had turned. Younger actresses were taking the torch from the carry overs from the silent days. She, along with Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo were being pushed to the background by newcomers like Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Greer Garson. After a few more films at MGM in the early 1940's Shearer retired, married a ski instructor several years her junior and enjoyed the luxurious lifestyle of Old Hollywood aristocracy. As a power couple in Hollywood circa 1930's the Thalbergs had no match. There's was a world of privilege and achievement and though Shearer may not have the notoriety today of some of her much ballyhooed counterparts, in her day, she was queen of the lot.