Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Notes on Norma: The Royal Thalbergs

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.


  1. Another great piece.I wonder if people who follow the Academy Awards really get the significance of the Thalberg Award. The man was a genius who knew how to create the right vehicles for many MGM stars. I was never much of a Norma fan only because I often felt she over-emoted as though she was still in silent pictures. Nevertheless it's all a fascinating look into Hollywood history.

  2. I think one of the things I always loved about watching Norma act was her "over-emoting" as a throw back to the silent film days. I have to say that I disagree that she wasn't "classically beautiful" but that she really defined beauty along with her peers at the time. She was eventually overshadowed, but that will happen to any actress eventually. Another interesting note about the Thalberg Award, I don't think it has been presented since 2000.

  3. Great overview on Norma. I did one too for my Norma Shearer week:

  4. That wedding photo is gorgeous.

  5. Great post! Truly great. I always admired Thalberg, and I'm beginning to discover Shearer to her full potential. I look forward to your next post!

  6. i kind of flip flop on whether or not i like norma shearer, there's something about her inflection that sometimes comes off as insincere and fake to me. i much prefer the silent films i've seen her in, because she really had a wonderfully expressive face. but regardless she and thalberg seemed like a very classy couple. great post!

  7. Great post Rupert. I really enjoy Norma! Her silent movies as well. I love watching The Women and having that extra stuff knowing that Joan and Norma didn't like each other. Joan saying she slept with the boss to get her movies. Funny but not true, Norma was a very good actress. I read a book about Thalberg and the man was so on the ball, no one was like him and I guess no one will ever be. He knew exactly what people wanted.

  8. Wonderful post. The Women (the original) is one of my all-time favorites! The remake made me ILL. They ruined the best line in the whole movie!

    Thalberg was brilliant and died way too early.

  9. Terrific article, Rupert.

    My absolute favorite Shearer film is Marie Antoinette...though, I must admit, I also get a charge out hearing her say "c'mon, put 'em around me."

  10. In his fantastic 2000 book, "Complicated Women," Mick LaSalle brings the best light to Shearer/Crawford rivalry I've ever read:

    "It wasn’t just a case of opposites not attracting. It was also a case of like types banging heads. Both were monumentally ambitious, but while Shearer’s ambition was fueled by a confident nature, Crawford’s was fueled by insecurity and aggression. Sensing in Shearer some of the same appetite to eat the world that she herself possessed, how could Crawford not see her rival’s warmth as a big act, a privileged girl’s veneer? While Shearer grew up in comfortable surroundings and only knew hard times when she became a teenager, Crawford was weaned on abuse and rejection. Two daddies deserted the family before she was ten. While still a child, she cleaned toilets in a boarding school for girls and was disciplined with a broom handle."

  11. Thalberg's most significant romantic alliances, pre-marriage, were with the actress Constance Talmadge and Rosabella Laemmle, the daughter of Thalberg's first boss during Thalberg's Universal days. But Thalberg's mother Henrietta was a dominating matriarch, and disapproved of both.

    Norma, who admittedly set her cap for Irving before he did for her, observed all of this, pulled in her own horns, and played a patient waiting game. "Too shrew to underestimate the emotional competition," Norma set out to win over both son and mother, "sincere in the first case, diplomatic in the second." It couldn't have been easy for someone born under the sign of Leo.

    Eventually, opinion among Irving's friends coalesced around the verdict, "Norma relaxed him." But Irving was no fool and was testing Norma as well, till he was satisfied that the future Mrs. Thalberg would always accommodate his workaholic personality.

    Over the years, some ugly observations have been attributed to Crawford ("She only married him because she knew he was going to die on her"; "She rode his balls through the entire studio"), the viewpoint of an eventual, three-time marital loser. Facts say otherwise.

    At the time of Irving's Christmas day heart attack in 1932, Shearer would ultimately be away from the screen from the autumn of '32 till March 1934 overseeing Irving's return to health, a dangerous sabbatical when every other star actress at MGM save Marion Davies was younger than Norma. What thoughtful husband wouldn't notice and appreciate such sacrifice, and want to cater in kind once his health returned? Whatever 'perks' marriage to Thalberg brought Norma, she earned.

    Rarest of Hollywood marriages, it was a solid and good one, and there is zero evidence that either was ever not devoted to the other.

    It's going on 23 years old, and not easy to find at a gentle price, but for now the definitive biography on Norma remains that of Gavin Lambert's, published by Knopf in May 1990. My own copy is exhausted from re-reads, and you couldn't pry it away from me with a gun.

  12. Yes dvlaries, I found a copy of the Lambert book at a library book sale for a buck several years ago. Great find.

  13. N.S. has certain movements (when she is "reunited" with Mr. Haines in "The Women") and facial expressions that I see in one of my favorite films, nanely "The Student Prince." Silent and co-starring Ramon Navarro, it features an excellent score by Carl Davis.



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