Best known for and won an Academy Award for Best Actress for The Divorcee. A series of highly successful pre-Code films followed.
The Star Boarder
The Flapper – uncredited
Way Down East
The Restless Sex – uncredited
Torchy’s Millions – uncredited
The Sign on the Door – uncredited
The Leather Pushers – uncredited
The End of the World – uncredited
The Man Who Paid
Channing of the Northwest
A Clouded Name
Man and Wife
The Devil’s Partner
The Trail of the Law
The Wolf Man
Broadway After Dark
He Who Gets Slapped
1925 Studio Tour
Lady of the Night
Waking Up the Town
A Slave of Fashion
The Tower of Lies
The Devil’s Circus
The Waning Sex
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
The Latest from Paris
Voices Across the Sea
A Lady of Chance
The Trial of Mary Dugan
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney
The Hollywood Revue of 1929
Their Own Desire
Let Us Be Gay
Strangers May Kiss
The Stolen Jools
The Christmas Party
Hollywood Goes to Town
We Were Dancing
Her Cardboard Lover
Edith Norma Shearer was born on August 10, 1902. Her childhood was spent in Montreal and was one of privilege due to the success of her father’s construction business. However, the marriage between her parents was unhappy. Young Norma was interested in music, but after seeing a vaudeville show for her ninth birthday, announced her intention to become an actress.
In January 1920, Mrs. Shearer, Norma and her sister arrived in New York( after divorcing Norma’s father), each of them dressed up for the occasion. With a letter of introduction for Norma, acquired from a local theatre owner, to Florenz Ziegfeld, she met with him. The introduction proved disastrous. She learned that Universal Pictures was looking for eight pretty girls to serve as extras. She was number eight.
Other extra parts followed, including one in Way Down East, directed by D. W. Griffith. Taking advantage of a break in filming and standing shrewdly near a powerful arc light, Shearer introduced herself to Griffith and began to confide her hopes for stardom. He told her she would never make it in show business.
In desperate need of money, Shearer resorted to some modeling work, which proved successful. Finally, a year after her arrival in New York, she received a break in film: fourth billing in a B-movie titled The Stealers (1921). In January 1923, Shearer received an offer from Louis B. Mayer Pictures, a studio in Northeast Los Angeles that was run by a small-time producer, Louis B. Mayer. Irving Thalberg had moved to Louis B. Mayer Pictures as vice president on February 15, 1923, but had already sent a telegram to Shearer’s agent, inviting her to come to the studio. After three years of hardship, she found herself signing a contract. It called for $250 a week for six months, with options for renewal and a test for a leading role in a major film called The Wanters.
Shearer was less than impressed with her first screen test. The day after the test had been screened for Mayer and Thalberg, cameraman Ernest Palmer found Shearer frantic and trembling in the hallway. After viewing the test himself, agreed that she had been “poorly handled.” Under Palmer’s own supervision, a second test was made and judged a success by the studio brass. The lead in The Wanters seemed hers, until the film’s director objected, finding her “unphotogenic”. Again, Shearer was to be disappointed, relegated to a minor role.
She accepted her next role in Pleasure Mad, knowing “it was well understood that if I didn’t deliver in this picture, I was through.” After only a few days of shooting, things were not looking good. Shearer was struggling. Finally, the film’s director complained to Mayer that he could get nothing out of the young actress, and when summoned to Mayer’s office, she fully expected the axe to fall: “But to my surprise, Mr. Mayer’s manner was paternal. ‘There seems to be a problem,’ he said, ‘tell me about it.’ I told him that the director had shouted at me and frightened me. Nobody had warned me that Mayer was a better actor than any of us, and I was unprepared for what happened next. He staged an alarming outburst, screaming at me, calling me a fool and a coward, accusing me of throwing away my career because I couldn’t get on with a director. It worked. I became tearful, but obstinate. ‘I’ll show you!’ I said to him. ‘You’ll see!’ Delighted, Mayer resumed the paternal act. ‘That’s what I wanted to hear,’ he said, smiling.” Returning to the set, Shearer plunged into an emotional scene. “I took that scene lock, stock, and barrel, fur, fins and feathers,” she remembered, earning her the respect of her director and her studio. As a reward, Thalberg cast her in six films in eight months.
The apprenticeship served Shearer well. On April 26, 1924, Louis B. Mayer Pictures was merged with Metro Pictures and the Samuel Goldwyn Company to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Shearer was cast with Lon Chaney and John Gilbert in the studio’s first official production, He Who Gets Slapped. The film was a conspicuous success and contributed to the meteoric rise of the new company, and to Shearer’s visibility. By late 1925, she was carrying her own films, and was one of MGM’s biggest attractions, a bona fide star. She signed a new contract; it paid $1,000 a week and would rise to $5,000 over the next five years.
Shearer, for her part, found herself increasingly attracted to her boss. “Something was understood between us, an indefinite feeling that neither of us could analyze.” Thalberg’s appeal was not primarily sexual. What attracted Shearer was his commanding presence and steely grace, the impression he gave that wherever he sat was always the head of the table.
At the end of a working day in July 1925, Shearer received a phone call from Thalberg’s secretary, asking if she would like to accompany Thalberg to the premiere of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.
Over the next two years, both Shearer and Irving saw other people, but Hollywood insiders knew it was something of a charade – she was just waiting for him to propose.
By 1927, Shearer had made a total of 13 silent films for MGM. Each had been produced for under $200,000 and had, without fail, been a substantial box-office hit. She was rewarded for this consistent success by being cast in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, her first prestige production, with a budget over $1,000,000. While she was finishing The Student Prince, Shearer received a call summoning her to Thalberg’s office. She entered to find Thalberg sitting at his desk before a tray of diamond engagement rings. He granted her the option to choose her own ring; she picked out the biggest. After weeks of rumors, provoked by wearing the ring, it was announced in August 1927 that they were to wed. On September 29, 1927, they were married in the Hollywood wedding of the year. Before they were married, Shearer converted to Judaism so she could marry Thalberg. Shearer had two children with Thalberg, Irving Thalberg, Jr. (1930–1987) and Katherine (1935–2006).
Her first talkie, The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), turned out to be a tremendous success. Shearer’s medium-pitched, flexible Canadian accent, not quite American but not at all foreign, was critically applauded, and thereafter widely imitated by other actresses, nervous about succeeding in talkies. Despite the popularity of her subsequent early talking films, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and Their Own Desire (both 1929), Shearer feared the public would soon tire of her “good girl” image, and took the advice of friend and co-star Ramón Novarro to visit an unknown photographer named George Hurrell. There, she took a series of sensual portraits which convinced her husband that she could play the lead in MGM’s racy new film, The Divorcee (1930).
Shearer won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in The Divorcee, and a series of highly successful pre-Code films followed, including Let Us Be Gay (1930), Strangers May Kiss (1931), A Free Soul (1931), Private Lives (1931), and Strange Interlude (1932). All of these were box-office hits, placing Shearer in competition with Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Jean Harlow as MGM’s top actress through the remainder of the decade.
The enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 forced Shearer to drop her celebrated “free soul” image and move exclusively into period dramas and “prestige” pictures. Of these, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) proved her most successful at the box office.
Shearer was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress on six occasions, winning only for The Divorcee in 1930. She was nominated the same year for Their Own Desire, for A Free Soul in 1931, The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1934, Romeo and Juliet in 1936, and Marie Antoinette in 1938.
In 1939, she attempted an unusual role in the dark comedy Idiot’s Delight, adapted from the 1936 Robert E. Sherwood play. It was the last of Shearer’s three films with Clark Gable, after A Free Soul (1931) and Strange Interlude (1932). The Women (1939) followed, with an entirely female cast of more than 130 speaking roles.
Critics praised the suspenseful atmosphere in her next film, Escape (1940), where she played the lover of a Nazi general who helps an American free his mother from a concentration camp. With increasing interest in the war in Europe, the film performed well at the box office, but Shearer made errors in judgment, passing up roles in the highly successful films Now, Voyager and Mrs. Miniver, to star in We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover (1942), which both failed at the box office. In 1942, Shearer unofficially retired from acting.
After Thalberg’s unexpected death on September 14, 1936, Shearer retained a lawyer to ensure that Thalberg’s percentages of films on which he had worked were still paid to his estate, which was contested by MGM. When she took the story to gossip columnist Louella Parsons, the studio was forced to give in and granted all the profits from MGM movies made and released from 1924 to 1938, meaning the estate eventually received over $1.5 million in percentage payments. Nevertheless, Shearer’s contract was renewed for six films at $150,000 each.
Following her retirement in 1942, she married Martin Arrougé (March 23, 1914 – August 8, 1999), a former ski instructor 11 years her junior. Although often attending public events in her later life, Shearer gradually withdrew from the Hollywood social scene. In 1960, her secretary stated: “Miss Shearer does not want any publicity. She doesn’t talk to anyone. But I can tell you that she has refused many requests to appear in motion pictures and TV shows.” Arrougé and Shearer remained married until her death.
On June 12, 1983, Shearer died of bronchial pneumonia at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, where she had been living since 1980.
She is entombed in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, in a crypt marked Norma Arrouge, along with her first husband, Irving Thalberg.