Silent Star of March 1996
Edith Norma Shearer was born August 11,
1902 in Montreal, Canada. The daughter of Andrew and Edith Shearer,
Norma's childhood would be remembered by her years later as a "pleasant
dream," filled with piano, skating, skiing, and swimming. But by the
time she was 9 years old, little Norma Shearer knew exactly what she
wanted from life: inspired by a performance by the Dolly Sisters, Norma
knew she would be an actress.
Star-struck Edith Shearer, convinced that Norma was destined to be
famous, was determined to see it happen. Even as the family fortunes
were fading, Edith packed up Norma and her sister Athole and headed for
New York. Armed only with a letter of introduction to
Florenz Ziegfeld, the great showman, Norma finally met
with him only to be told she was too short, had fat legs, and a cast in
Norma, Edith and Athole eventually made their way to the fledgling motion
pictures business when money began to run low. Norma gained work as a bit
player in small films, and was fortunate enough to work as an extra on
D.W. Griffith´s Way Down East (1920). Soon after she
gained the attention of agent Edward Small, and thanks
to his efforts Norma Shearer the actress was launched into films. Her
first feature role -- fourth billing -- was in
The Stealers (1920), a film produced by
Christy Cabanne, later to become King of the B
This inauspicious debut was followed by a bit part in a
Norma Talmadge film, which ended up on the cutting room floor.
However, after her third film,
Torchy´s Millions (1920),
roles were scarce, forcing the Shearers back to Montreal.
The trip back was not a total loss, however -- only a few weeks
after her return, Norma was asked to do some modeling, resulting in
letters of introduction should she return to New York. A telegram from
Small offering Norma a role another film made a return necessary, and
Edith and Norma once again headed for New York.
It was just as well that Norma did not accept the role in
Pink Tights (1920) for after passing on an offer from
Universal, who wouldn't pay for Edith's train fare to accompany Norma
to Los Angeles, Norma received a more lucrative offer from the Mayer
Company. By now, she had the benefit of 6 more roles under her belt,
good notices in the trades, and a small following. Norma Shearer was
on her way.
By the time Norma made it to California, the Mayer Company had
merged with Metro Studios and the Goldwyn Company to become
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM. Destined to become one of the greatest
studios in the history of Hollywood, MGM's rise was credited to its
vice-President "boy wonder," for by now Irving Thalberg
had gained a reputation as a genius for turning out quality films.
Under Thalberg's tutelage, Norma made a number of "small" films such as
The Devil´s Circus (1926), The Waning Sex (1926),
and His Secretary (1925). None of these films were
given MGM's big-budget, star treatment, but they did help to bolster
Norma's image, build her fan base, and help her polish her acting.
Norma's chance at stardom finally came with the role of Kathy in
Romberg's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927).
Not only did this prove Norma's abilities in the eyes of the studio,
but in the eyes of Thalberg, as well. After filming was completed,
Thalberg and Norma became engaged.
While their union was brief, for Thalberg's delicate health ensured
he would not live to see 50, it was for Norma the height of her career,
as well as what would become a point of reference for her at the end of
her life. Not that Norma's "marrying the boss" gave her an advantage
professionally; her countless "B" films for the studio were proof that
the roles she won were a result of paying her dues. She began making
the "prestige" films for MGM that she had been working so hard for,
heading films as The Divorcee (1930), and her final
silent, A Lady of Chance (1928).
One of the few silent stars to make the transition to the talkies
with ease, Norma's first talking role was the title character in
The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929). Thalberg built the
suspense by leaving Norma's character speechless until almost the end
of the film. The picture was a success, and Norma's career was secure,
with her career reaching its pinnacle with the big-budget, prestige
film Marie Antoinette (1938).
After Thalberg's death, Norma continued to act, but left films for
good after Her Cardboard Lover (1942) in 1942. She later
married Marti Arrouge, a ski instructor, and lived out the rest of her
days traveling, skiing, and maintaining the ties to MGM and the golden
days of the silver screen. She died at the Motion Country Picture Home
June 12, 1983.
Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1996-2012
by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis