Bette Davis may be Joan Crawford’s most notorious rival, but personally, I don’t think Bette posed half the threat to Joan that Norma Shearer did. One thing you have to remember is that Bette and Joan only spent six years working together at the same studio, so for most of their careers, they at least weren’t directly competing for roles. On the other hand, Norma and Joan spent seventeen years together at MGM, so on many occasions, they were vying for the same material. Plus, Norma had the advantage of being married to Irving Thalberg, MGM’s head of production.
Joan always felt that since Norma was married to the boss, she always got first dibs on all the best roles and Joan really resented Norma for that. Joan made absolutely no secret of her feelings regarding it and wasn’t above walking into Thalberg’s office herself and asking why Norma was getting all the good parts. There were several incidences of Norma being given a part that was either originally intended for Joan or was one Joan really wanted.
While I certainly can’t blame Joan for being bitter about that (after all, Norma did get some pretty choice roles that Joan was after), it does a tremendous disservice to Norma to suggest that she married her way into stardom. She genuinely did love Irving Thalberg and she was already a successful actress when she married him. Since she was a very talented and driven woman, I’m sure she would have continued to be a success even if she hadn’t married him. Norma has said that if anything, being married to Thalberg made things harder for her since she had to work twice as hard to prove to everyone that she wasn’t just skating by on nepotism.
It’s also very unfair to insinuate that Thalberg only cared about his wife’s films. His work helped turn MGM into the prestigious studio it was and he knew it. He only wanted what was best for his business. I simply don’t think he was the type to risk his reputation and his business by casting someone in a part he knew they couldn’t handle. Since Norma had been making films longer than Joan had, it makes sense that, for a while, she would have been getting the more challenging material.
But it’s impossible to deny that Norma’s marriage absolutely did have some career benefits. When Norma said she wanted to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Thalberg fought for her to play Juliet, even though she was in her mid-thirties at the time. And when Norma expressed an interest in playing Marie Antoinette, Thalberg immediately bought the rights to a biography on Antoinette specifically so Norma could play her. Some sources will say that people like Marion Davies and, yes, Joan Crawford were considered for Marie Antoinette, but that was only ever going to be Norma’s movie.
Of course, most people would call that an unfair advantage, but Thalberg didn’t quite see it that way. You have to remember that Thalberg was not a healthy man. Any time he fell ill, Norma was the one putting her career on hold to nurse him back to health and that was a responsibility that didn’t fall on any of the other MGM starlets. To Thalberg, being able to give Norma the career she wanted was his way of thanking her for that.
Norma and Joan crossed paths for the first time in 1925 on the set of Lady of the Night. In Lady of the Night, Norma played two women who lead very different lives. In one scene, the two women meet in a car, and to film that scene, Joan was brought on to serve as Norma’s double. According to Norma, Joan wasn’t fond of her from day one. In 1955, Norma wrote of their first encounter in her unpublished autobiography:
“I found myself sitting in a car and in the other corner was a girl with the most beautiful eyes. They were the biggest eyes I had ever seen. But they didn’t trust me. I could see that. They never have.”
In the late 1920s, Joan was longing to move on from her flapper-type roles, but at the same time, Norma was also looking to reinvent her image. When MGM bought the rights to Ursula Parrott’s scandalous novel “Ex-Wife” (the title was changed to The Divorcee for the film), Joan was Thalberg’s top choice for the part of Jerry. But Norma saw what a great opportunity it would be for her to spice up her image and started lobbying for the part. At first, Thalberg didn’t think Norma was vampy enough for the part, so she went out and had some risqué pictures taken to prove she could pull it off. When Thalberg saw the results, he was finally convinced and she not only got the part, she won an Academy Award for her performance.
The Divorcee was just the first of many films that Joan would lose to Norma. Joan also had an interest in starring in A Free Soul, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Romeo and Juliet, although she ultimately didn’t feel too bad about not getting to do Romeo and Juliet. But Joan did manage to land one of her strongest early roles, Mary Turner in 1931’s Paid, when Norma was unavailable because she pregnant with her first child. As Joan’s stardom grew, Thalberg gave her some movies that some people might have expected would go to Norma, such as Letty Lynton and No More Ladies.
When MGM was starting work on 1939’s Idiot’s Delight, Joan was very keen on playing the part of Irene because she was eager to work with Clark Gable again. But once again, Norma got the part. After all these lost roles, it’s easy to see why Joan was so determined to land the part of Crystal Allen, the perfume saleswoman who steals Mary Haines’ (played by Norma Shearer) husband in The Women.
Louis B. Mayer was rather baffled by why Joan, by then an established star, would want to take a step backwards and play an unsympathetic supporting role. But Joan knew what she was doing and personally appealed to director George Cukor to make sure she got the part. She knew she would be wonderful as Crystal Allen and if she got the chance to take out some of her frustrations with Norma on-screen, then all the better.
The tension between Norma and Joan played a huge part in the publicity for The Women. Of course, Norma and Joan weren’t particularly good friends, but their rivalry was really played up for the gossip columnists during filming. While shooting the big confrontation scene between Mary and Crystal in the dressing room, Joan quite famously sat off-screen and knitted while reading her lines to Norma as she was being filmed for close-ups. The sound of Joan’s knitting needles was very distracting to Norma, who eventually told Cukor to send Joan home and asked him to read her lines instead. Joan stormed off and Cukor gave her a lecture on professional behavior. But secretly, Cukor was eating it up because he knew darn well news of this was great publicity for the movie.
After The Women, the feud between Norma and Joan started to cool. Norma only made three more movies before retiring and Joan spent four more years at MGM before heading off to Warner Brothers. Even though Norma was no longer acting, she would still attend industry events and would occasionally run into Joan. Judging by pictures, they seemed to be on reasonably good terms with each other.
What fascinates me most about their rivalry is that despite the animosity, there seems to have been some degree of mutual respect between them. There was a time when Joan said she made a point of trying to see all of Norma’s films. On the subject of Joan, Norma has said:
“I like and admire Joan. And I believe she feels the same way about me. I hope so. I think both of us have been hurt and embarrassed by the persistent stories of our rivalry and hatred…How could I hate Joan? She is so much like me. We have both been through so many of the same painful but invaluable molding processes. We have both had to fight desperately to overcome self-consciousness. We have both made ourselves over, both struggled to create an illusion of glamor and beauty.”