Dueling Divas: Joan Crawford vs. Norma Shearer

The Women_Joan and NormaBette 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.

Norma with Irving Thalberg

Norma with Irving Thalberg

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.

Lady of the Night Norma and Joan

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.

Joan Crawford Letty Lynton

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.

Norma Joan and Roz in The Women

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.

Norma and Joan 1950sAfter 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.”

For more contributions to the Dueling Divas blogathon, head on over to Backlots and check out the other contributions!

Can’t get enough Dueling Divas? Head on over to Backlots and check out the other contributions to Lara’s blogathon!

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38 comments

  1. Thank you so much for this, Angela! I was really hoping somebody was going to write about Norma and Joan in “The Women,” and you went above and beyond by delving into their personal rivalry. Love it, love them. I love watching that scene in “Lady of the Night,” it’s like a foreshadowing of two great legends-to-be.

    1. My pleasure! This was such a fun post to write and research. What I love about that picture I posted from Lady of the Night is that it almost seems as if Norma is looking at Joan and can see something special about her.

  2. Great! Last year I reviewed The Women for the Dueling Divas Blogathon, but I wasn’t aware of the origin of the Joan and Norma rivalry. Thinking well, in the end they were even in good roles and Oscars! Norma could have won in the 1939 picture, but Joan stole many scenes.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!

  3. I love this one, it is honest and not nit-picking, while I do not see Joan in many of the roles that Norma got, I can easily see her frustrations about not getting certain roles.

    1. Yeah, most of those are roles I so strongly associate with Norma that I just can’t imagine Joan in them. The only one I would have liked to see Joan in was Idiot’s Delight, just because she and Gable were so good together. I think Joan might have been interesting in The Divorcee, but I’m not sure if she was experienced enough as an actress at the time to do pull it off as well as Norma did.

  4. What a fabulous post! A studio is just a workplace and when someone is married to the boss, it’s going to cause friction in any workplace. But Thalberg loved film and that studio so much, I believe in my heart he made each decision because he thought it was the right one. Also, I don’t think Joan was the actress Shearer was and wouldn’t have been right for many of these roles except — you guess it — Idiot’s Delight. It was such a showy part, I can imagine Joan ripping into it as if it was a great cut of steak.

    1. Thank you! I absolutely agree that Thalberg knew exactly what he was doing. He had worked so hard to turn MGM into what it was, he wasn’t about to hurt that by knowingly giving someone a part he knew they weren’t fit for.

  5. I never really knew about this rivalry, Angela, and you did a great job describing their relationship from the beginning to the end. Frankly, I never thought Joan Crawford was very good in any but the bad girl roles like The Women. I certainly could never see her in The Barrets of Wimpole Street or as Juliet! I guess it’s my own admiration and enjoyment of Norma Shearer that gives me a chill when I think of Joan starring in most of those movies. She had her own style, and it was just too completely different from Norma’s for their to be much of a problem choosing with most of those roles. LOVED the knitting needle story! Really enjoyed this one, Angela!

    1. Thank you! I love both Norma and Joan, but like you said, they had such different styles that it’s really hard to picture Joan in a lot of Norma’s roles and I can’t imagine Norma doing movies like Dancing Lady.

    1. Unfortunately, I personally haven’t read it. But Mark Viera was able to locate a copy of Norma’s manuscript when he was writing “Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince” and he used quotes from it in that. According to him, her autobiography was pretty romanticized, but I really wish I could read it someday.

  6. I wasn’t aware of the feud between the two divas so I really learned something. I wonder how much of the feud was a creation of studio publicity and how much of it was reality.

    1. Even into her later years, Joan always stuck to her story about Norma getting preferential treatment, so I’d say there was a real rivalry there. But when they were filming The Women, their behavior was definitely intentionally exaggerated to make good stories for the gossip columns.

  7. It’s an interesting twist to contrast Crawford with someone besides BD. I am glad to hear that in the end they sort of worked things out and were able to look back on it all with some perspective. It can’t easy competing for roles like that, but as I hope my post will suggest, women don’t always have to be competing with each other. Thanks for such a great post!

    http://thegreatkh.blogspot.com/2012/12/dueling-divas-and-why-hepburn-isnt-one.html

    1. It really is too bad that they weren’t better friends. As Norma pointed out, they did have quite a bit in common, so they probably could have been good friends if it weren’t for the competition factor.

  8. Although I haven’t seen Paid, I just can’t picture Crawford in any of Norma Shearer’s roles. Crawford was always best in the 30s playing ambitious working class girls. Shearer was much more posh. Have you ever seen The Last of Mrs. Cheney? Shearer played it in 1929 and Crawford played the same role in 1937. Though the Shearer suffers from the production drawbacks of early talkies, she’s much better cast as a lady jewel thief than Crawford.

    1. I don’t believe I’ve seen either version of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. I’m also having a very hard time picturing Joan in many of Norma’s roles. Although I think Joan would have been a lot of fun in Idiot’s Delight and I think Paid suited Joan’s style more than it would have Norma’s.

  9. This post seems to have taken on a life of its own which is great, however, I hope WE ( in the collective we) are not missing out on some really fabulous blog.

  10. Maybe Norma beat her out because she was the better actress hands down,not that i don’t like Joan but norma was the greatest of them all!

  11. Mick LaSalle settled the rivaly business best in “Complicated Women,” 2000:

    “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.”

    LaSalle makes an even better case, that far from either stealing juicy roles from under the other, both were soundly restricted once Joseph L. Breen was in power in Hollywood’s censorship office, and every ‘good’ woman in movies was a virgin again until a trip to the altar. Before then, Crawford able to the push the envelope with films like “Sadie McKee” and “Possessed”; Shearer with “A Free Soul” and “Strangers May Kiss.” Such liberated gals, fully in command of their own sexuality, would not happen again through the decades of Breen’s power.

    Any rivalry was pointless from that time on. “The Gorgeous Hussey” was not a failure but neither did it start Crawford’s fan base clamoring for her in costume roles, and so Elizabeth Barrett, Juliet and Antoinette made more sense in Shearer’s hands.

    1. Thank you for posting Shearer’s insightful commentary on the feud with Miss Joan.
      This makes her both sensitive and with a real understanding of human nature.

      All my best,
      RL
      the joancrawford deluxesuite

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