Norma Shearer

Defined by Divorce: Norma Shearer, The Divorcee, and The Women

Norma Shearer

By the late 1920s, Norma Shearer was one of MGM’s top actresses; consistently starring in films that were popular with the critics and successful at the box office. After facing setbacks in the early days of her career, she had become a bona fide star, proving show business dignitaries like D.W. Griffith and Florenz Ziegfeld wrong when they said she would never succeed as an actress. When she married producer Irving Thalberg in 1927, the two became one of Hollywood’s biggest power couples. But Norma Shearer always had a vision for life and her career and she knew it was time for a change.

Now that she was on top, she wasn’t about to let her image grow stale. She’d survived the transition from silents to talkies, but she needed to do more to keep audiences interested. Shearer was eager to shake up her image by playing a new kind of modern woman; not quite the personification of youth as flappers were, but a more sophisticated, independent adult woman who broke with traditional values and mores. Irving Thalberg, on the other hand, had a different path in mind for his wife’s career. The theater world had stars like Ethel Barrymore and Lynn Fontanne and Thalberg wanted Norma Shearer to have that kind of grand stature and respectability and he didn’t think those types of roles would bring her to that level. However, Shearer wasn’t the type to just give into her husband’s ideas when it came to her career.

Norma Shearer Chester Morris The Divorcee

When MGM bought the rights to the bestselling novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrot, Shearer knew it was just the project she was looking for. The title was changed to The Divorcee for the film version and Shearer made it her mission to land the part of Jerry, a woman who divorces her husband when she discovers his double standards regarding fidelity. Shearer later said that Jerry was, “Very strong, almost ruthless…she was perfect for me.”

Thalberg wasn’t so sure. He didn’t think Shearer was glamorous or sensual enough for the part. Undeterred, Shearer made an appointment with a then-unknown photographer by the name of George Hurrell to have some boudoir style photos taken. Shearer walked into Hurrell’s studio completely focused on proving to Thalberg that she could handle the role of Jerry. When Thalberg saw the photos from the session, he was impressed and the role was hers.

Taking on The Divorcee was a big gamble, but it paid off in spades. When it was released in 1930, it became an immediate success. Audiences loved Shearer in this kind of role and when the Academy Award nominations were announced, Shearer landed two Best Actress nominations — one for The Divorcee, the other for Their Own Desire. It was The Divorcee that would make Shearer an Oscar winner, elevating her to a whole new level of stardom. Her marriage to Thalberg may have made her the First Lady of MGM, but her Oscar win cemented her status as Queen of the Lot.

Norma Shearer Oscar

Throughout the pre-code era, Shearer would go on to play many other independent women who challenged societal conventions. In Let Us Be Gay, she played another woman who left her cheating husband and became a notorious woman of affairs. Her character in Strangers May Kiss wasn’t interested in marriage. 1931’s A Free Soul gave Shearer the chance to play the free-spirited daughter of a lawyer who becomes infatuated with a gangster played by Clark Gable. These sorts of films were provocative, but didn’t push audiences too far. Her characters took a walk on the wild side, but in the end, realized that lifestyle wasn’t right for them.

When the pre-code era came to an end in 1934, Shearer once again had to change gears and she moved into the “noble woman/prestige picture” era of her career, starring in lavish, big budget pictures featuring other top-tier talent. She’d become a grand dame of Hollywood like Thalberg had wanted her be, but she reached that level on her own terms and the next few films of her career would also be on her terms. Thalberg made it possible for her to star in Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette when she expressed an interest in doing so. But after Thalberg passed away in 1936, maintaining that level of autonomy over her career became more difficult.

While 1939’s The Women has gone one to become one of the most celebrated comedies of the 1930s, when viewed in the context of Shearer’s career and of her role as MGM’s Queen of the Lot, it actually reflects her waning power at the studio. The Women is far from being a bad movie; it’s the last truly great movie of Shearer’s career. But was Mary Haines one of the most fulfilling roles Shearer played in her career? No.

The Women 1939 Shearer Goddard

By the time The Women went into production, Norma Shearer was entering an uncertain stage in her career. Romeo and Juliet was the last movie of hers Thalberg oversaw before his death and he had put the wheels in motion for her to do Marie Antoinette before he passed away. The movies she made in 1939, Idiot’s Delight and The Women, were the first ones she’d made in a long time without Thalberg on her side. Even though she was a force to be reckoned with, so was Irving Thalberg and now that he was gone, Shearer simply didn’t have as much power as she used to.

Despite the fact that The Women is one of Shearer’s most enduring movies, it’s not a movie she was ever interested in making. While she described Jerry in The Divorcee as strong and almost ruthless, she thought Mary Haines was a boring character and initially turned it down. But after Louis B. Mayer found out about her short-lived affair with Mickey Rooney, Shearer had been taken down a notch and reluctantly agreed to do The Women to help keep the peace with Mayer.

If you’re familiar with Shearer’s pre-code era films, it’s easy to understand why she found Mary Haines so dull. In both The Women and The Divorcee, Shearer plays happily married, well-to-do women who discover their husbands are cheating on them. In the end, both women choose to reconcile with their husbands. But because of the production code, Jerry and Mary aren’t able to react to that news in the same way. When Jerry tells her husband about her own affair, she is outraged by her husband’s hypocrisy, divorces him, and sets out to carry on as many affairs as she wants to. Mary, on the other hand, is literally railroaded into a divorce she doesn’t want.

The Women is based on a successful stage play so it wasn’t intended to be a remake of The Divorcee, but it’s the closest anyone was going to get to doing one in the production code era. Here, Shearer was being asked to play a role that had quite a bit in common with one of her greatest career triumphs, but that was totally devoid the material that made Jerry such an interesting character. Mary Haines may have had two years to grow claws — Jungle Red — but she’s a completely declawed version Jerry. By lobbying to play Jerry in The Divorcee, Shearer was taking control of her career. By feeling obligated to play Mary Haines in The Women, she was beginning to lose control.

On the surface, The Women hardly seems like the sort of movie any movie star should feel disappointed to have been a part of. It features a cavalcade of some of the best female talent MGM had to offer, the great George Cukor directed it, it had a first-rate script, and Adrian created an astonishing wardrobe for the film’s characters. This was a major production; a far cry from the low-budget films some of Shearer’s contemporaries would later make when they were nearing the ends of their careers. But that doesn’t mean Shearer didn’t suffer several indignities during its production.

The Women 1939 Shearer Crawford Russell

Another reason Shearer wasn’t interested in being in The Women is because she knew there was a good chance she could be upstaged and those fears weren’t exactly without merit. During that era, stars of Shearer’s magnitude would pride themselves in being able to command top billing in credits and on theater marquees, posters, and other promotional materials. They were considered to be “above the title” and that kind of prestige was reflected in their contracts. But one of the downsides to being in a movie that features so many other talented actresses is that those other actresses aren’t going to be content with being left out of the billing. Joan Crawford was a major star in her own right and fought to get her name up there alongside Shearer’s, so Shearer ended up being forced to share billing with her professional rival. As production continued and it became clear that Rosalind Russell was stealing a lot of scenes, she also fought to get her name up there and Shearer eventually had a third actress to share top billing with, although Rosalind Russell’s name takes up less space on the posters than Shearer’s and Crawford’s.

Having to share the screen with Joan Crawford also wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience for Norma, either. Crawford had long felt that Shearer was given preferential treatment and first pick of all the best roles because of her marriage to Thalberg. The rivalry between the two was played up during the production to generate buzz in the gossip columns. While Shearer filmed her close-ups for the big dressing room confrontation scene, Crawford was sitting off camera, knitting as she read her lines back to Shearer; a move that would have been extremely unprofessional and disrespectful to do to any actor, let alone one of Norma’s stature. Eventually, Shearer got so fed up with Crawford’s antics that she asked Cukor to read the lines to her instead of Crawford.

The Women Shearer Russell Fontaine

Although The Women is an immensely quotable film, unfortunately for Shearer, most of the film’s most memorable lines went to other actresses. In many cases, Shearer’s lines set up jokes, witty remarks, and biting comebacks for Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, or Paulette Goddard to deliver. So even though Shearer gets top billing, it ultimately feels like her character is a springboard that gives other actresses a chance to shine.

Even though The Women performed respectably well at the box office, it wasn’t enough for MGM to recoup the costs of production, continuing a trend of Shearer’s movies losing money. Romeo and Juliet was her first 1930s film to lose money and the extravagant production costs of Marie Antoinette made it another loss for MGM. Idiot’s Delight also lost money, making it one of the few movies Clark Gable made at MGM which lost money. 1940’s Escape was Norma’s last film to turn a profit; her final two films, We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover, both also failed to break even.

After openly declaring that she wasn’t interested in playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and turning down roles in Mrs. Miniver and Now, Voyager, Shearer retired from film in 1942. During the 1980s and 1990s, Shearer’s legacy was effectively rescued by home video. Thanks to home video, many of the films she made during the pre-code era became readily available to the general public for the first time in decades, giving people the chance to see her career in a new light. In the time between her retirement and the advent of home video, Shearer became most closely associated with the “noble woman/prestige picture” stage of her career. The Women, Marie Antoinette, and Romeo and Juliet were the movies of hers that would most commonly be shown on television or at revival screenings, not The Divorcee or A Free Soul, leaving many people with a very incomplete picture of her career. Even though she won an Academy Award for her work in The Divorcee, many were under the impression that Mary Haines was a more typical Norma Shearer role than Jerry.

The fact that The Women went on to be regarded as a genuine classic, one of the highlights of Hollywood’s golden year, did nothing to help soften Shearer’s opinion of the role over time. When author Gavin Lambert was interviewing Shearer for his biography on her, she told him that of all the movies she made with director George Cukor, the only one she ever cared to see again was Romeo and Juliet.

In the end, the career of Norma Shearer was largely defined by divorce. Playing a divorcee in one film was the first bookend of her era as a Hollywood megastar while playing a divorcee in another signaled the end of her reign as MGM’s Queen of the Lot.

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Lady of the Night (1925)

Lady of the Night 1925

When two girls are born at roughly the same time, they go on to lead very different, yet somehow similar, lives. There’s Molly (Norma Shearer), whose father was a convicted criminal and was sentenced to prison by Judge Banning (Fred Esmelton) shortly after Molly was born. Life wasn’t easy for Molly; as she grew up, she lost her mother and ended up in a reform school. Meanwhile, Florence (also Norma Shearer) was the daughter of Judge Banning and happened to be born around the same time as Molly. She enjoyed a life full of privilege and got to attend an excellent boarding school, but like Molly, she also lost her mother.

Both Florence and Molly graduate from their respective schools at about the same time. Molly gets a job as a dime-a-dance girl in a bar and gets together with her boyfriend Chunky (George K. Arthur). One day, a customer gets out of line with her and Chunky tries to put a stop to it. When the customer overpowers Chunky, his friend David (Malcolm McGregor) steps in and puts a stop to things. She’s immediately taken with David. While Chunky is the type of person Molly is accustomed to being around, David is an aspiring inventor and more polished. Although Molly loves David, he only sees her as a friend, but Chunky is jealous of the attention Molly starts giving his friend.

When David announces he has an invention that will open any safe, Chunky thinks criminals would pay hand over fist for it, but Molly encourages him to sell it to bankers so they can use it to keep criminals out. Following Molly’s advice, David presents his invention to the board of directors at a bank, which Judge Banning just happens to be part of. Not only does the board of directors love his invention, he also has the chance to meet Florence, who is also instantly smitten with him. David falls in love with Florence and although she cares about him, she doesn’t have the heart to pursue him when she meets Molly and sees that she loves him. But when Molly realizes how much he loves Florence, she only wants to see him happy.

Lady of the Night is nothing Earth shattering, but it’s a very pleasant little movie. Usually when a movie has an actor or actress playing a dual role, the end result can feel really gimmicky, but this is one movie that seems to actually pull it off; possibly because Florence and Molly only have one scene together. If you’re a big fan of Norma Shearer, Lady of the Night is well worth your time. She’s great in both roles, but I’m particularly fond of her performance as bad girl Molly, especially when she gets to wear that huge, spectacular feathered hat. This also happens to be one of Norma’s earliest films where she has a major role that’s widely available to the general public (He Who Gets Slapped is a year older and is the earliest of her movies that I know of to have a DVD release.)

What’s on TCM: November 2015

Norma Shearer

Happy November, everyone! Hope everyone had their fix of horror movies in Halloween and is ready for a new month of movies to look forward to.

Before we take a look at November’s TCM schedule, a little bit of site news! If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I traditionally spend every November writing about the fabulous pre-code era on a daily basis as part of National Blog Posting Month. But after five years, I feel like I’ve written about most of the most significant pre-code movies and at this point, the pre-codes I have access to (and haven’t previously written about) would make for a pretty lackluster month of posts. So for the sake of quality, I have decided to go in a different direction this year. I’ve decided to shift my attention to another era of filmmaking that I adore, but have long felt I don’t give nearly enough attention on here — the silent era. Stay tuned every day in November for a review of a different classic from the silent era.

Now, back to TCM’s schedule. I’m thrilled to see that Norma Shearer is November’s Star of the Month. She’s one of my favorite actresses, so even though I’ve seen most of the movies they’re showing for her this month aren’t new to me, it will be a pleasure to revisit some of them and catch up on the few I haven’t seen. On Wednesday nights, there will be a spotlight on movies based on the works of southern authors. And in between, there are plenty of delightful days in between.

With no further ado, let’s take a closer look!

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Let Us Be Gay 1930

Let Us Be Gay (1930)

After years of marriage, Kitty Brown (Norma Shearer) still adores her husband Bob (Rod La Rocque) and is faithfully devoted to him and their two children. She doesn’t dress stylishly and she doesn’t spend much time on hair or makeup, but she’s happy. At least, she’s happy until Bob’s mistress drops by the house one day. She’s heartbroken and wants nothing to do with him. But she’s not one to sit around and feel sorry for herself. After he divorce, Kitty gets a makeover and earns a reputation for being notorious maneater.

Three years after her divorce, Kitty is invited to spend a weekend at the home of Mrs. Bouccicault (Marie Dressler). Mrs. Boucciault’s granddaughter Diane (Sally Eilers) is engaged to be married to Bruce (Raymond Hackett), but is not-too-secretly seeing a man named Bob on the side. She invites Kitty because she’s practically an expert at stealing men away from women and asks her to work her magic on Bob. She agrees, not realizing Bob is her ex-husband.

Bob hasn’t seen Kitty since their divorce and he can barely recognize her as the woman he used to be married to. Although it’s an awkward reunion at first, but old feelings start to come back.

I liked Let Us Be Gay more than I expected to. At the time of writing this post, it gets 6.5 stars on IMDB, so really, a pretty average rating by IMDB standards. But it was a pretty entertaining little movie. I loved Norma in it. Seeing Norma play dowdy was certainly a fun surprise; she was hardly recognizable. But after Kitty has her makeover, we get to see Norma doing everything that makes me love her early 1930s roles. Marie Dressler was a lot of fun as the over-the-top Mrs. Bouccicault. And Sally Eilers was a real treat, especially in her drunk scenes. The ending was a bit of a letdown, but I had so much fun watching everything else leading up to that point, I still really like the movie on the whole.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Divorcee (1930)

The Divorcee 1930 Norma Shearer

Plot

When Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) decide to get married, one of the most important things they both want is for their marriage to be a marriage of equals. They live together happily married for three years, but that all changes on the night of their third anniversary party. Several of their friends arrive at Ted and Jerry’s home, including Janice (Mary Doran). Ted and Janice had a brief affair some time ago and it doesn’t take long for Jerry to pick up on the fact that they aren’t just friends. She pressures Ted into admitting to the affair, but he swears it doesn’t mean a thing.

Jerry is devastated by Ted’s infidelity, but since their marriage was supposed to be built on equality, she evens the score by having an affair with Ted’s best friend Don (Robert Montgomery). She admits to it and also tells him it didn’t mean anything to her, but Ted is furious. However, Jerry is even angrier at Ted’s double standards and insists on a divorce so she can be free to pursue as many men as she pleases. But will that kind of lifestyle make her happy?


My Thoughts

I really don’t think The Divorcee gets enough credit nowadays. Although it’s widely accepted as one of the greatest pre-code films, it doesn’t get enough recognition for being a good movie in general. Time has actually been quite kind to The Divorcee, which is a lot more than can be said for many other movies from this era. It lacks the general creakiness that is characteristic of many movies from the late 1920s and very early 1930s. The writing is great and the story still feels very modern and relevant. You could do a remake of it today and audiences could forget how long ago the original story was written. Norma Shearer’s performance is still wonderful; not the sort you have to say, “Well, standards were different back then” about. It’s a very smart, well produced movie that deserves a little more recognition beyond its pre-code factor.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

When Jerry tells Ted she’s “balanced their accounts.”

The scene where Jerry furiously tells Ted that from then on, he’s the only man her door is closed to.

The whole plot in general.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

The Divorcee is based on the novel “Ex-Wife” by Ursula Parrot, which was a bestseller in 1929 because of its scandalous content. Obviously, trying to turn it into a movie was going to be a very risky endeavor because being tied to such a book was going to practically set out a welcome mat for censors and moral crusaders. You might notice that the book is never directly credited as being the basis for the movie; it’s simply stated as being “based on a novel by Ursula Parrot.”

Taking on a provocative character like Jerry was also definitely a big career risk for Norma Shearer. By the time she made The Divorcee, she was an established star, but audiences loved her for playing respectable characters. But she was bound and determined to liven up her image with something more scandalous; a move that could have either brought her career to a new level or been career suicide. Her husband Irving Thalberg didn’t think she was right for the part and even Norma’s maid thought playing such a character would be a bad idea. But she certainly proved them all wrong and not only successfully changed her screen image, but won an Academy Award in the process.

Fashion in Film: Berets

If you’re like me, you often find yourself watching films and seeing tons of fashion styles you would love to wear in real life.  I watch movies from so many decades and from so many different genres, if I actually did copy all the styles I like, I’d have one diverse wardrobe.  But if there’s one accessory you could easily get a lot of mileage out of, it’s a beret.  Berets have been a popular hat style for decades, so if you want to go for a Norma Shearer inspired look one day and a Faye Dunaway inspired look the next, a beret could easily work for both styles.

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Dueling Divas: Joan Crawford vs. Norma Shearer

The Women_Joan and Norma

Bette Davis may be Joan Crawford’s most notorious rival, but personally, I don’t think Joan had nearly as much to fear from Bette as she did from Norma Shearer.  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.  They may not have liked each other very much, but at least they were out of each other’s hair for the most part. 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.

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