Norma Shearer Biography

Biography of Norma Shearer, one of the biggest stars of the 1930's.

Norma Shearer was born Edith Norma Shearer on August 11, 1902 in Montreal, Quebec. Her father, Andrew, had emigrated from Scotland and at the time of Norma's birth was quite prosperous, being the owner of a thriving construction company. Her mother, Edith, came from a family of English clergymen. During Norma's early years, the family was well-off financially, and she and her older brother and sister enjoyed idyllic childhoods. Her father was mentally unstable, however, and as Norma entered adolescence the family's fortunes dimmed.

Norma's mother was quite ambitious for her children. She pushed Norma to perform in children's theatricals and beauty contests. In 1920 Edith separated from her husband and moved with her children to New York. Norma auditioned to become a chorus girl in the Ziefeld follies, but was turned down for short legs. She modeled in advertisements for everything from automobile tires to fashion. She also landed her first extra role in the silent film, "The Sign on the Door" (1920), and went on to make many silents, including "Way Down East" for the acclaimed director D.W. Griffith.

Irving Thalberg, an executive at the Mayer Company, saw Norma's work and offered her a sixth month contract at one hundred and fifty dollars a week, a nice living at the time. She moved her mother and sister out to Hollywood with her, and appeared in a number of forgettable films. With the creation of mega-studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, however, Norma's luck began to improve. Irving Thalberg suddenly became the studio's boy wonder, the most powerful man in Hollywood aside from Louis B. Mayer himself. He was in love with Norma, and determined to make her a major star. In 1929, Norma converted to Judaism and married Thalberg.

Many stars found the transition from silents to talkies a perilous one, but Norma's newfound power made it easy for her. Her first sound film was "The Trial of Mary Dugan," (1930) and just a year later she won the Academy Award as Best Actress for her work in "The Divorcee" (1931). But many snickered behind her back, mocking her stilted delivery and aquiline, slightly cross-eyed look. Joan Crawford huffed, "How can I compete with her, she sleeps with the boss!"

Norma's most famous roles throughout the thirties were those portraying the sophisticated, "modern" woman. Her character was often an intelligent, witty "career gal" or a wronged society wife. Her beautiful wardrobes in these films were supplied by the studio's top designer, Adrian. She also starred in a series of highbrow costume pictures, including "The Barrets of Wimpole Street"(1935) and "Romeo and Juliet" (1937). At 36, many critics considered her a bit long in the tooth to be playing Juliet.

On August 25, 1930, Norma gave birth to Irving Thalberg, Jr. and she and her family settled into a comfortable home life at 706 Ocean Front Drive, near the homes of friends such as Louis B. Mayer and Marion Davies. Norma was healthy and athletic, swimming, playing tennis, and riding horseback. Unfortunately, her husband Irving was not so healthy. He had had a heart condition for quite sometime, and two weeks after the opening of "Romeo and Juliet," Irving Thalberg suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 37. Norma was devastated. At the funeral, Rabbi Magnin intoned, "The love of Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg was a love greater than that in the greatest motion picture I have ever seen"""ËśRomeo and Juliet.'"

Many people thought that Norma would retire after her husband's death, but she plunged into work on "Marie Antoinette," which became one of the biggest hits of her career. In the late thirties, she had a semi-scandalous affair with the married actor George Raft, but ended it when it became clear that his wife would not consent to a divorce. In the forties she made films of varying quality, the best being "Idiot's Delight" with Clark Gable and "The Women" with Joan Crawford.

Shortly after she ended her film career, she went on a ski holiday in Sun Valley, Idaho with her children. While there she met ski instructor Martin Arrouge, fourteen years her junior. They soon married and she devoted the rest of her life to her husband and children. By all accounts the marriage was a happy one, though in later years Norma slid slowly into the depths of Alzheimer's disease. She died in 1983, at the Motion Picture Retirement Home.

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