Norma Shearer was not only Hollywood’s most powerful star, but also the most unlikely candidate for the position. Her determination was inspiring. She ranks along with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis as one of the most determined women in the history of Hollywood. By the time she was twenty-seven, she was Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s Queen of the Lot. By the time she was thirty, she was known to movie goers as Queen Norma: First Lady of the Films. All the studio inspired publicity did nothing for the critics who “reviewed” her films after her retirement. She went from being the most respected woman in Hollywood, to a joke for critics to tear to shreds. Too many people dismiss Norma Shearer’s career without knowing the entire story. The only Norma information most know is from what is written in Joan Crawford biographies, which do a horrible job in their portrayal of Norma. For those of you who “can’t stand Shearer,” I encourage you to read this biography with an open mind. It’s time for you to be reintroduced to one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.
How Norma Shearer ever made a decent career in the movies is a mystery in itself. How she managed to become the most powerful woman in Hollywood seems like a question that can never really be answered. As beautiful as she was from a young age, she was by no means a screen beauty. She was not alone on that. Both Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford bombed on their first Hollywood screen tests as well, but Norma was determined. She would become famous, or rather infamous, for forcing the public to acknowledge her assets, while desperately hiding her physical problems. She was nowhere near as talented as Lillian Gish, but through her years she would develop her own acting technique that, for those of us who realize it, was excellent for its time.
Despite all those setbacks, Norma Shearer did make it. In fact, she was to become the biggest star of them all. Norma Shearer earned her stardom in her own right, and for critics to dismiss her as an Irving Thalberg creation is ignorance. This biography, and entire site as a whole, is dedicated to her legend...
The controversy about Norma Shearer starts at the very beginning. Contrary to what most believe, Norma Shearer was indeed born on August 10, 1902. (Records at Westmount High School prove that Athole was indeed the older of the Shearer sisters. In Complicated Women Mick LaSalle gives thanks to Philip Dombowsky, “whose research nailed down the date of Shearer’s birth.”) According to the few survivors of Norma’s childhood that biographer Gavin Lambert was able to track down, the Shearer family home was “different than your average home in Montreal, Canada.” Norma was born the child of Edith and Andrew Shearer. Norma’s siblings included brother Douglas, who was born on November 17, 1899, and sister Athole, born on November 20, 1900. No information exists on Edith’s and Andrew’s relationship prior to Norma’s birth. It is doubted by many that there was any emotional connection at all between them, which strained things for the children considerably. However, Norma always described her childhood as a “pleasant dream until the age of 16.” In 1936, Norma told an interviewer about her childhood:
As a child, mine was a glorious life, one which I have never ceased to be thankful… My parents were decidedly not the pampering type, which, whether or not they realized it at the time, was a substantial rock in the foundation they were building for us. We were given greater freedom and more opportunities to show initiative than is the lot of most youngsters. Because I loved this freedom, I preferred to study at home rather than be confined to a schoolroom. In many ways this was an advantage, but then sometimes one is not so sure. Education, even the conventional kind, is fortifying armor; but so is the spirit bred by freedom and finding out things for yourself. Who can tell?
Either things were really a “glorious life” in the Shearer home, or it was a desperate lie told by Norma to maintain her happy image. (Not that it would be her fault, all stars, then or now, have a tendency to lie about their real beginnings.) It is known, however, that Athole suffered her first mental breakdown in early 1919 when the news returned to Montreal that several of her childhood friends had died in the First World War. At the time, doctors diagnosed Athole with a case of “war neurosis,” and ended the problem there. (What they obviously didn’t realize, was that these kinds of mental breakdowns would become more frequent as Athole got older. Norma also suffered from mental illness, but in her later years.) Athole’s mental breakdown was the first known in the Shearer family, but Andrew Shearer's was the next. After the business that Norma’s grandfather, James Shearer, founded went bankrupt under Andrew Shearer’s control, Norma, Athole, Edith, and Andrew were forced to relocate to a bleak home in the middle of a poverty-stricken neighborhood. (Norma’s brother, Douglas, moved out and was starting his own life during this family crisis.)
Before all the family tragedy, Norma had been determined to turn herself into a great piano player, but with the recent setbacks, her parents were forced to sell the piano for financial reasons. After a few weeks in the new, dreary home, Edith announced to Andrew that she was packing Norma, Athole, and herself up to find jobs in the entertainment industry. The three relocated to New York.
The three Shearers arrived in New York in early January 1920. They booked a room at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street. It was another bleak setting. The apartment contained only one double bed, one cot with no mattress, a gas jet for cooking, and a single closet. With trains consistently passing by, and a big, obnoxious sign outside, it was definitely humble beginnings. The wardrobe trunk they had with them served a few purposes since they were using it to store clothes, as a table, and sometimes using it to sit on. Nearly every meal eaten came straight from cans, or a few cheap, dirty restaurants nearby. Luckily, Edith did find employment in a department store, but Norma and Athole were having trouble getting their feet in the entertainment industry.
Before Norma had left Canada, she had the luck of getting a letter written from the leader of a local theatre troupe. He had written about Norma’s “promising” career. When Norma met with Florenz Ziegfeld, he gave her a good look over, and then told her to come back the next day. When she did return, his secretary informed Norma that he had left town on a “sudden emergency.” Norma soon had the luck of signing up for a local association which specialized in giving bit parts to wannabe starlets. Her first assignment was The Flapper (1920) where she played an extra in a barnyard dance scene. The next chance was to play a bit part in the epic Marion Davies vehicle, The Restless Sex (1920). After that, she then received the opportunity to play another bit part in D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, Way Down East. The already legendary director was also directing the already legendary Lillian Gish. It was Norma’s first opportunity to realize how far one could seriously take a career in films. On the set, she approached Griffith about her hopes of becoming the cinema’s next starlet. He responded that her teeth needed to be corrected and she would have to fix the cast in her eye, but there was no point in even trying, because she would never become a star.
Norma was obviously already aware of the problems, and it was more important now than it ever had been, to get them resolved. Writers can not wait to point out Norma’s lazy eye, but no one has really ever examined what was exactly wrong, or which eye gave Norma her problem. In Complicated Women, Mick LaSalle gives thanks to Dr. Vrouvas, who concluded that Norma suffered from Intermittent Alternating Esotropia. It was the right eye which gave Norma her problems; however, this defect could sometimes cause the left eye to drift out of focus as well. How Norma solved the problem remains undetermined. Lawrence Quirk wrote that Norma had undergone optical surgery to get the condition fixed, but that would have fixed the problem entirely. Gavin Lambert’s conclusion on the subject makes more sense. According to Lambert, Norma used the method of Dr. William Horatio Bates, who concluded that certain exercises could build up the eye muscles, making the problem less noticeable. (In my opinion, I believe in the diagnosis from Vrouvas, and that Norma’s use of the Bates method was indeed her resolution to the problem. As for the teeth, well, any dentist could solve that.)
After having the door slammed shut in her face, by the two gods of the entertainment industry no less, anyone else would have naturally given up. But Norma refused to do so. Her breakthrough came in the summer of 1920, when Edward Small gave her the part of the daughter, Julie Martin, in The Stealers (1920). For a B film, it received great reviews, and attracted a lot of attention for Norma. It wasn’t enough though, because with the exception of Torchy’s Millions, Norma was off the screen for the rest of the year.
By 1923, things had turned around for Norma Shearer. She was finding steady employment in throwaway, East coast productions, but it was better than no work at all. That same year, Norma was given her first starring vehicle in A Clouded Name. Her performance in Channing of the Northwest (1922; also starring Eugene O'Brien) caught the attention of the young producer Irving Thalberg, who agreed to bring her out to Hollywood for employment. Little Norma Shearer was on her way to big success, and more than likely, she had already been aware of this from the very start.