Many people, and perhaps most, living in the City of Westmount, Québec probably have no idea that one of the greatest stars, and one of the most powerful woman in Hollywood, was born and grew up in their area.
The future star began life as Edith Norma Shearer on August 10, 1902, although some sources say she was born in 1900 and one, a publication called Film Folk states she was born in 1903. She was named for her mother, Edith Fisher Shearer, an English woman from a family that had produced a long line of clergymen. Norma`s father, Andrew Shearer, a Scotsman, was a general contractor and construction company executive, having first worked at and then inherited the business when his father passed away. His company was the first to manufacture hockey sticks at the factory then located at 225 St. Patrick Street. Norma and her older siblings, sister Athole and brother Douglas, grew up in one of the homes her father had built for the well-to-do on Grosvenor Street, which runs up the slopes of the mountain that is both the source of its name and the main geological feature of Westmount.
Norma Shearer grew up like most kids in that era in that city. In fact, she was once quoted as saying her childhood was “a pleasant dream.” However, Montréal winters can be bitter and she often suffered from bad colds. Summers there can produce a tropical, stifling heat and it is tough to imagine living in the days before air conditioning. To beat the heat, as the expression goes, Shearer spent as much time outdoors as possible. Also, like most kids, she fell in love with the movies, which were a brand-new entertainment form when she was just a child. And she was not just a fan of the medium, but, at 12 years old, she had become a fan of the legendary Pearl White. Pearl White, in case you didn’t know, starred in the 1914 classic serial The Perils of Pauline. When a publicity tour brought her to Montréal, the young Norma Shearer ran behind Pearl White’s car trying to follow it, hoping it would stop, dying for a chance to meet her favorite actress. Perhaps it was here that she formed her first dreams of one day being a movie star.
Whether it was the influence of those early movies, or her own dreams, Shearer was aware from a fairly early age that she had charm and good looks. She needed no encouragement to enter a beauty contest and it came as no surprise when she won. She was just 15 years old, but was quickly becoming aware of herself as a young woman. It was also around this time that the family’s fortunes were falling. As the First World War drew to a close, the post-Victorian world was changing. Money was tight and demand for large comfortable homes was on the wane. There is also a suggestion that Norma’s father suffered from depression, or something more serious. Whatever the reason, his construction business was in trouble and everyone in the family knew they would have to make some severe changes in their spending habits. The Shearers sold their home on the mountain and moved to 11 Clandeboye Avenue. It was a more moderate and affordable home in a less imposing neighborhood, but the Shearers were a close family and they all worked together to pull through this crisis. In fact, Norma quit school at 16 years old and began plugging sheet music. Mrs. Shearer went to work for a department store, Athole found employment as an office clerk, and Douglas, who would later go on to become one of the most important behind-the-scenes people in Hollywood, found a job as an assistant technician with an electrical-engineering firm.
This change in their circumstances seems to have been the impetus that eventually led all of them to Hollywood. Had money problems not forced the family to rethink their future, chances are Norma Shearer would have grown up as a nice-looking kid from an affluent family in what was then Canada`s richest neighbourhood. She would have probably married well, lived in a big home and raised a family. But now, in the summer of 1920, all of that seemed impossible. Within a few short months, Norma’s mother would make a vital decision. A decision that would change their lives. No one thought that Hollywood was in their future, but Mrs. Shearer realized there was little or no future for her daughters in Montréal. She separated from her husband and moved with Athole and Norma to New York in the hope of giving them a chance to exploit their looks and maybe, with some luck, begin a career in the theatre.
The three Shearer woman arrived in New York City with a few meager belongings and a small stack of reference letters addressed to various New York City theatrical producers, including one to the most important of them at the time, Florenz Ziegfeld. They found a place to live in a small, run-down apartment building at 57th Street and 8th Avenue. Mrs. Shearer was able to get work at a local department store, so that Norma and Athole would be able to pound the pavement up and down Broadway looking for a break. Shearer’s first visit, which was to Ziegfeld, was terribly discouraging. He made it quite clear she was not his Follies-girl type. In his opinion, her legs were too short, her teeth needed straightening and her eye needed a cast removed. A lesser person would have given up and fled for comfort of home, even if home was not that comfortable. But she persisted. She would constantly remind herself that she was considered a great beauty back home. Later, however, she started to think that maybe she was wrong. Maybe the stage was not for her. This thinking began to gel when other producers more-or-less confirmed Ziegfeld`s first negative opinion.
Norma Shearer remembered Pearl White. If Broadway was going to reject her, and her sister, there just might be work for them in the movies. If Shearer knew one thing for certain, she knew how to get noticed and so mapped out a strategy that she used when trying to get work as an extra for herself and Athole. Knowing they would be overlooked unless they drew attention, she would cough loudly and shuffle her feet. It worked, and on many occasions they were chosen from scores of less pushy hopefuls.
At the start of the movie era there were only a handful of production companies. That’s why it may seem like everyone worked for, at one time or another, D.W. Griffith and Biograph Pictures. Shearer landed her first extra role in the silent film The Sign on the Door in 1920, and later worked as an extra in Griffith’s Way Down East, but don’t blink or you’ll miss her. To help with the family finances, she also worked as a model. Not for fashion, and not on the runway, but for various advertising companies and their illustrators. Her face appeared along side rubber tires, house coats, and even, anonymously on magazine covers.
Shearer’s career took a decidedly more professional step when she met and agreed to be represented by a talent agent named Edward Small. He seemed to be as determined as her that she would make a name for herself, and he was able to get her roles in The Stealers and The Leather Pushers. People were starting to pay attention to this young transplanted Canadian. One was the general manager of Universal Studios, Irving Thalberg. Try as he might, however, he was unable to sign her. Universal wanted her to make the trip west to work in California, but the studio was unwilling to cover the moving expenses for Norma, her mother and sister. This temporary disappointment was, in retrospect, a good thing. Thalberg soon left Universal to join a new company being formed by three of Hollywood’s major producers, and in April 1924, just after the merger of Metro and Goldwyn with the Mayer Company, Shearer was given a small part in what would be their inaugural film, He Who Gets Slapped, starring the great Lon Chaney. She had, by the way, signed a six-month contract at one $150 per week, including paid moving expenses to the West Coast for herself, her mother and sister.
MGM was destined to become one of the greatest studios in the history of Hollywood. Much of its early rise was credited to its vice-president and so-called “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg, who was quickly gaining a reputation as a genius for turning out quality films. Under Thalberg’s tutelage, Shearer made a number of small films for the studio, including The Devil’s Circus, The Waning Sex and His Secretary. None of these films were given MGM’s big-budget, star treatment, but they did help to bolster Shearer’s image, build her fan base and help her polish her acting. But she was impatient. She constantly complained that other actors were getting all the better parts. She seemed to almost camp out at Thalberg’s office, appealing for his help and guidance. In one reported heated exchange, he laid down the MGM law “you’ll play the parts that are assigned to you, and we’ll have no more about it.” Oddly, Shearer developed a great admiration for Thalberg, and began to accept the parts she was given, seeing them as stepping stones to better films in the future. Her chance at stardom finally came with the role of Kathy in Romberg’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg. Not only did this prove her abilities in the eyes of the studio, but in the eyes of Thalberg, as well. After filming was completed, Thalberg and Shearer became engaged.
Just a year after Norma, Athole and Mrs. Shearer had moved west, her brother Douglas came for a family visit and was introduced to Louis B. Mayer. It was 1925, and while still a few years in the future everyone was talking about turning silent movies into “talkies,” the two men spent some time discussing the future of sound and the film industry. Mayer was reluctant to do anything because of the perceived impracticality of the technology. In 1929 all of that changed when Paramount installed a sound department in reaction to the success of The Jazz Singer. Mayer eventually sent Douglas Shearer to work at the Bell Laboratories. This, combined with his previous technical experience, led Mayer to offer him the job of organizing MGM’s sound department. Douglas Shearer held the post of sound director for many years at MGM, going on to be given seven Academy Awards for sound recording and six more Academy Awards for technical achievement in sound.
While 1929 brought sound to the movies, in September of that year Norma Shearer married Irving Thalberg, who now was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. They had been engaged for over two years. The picture below was taken when her plans to marry had been announced in 1927. During the time they were seeing each other, Shearer converted to the Jewish faith and after a European honeymoon, she returned to MGM and was greeted like royalty. The studio presented her with a new portable dressing room, as a gift from Irving. It was this sort of special treatment which merited her the title “The Queen” of the lot. Rival actress, Joan Crawford was quoted as saying “how can I compete with her when she’s sleeping with the boss.”
Shearer’s first sound picture was The Trial of Mary Dugan and the reviews were favourable. She was on her way to being a star of the silver screen. Her work brought recognition from her peers and adulation from her fans. While the dark moments of her life in Montréal had been put aside, she was able to call on the better times when she began a series of films virtually designed to use her ease in high society and her sophisticated style. One of them, The Divorcée, brought her the Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of an idealistic wife who watches her marriage fail due to male hypocrisy.
The year 1930 wasn’t important just because of her Academy Award. On August 25 of that year, she gave birth to Irving Thalberg, Jr. 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. Shearer was healthy and athletic, swimming, playing tennis andriding horseback. Rumours were rife that motherhood would also bring retirement, but she continued to work in an almost unbroken string of hit movies. In fact, she was nominated for four more Oscars in the next eight years. They were for her work in A Free Soul in 1931, The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1934, Romeo and Juliet, opposite Leslie Howard in 1936, and 1938’s costume extravaganza Marie Antoinette.
In June 1935, just prior to the production of Romeo and Juliet, she gave birth to her second and last child Katherine. She was, at this time, devoting more energy to her children and husband who had suffered from a heart condition. Two weeks after the opening of Romeo and Juliet, Irving Thalberg suffered a heart attack and died. He was only 37 years old. Norma Shearer, herself only 35, went into mourning and suffered from bronchial pneumonia. Her illness was so serious rumors circulated that she may not survive. After her recovery she had, in fact, planned to retire. But she had made a commitment to appear in Marie Antoinette, and combined with all the legal problems associated with the resolution of her late husband’s estate, which included a large block of stock in MGM, she decided to renew her contract at $150,000 per picture for six films over the next two years.
After Marie Antoinette, Shearer appeared in the classic 1939 film The Women, directed by George Cukor. It’s all-star cast included Rosalind Russell, her real-life and on-screen rival Joan Crawford, as well as Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard. The film set must have seemed like old-home week for those who had been rejected by the producers of Gone with the Wind, which was also shot in 1939. Cukor had been fired from GWTW. Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard had both tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, and Goddard was the final choice for the role and was ready to sign when Vivien Leigh suddenly appeared in Hollywood with her then lover and companion, Lawrence Olivier. To get the film made David Selznick had to borrow both money and Glark Gable from MGM. The studio could have insisted on Norma Shearer for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, and according to movie historians she was, in fact, offered the role. However, wisely, she quickly withdrew when fans of the novel raised a large and loud protest.
While The Women was her final classic performance, she would appear in four more films under her contract with MGM. One of them was Idiot’s Delight, her third and final film with Clark Gable. Although he had become a huge star by this time, Shearer’s box office clout had not weakened and her name was listed first on most, if not all theatre marquees. But her ability to pick and choose legendary roles was greatly diminished after the death of her husband. For example, she turned down two movies that are now regarded as classics: Mrs. Miniver, in the role that went to Greer Garson, who took home an Oscar for her performance, and the Bette Davis role in Now, Voyager. Shearer made what would be her last film, Her Cardboard Lover, in 1942.
With that film safely completed, Shearer and her children set off for a skiing holiday in Sun Valley, Idaho. While relaxed and away from the glitter and glamour of Hollywood, she met and eventually married Martin Arrouge, a ski instructor and real estate promoter. She had often been mentioned in the gossip columns after the death of Irving Thalberg. In the late 1930s, for example, she had had a semi-scandalous affair with the married actor George Raft, but she ended it when it became clear that his wife would not consent to a divorce. But this time it was different. Although Shearer was some 14 years older and came from an totally different social status, it was apparent to everyone that Norma and Martin had found true love. Or perhaps more accurately, true love had found them. They married shortly after she converted to Roman Catholicism.
There was talk of Shearer going back to work, but nothing came of it. She began a new phase in her life devoted entirely to her husband and children, as well as helping promising actors and actresses. She helped establish the careers of both Robert Evans and Janet Leigh during the 1950s. The only news to surface about Norma Shearer after her retirement was that she was happy and well, still lovingly married to Martin and socializing within a close circle of friends. Norma and Martin were once spotted by a journalist in the mid 1970s holding hands while shopping in Beverly Hills.
Shearer remained active well into her mid-70s, but her last years were not kind. The former star slid slowly into the depths of Alzheimer’s disease and it became impossible for her family to provide the care she needed. Norma Shearer, the little girl from Montreal who had become “The First Lady of Hollywood” died in 1983 at the Motion Picture Retirement Home.
Also see: Norma Shearer’s filmography.
All of the images used in this biography were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection. This biography is Copyright © 2002 by Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without prior written permission. For more information about copyright, click here.