Monday, February 6, 2012


Norma Shearer (1902 - 1983)

Epiphany is defined as "... a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by a simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience..." one of those golden moments when the light bulb goes off and awareness seems suddenly heightened. I knew something phenomenal had just happened even if I did not quite understand exactly what it was.

Having randomly pulled an old movie out of a stack of oldies piled next to the TV to watch one evening, my hand, completely by accident happened to land of the 1939 release of Director George Cukor's THE WOMEN
The Principle Cast.
. At the end of the movie while comfortably nodding off to sleep on the couch the golden light of an Epiphany descended on me. "...something important had just happened...". Such was my introduction to Miss Norma Shearer...

While Miss Norma may well have been the featured star of this estrogen laden movie the ensemble cast is by far one of the most talented and powerful I've ever seen assembled. The wonderful insight into this gem was that it was all about men, yet not one man had appeared in the entire movie! It was all about men from a woman's perspective directed by a man.... and there it was, the epiphany.

Above: Norma takes home movies in THE WOMEN

Miss Norma Shearer playing Mary Haines (Back to us)
in "
THE WOMEN" shows her daughter home movies.

The supporting cast of all 'alpha' females included the Cougar, the Fox, the Lioness, the Leopard, the Deer with the names of Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Mary Boland even Miss Marjorie Main appeared ! Truly an overwhelming bucket of talent was filled to the brim and George Cukor trying to direct these powerful driven intelligent women. I would've paid big money just to be on the set watching how he did it. Norma got top billing over Joan Crawford and considered it a real coup. Can you imagine the squabbles that would have taken place? Particularly between these two...

Above: Miss Joan Crawford and Miss Norma Shearer

It was this movie (The Women) that sparked my interest in both Miss Norma and Old Movies. This all took place some years ago of course and at the time I did not realize what a truly phenomenal creative time in Hollywood history had occurred in 1939. There's been nothing like it before or since. Here are some of the TITLES FOR 1939, see for yourself.

A brilliant segment from THE WOMEN was the sudden unexpected transition from Black/White to the brilliant color fashion show with all the latest fashions...

The Color fashion show from THE WOMEN

Female Talent In The Thirties...

As you can tell by now I am totally at the effect of Miss Norma and her slinky, clinging and revealing gowns of the thirties and some would say her gesticulations
Simply beautiful.
were excessive but I am not one of them. At 5ft 1in she had a very average figure (my opinion) and was not particularly well endowed with mousey brown hair. Even though she won a beauty contest in 1920 (Age 14) you could have passed her on the street without a second look. It's what she did with it that made all the difference.

Before Miss Norma, during the 'Silent Era', the biggest star, America's Sweetheart was of course the eternal virgin Miss MARY PICKFORD playing very feminine childlike roles. There were also the sexual 'vamps' that ruined men's lives and singing the eternal song of the sirens lured men to their doom, like Miss THEDA BARA. Vamps although sexual were portrayed as if they didn't really like sex very much but rather they used it to turn men into sex slaves and ultimately destroyed them. Miss Norma pushed for a new image of women with sexual freedom for the wholesome girl.

The Hays Moral Code
Although passed in 1931 was not rigidly enforced until about 1934 and directly affected Miss Norma's career.
The Victorian Era with all it's refined sensibilities was waning with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. America had entered the post WWI era of the roaring twenties and was slowly recovering from the great depression as great social and cultural transitions were taking place. As usual in unrestrained environments competition among studios caused each new moving picture release to push the envelope just a little bit further in order gain audience, and Hollywood finally went too far with it's on-screen depictions and off-screen indiscretions.

The Pre-Code Era depicted on-screen scenes of homosexuality, illegal drug use, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, sex outside of marriage, adultery, prostitution, gangsters as heroes etc., etc.. It was all rather too much for the Catholic Church and the rather repressed moral majority having never heard of some of the very real inner city vices that were taking place on a daily basis.

Scandalous scenes such as this with Miss Carole Lombard dis-robing and running around in the 1932 release of "NO MAN OF HER OWN" were commonplace in New York but shocking in Nebraska...

To see entire scene CLICK HERE

IMDB lists 7,619 titles released between the years 1930 to 1934 (CLICK HERE) which breaks down to about four new movies per week being released and distributed by the studios. Many fortunes were made and lost but the social impact of movies was tremendous. Here on the right is a list if you are interested in reading more about the code.

As you might imagine the social upheaval was tremendous as the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled the First Amendment right of Free Speech did NOT extend to movies (Mutual Film Corp. vs Industrial Commission of Ohio) so each state got to set up it's own board of censorship to protect their particular community from whatever they deemed unacceptable. What was acceptable in New York was not necessarily acceptable in Kansas.

"...The morals of yesterday are no more. They are as dead as the day they were lived. Economic independence has put woman on exactly the same footing as man"...
Norma Shearer - 1928
The Code played an important role in her career as MGM Production Chief Irving G. Thalberg collaborated with other studio heads to form a committee in 1927 and establish some industry wide "Do's and Don'ts" which consisted of eleven subjects best avoided, and twenty-six to be handled very carefully in order to forestall any regulation by the Government. Irving signed Miss Norma to a long term MGM contract in 1923 and they married (she was 21yrs old) in Sept. of 1927 and remained married until his death in Sept. of 1936. There have been some unflattering accounts with respect to the raising their two children. The times were considerably different and I prefer not to judge such things.

Irving Thalberg & Norma Shearer

Irving Thalberg of Brooklyn survived childhood illness to run Universal Pictures at twenty; co-found Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at twenty-four; and make stars of Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Jean Harlow. Known as Hollywood's “Boy Wonder,” Thalberg created classics such as Ben-Hur, Tarzan the Ape Man, Grand Hotel, Freaks, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Good Earth, but died tragically at thirty-seven.

There is no doubt the imposition of the Production Code was aimed directly at the suppression of women, and particularly at the 'message' being delivered in movies. Censoring ideas was the goal. The power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Miss Norma's America cannot be overstated and was the impetus behind The Code. Sprinkle in some self righteous indignant politicians looking to garner the Catholic vote and you've the Federal Govt. attempting to run Hollywood and decide what audiences get to see and even more importantly what they don't get to see.

Miss Greta Garbo was really the only female superstar that remained a Superstar and made the leap with the advent of 'Talkies' (1927). Miss Norma's popularity increased but many others fell by the wayside after the "Jazz Singer" was released. In 1933 Greta Garbo starred in "QUEEN CHRISTINA" in which she dressed as a man and had intimate relationships with both men and women. 'Loose' , 'Fallen' or sexually ambiguous women were being idealized by Hollywood and drew the largest audiences and were the direct target of The Code.

It was into this environment Miss Norma came with a new approach. Although born in Canada she came across as the charming, attractive, independent, intelligent all American girl who would decide for herself what she wanted to do. "The Women" released under the auspices of The Code in 1939 seems a perfect example of it's message: After years of marriage Mr. Stephen Haines is lured away from his devoted cultured wife and happy mother of his children (Norma) by the lurid sexual manipulations of an attractive devious siren perfume sales counter girl in a Dept. Store (Joan Crawford). Mrs. Stephen Haines (Norma) must plot with her mother and girlfriends to spice up her looks with intimate clothing and "Jungle Red" to compete and win back her husband's favors to avoid a "Reno" divorce.

(Click Pic Above For the Plot)

I loved this movie! As a man, who would'nt want their mistress and wife to compete for his favors? Not much thought was given to the obvious double standard. Mrs. Haines should obviously have taken on a lover, but NOT under The Code. Norma was wonderful.

Contrast "The Women" with Miss Norma's Oscar winning performance in the Pre Code 1930 release of "The Divorcee" in which she had three, count'em, three lovers and an "Open Marriage". Mrs. Jerry Martin (Norma Shearer), discovering her husband has been unfaithful responds in kind.

Under the Code crime could not pay. Sex outside of marriage didn't pay. Divorce didn't pay. Leaving your husband (no matter what) didn't pay. Even having a job often didn't pay. The Production Code ensured a miserable fate or at least a rueful, chastened one for any woman who dared test these boundaries. No kisses longer than three seconds and definitely no 'open mouth' kissing. You can imagine the effect on the free spirited Miss Norma.

"Accordingly, every female character in movies got her virginity back. If she lost it again, she was in big trouble. The price for nonconjugal relations was either death, permanent loneliness, or a profuse protracted, and degrading apology. At the same time, women became the humble protectors of marriage. If a husband strayed and wanted to return, a wife not only had to take him back, she had to smile as she did."
...Mick LaSalle

"A FREE SOUL" (1931) has one of the funniest scenes (just below) that my wife thinks is hilarious, nodding, giggling and chuckling every time she sees it! (I wonder who she's thinking about?)

Click Pic above For the entire scene from A FREE SOUL (1931)

Here is Norma with all 3 Lovers from THE DIVORCEE(1930)
(Chester Norris, Conrad Nagel and Robert Montgomery)

Miss Norma retreated from Hollywood with the death of her husband (Irving Thalberg 1899-1936) and it must have been quite a blow. He was always a bit on the sickly side and it has been speculated Miss Norma may well have fashioned some of her movie characters with many lovers from her own experiences. Irving's death was a real loss and she seemed to lose a great deal of confidence and made some poor judgments in rejecting various parts being offered. She actually rejected David O. Selnick's offer to play Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With The Wind" (1939). She also turned down the lead in MRS MINIVER and it went to Miss Greer Garson.

As usual when someone of wealth dies there is controversy and Irving's death was no exception. his estate was worth about three million (A Fantastically sum in 1936) and Miss Norma hired lawyers to make sure MGM continued to pay his royalties to the estate. MGM contested of course but the wiley Miss Norma threatened to give the whole story to the famous Hollywood gossip columnist Miss Louella Parsons. MGM backed off and paid the remaining 1.5 million in royalties.

In 1976 I saw a very interesting movie entitled "THE LAST TYCOON". Although it was not billed as a tribute to Irving and was not a huge success it did look an awful lot like the Hollywood life of Irving Thalberg and turned out to be an adaption of a book by F.Scott Fitzgerald about a producer that slowly works himself to death. It is of course a tribute to Irving...

A Clip from THE LAST TYCOON (1976)

I really like that clip. In 1942 Miss Norma the cougar (now 40yrs old) worked her gorgeous feminine wiles on a 28yr old ski instructor named Martin ArrougĂ© (March 23, 1914 – August 8, 1999) and reeled him like Demi & Ashton. It musta worked as they remained married for the next 40 years until her death in
Norma Pix!

  1. Pix
  2. Pix
  3. Pix
  4. Pix
June of 1983 from advanced Alzheimer's Disease. She was 80yrs young.

I was watching the news the other day as a reporter stood on the sidewalk in New York asking passersby if they knew any of the men in these three photographs. No one did but one enterprising young man took a stab at it and said "...isn't this guy a game show host?...". The picture he pointed to was Newt Gingrich, the other two were John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. I don't hold out much hope that many will remember Miss Norma, but to this day when Clark Gable takes her wrap off and she just moves across the room in "A Free Soul" my brain loses all control over my blood supply as it rushes off to the nether regions...


We love the Norma !

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We love Vintage Hollywood! The likes of Errol Flynn, Richard Widmark, Cary Grant, Sterling Hayden and those magnificent ladies of yesteryear!
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