Montreal was the childhood home of actress Norma Shearer. The star of silent movies and talkies, the beautiful Shearer overcame her own shortfalls.
The Shearer home in Montreal, Quebec was an unusual place. It seemed that parents Edith and Andrew Shearer did not have a close attachment, but the home was still held a pleasant atmosphere for their three children. Their third child, Edith Norma Shearer, was born on August 10, 1902. Her sister Athole was born in 1900, her brother Douglas the firstborn in 1899. The house rules leaned toward lax. “We were given greater freedom and more opportunities to show initiative than is the lot of most youngsters,” said Norma Shearer in a 1936 interview. Rather than sit in a confined classroom, she took advantage of the freedom to study at home instead.
A pretty child, Norma grew into a beautiful woman. After watching a Vaudeville show on her ninth birthday, she was interested in learning music and becoming an actress. At age 14, Norma won a beauty pageant, even though she needed her teeth straightened and her right eye had a cast to it, causing it to appear crossed.
Norma Shearer to New York
When Andrew Shearer’s business collapsed into bankruptcy in 1918, the Shearers moved from a comfortable home in a good neighbourhood to one in a run-down area of Montreal. In 1920, the girls were packed off to New York with their mother Edith to fulfill her dream of breaking into entertainment. The Shearer women stayed in a cheap boarding house, using their wardrobe trunk as storage, dining table and bench. There was only one bed, and loud city trains passed interminably by their window.
Receiving a look-over by the Ziegfield Follies owner, Norma was turned down. She next attended a Universal Pictures casting call for extras. Chosen along with seven other girls out of dozens, Norma’s first on-screen appearance was in the barn-dancing scene in the silent “Way Down East” in 1920. The film was a foot in the door. Finding work as an extra in several more movies, Norma and her mother moved to California for the bright lights of Hollywood. The cross-country move was worthwhile – Norma signed a five-year contract with Metro Company (later MGM) in 1922, under prodigious young producer Irving Thalberg. Before signing, there was a snag, though. Norma failed the first screen test. Instead of sobbing and dashing her hopes, Norma was irate and determined. She received a second screen test and passed.
Eye Problems Plague Shearerer
Making a film a year from 1924 to 1928, Norma became a movie star. Meanwhile the young actress spent much of her money on doctors to fix her wandering eye. She found “an eye doctor, who trained her to strengthen her weak eye,” said the “Biography for Norma Shearer” at IMDb. Learning the craft of make-up to highlight her best features, Norma was conscious about her appearance.
Norma’s future became even brighter in 1927 when she married Thalberg. Her husband thought that Norma would retire from acting when they wed, but she was just beginning. Adept, she transitioned easily from silent screen star to talkies’ “Queen of MGM Studios.” Filming her first “talkie”, “The Trial of Mary Dugan,” in 1929, Norma continued to grow in fame. Appearing in several more movies, in 1930 she won an Oscar for her role in “The Divorcee.” (Over the length of her career, Norma was nominated for six Oscar Awards.) The same year, the Thalbergs welcomed their first child, son Irving Jr. Their second child was daughter Katherine, born in 1935. In the 1930s, Norma appeared only in her influential and prestigious producer-husband’s films.
Actress Turned Down Future Classics
Suffering a devastating heart attack, Irving Thalberg died on September 14, 1936 at age 37. Much too young, four years earlier he had suffered a first heart attack. Norma considered leaving the movie business, but the studio instead contracted her for another six movies. Earning Oscar nominations for many movies, she also turned down roles in films that became classic: Gone with the Wind, Sunset Blvd., and Mrs. Miniver. At her peak, Norma was earning $6,000 a week; she was paid $150,000 for her role in Marie Antoinette in 1938.
Six years after the death of Irving, Norma married Martin Arrouge in 1942. The Sun Valley ski instructor was 20 years her junior and they remained married for over 40 years. The performer retired from the movie industry the same year and aside from an active social life, slipped from publicity. While in Sun Valley, Idaho, Norma spotted a young woman at a ski lodge. Recommended to MGM by Norma, the girl became the talented Janet Leigh.
Suffering depression and Alzheimer’s Disease for nearly a decade before her death, Edith Norma Shearer died of pneumonia on June 12, 1983. She was interred with her first husband in Glendale, California’s Great Mausoleum in Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
Douglas Shearer a Technical Genius
What happened to the rest of the Shearer-Thalberg family? Norma’s sister Athole became an actress in her own right, but did not receive the same acclaim as Norma. Their brother Douglas joined them in California, becoming a renowned pioneer of movie sound design and a recording director. Called a technical genius, he received seven Oscars for his work. Norma’s son Irving was a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He died of cancer in 1988 at age 58. Head of the Society of Animal Rights in Aspen, Colorado, Norma’s daughter Katherine also died of cancer at age 71.
Edith Norma Shearer was honoured by Canada Post in June 2008 with a stamp in the “Canadians in Hollywood: The Sequel” collection. A star installed in 2008 on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame also commemorates the brilliant actress.
Beautiful, elegant, determined, and dubbed “first lady of the screen,” Norma Shearer overcame shortfalls and pitfalls to rise to the top of the early movie industry. To think, the remarkable Shearer story began in… Canada.
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This article first appeared on Suite101.com in July 2010. Copyright Susanna McLeod