There were plenty of other actresses that were far more beautiful than Norma Shearer was in the 1920s and 1930s – and more spunky and flirtatious ones as well, such as “It Girl” Clara Bow or the seductive Louise Brooks over at Paramount. Then you had the glamorous Gloria Swanson and the fiercely unapologetic and sex-obsessed pre-code bad girl, Mae West.
All of these ladies were dripping in sensuality, and while West indulged in the forbidden fruit of sexuality, the rest of them didn’t do so in such a dramatically public way.
Over at MGM, actresses such as Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Greta Garbo were absolutely stunning in their respective roles. Garbo had this exotic allure, but she was made to seek out redemption for her sexual malfeasances even in the pre-code era.
Over at Warner Brothers, gangster films reigned supreme and women breaking bad were seen as being a part of a new wave that was flourishing during the Great Depression.
With all that was going on back then in Hollywood, we tend to forgot about the groundbreaking roles of Norma Shearer in the Pre-Code era. These revolutionary roles are also typically buried under Shearer’s later well-known roles in films such as The Women and Romeo and Juliet.
But let us not forget that it was Shearer who broke down the barrier forbidding the portrayal of everyday, middle-class women on screen who had sex simply because she felt like it. Nor should we forget about her fantastic performance in 1930s The Divorcee.
Sure, there are plenty of other names that come up whenever we’re discussing women’s sexual liberation in early Hollywood, but Norma Shearer’s story is one that is well worth telling. Join Facts Verse as we discuss how Norma Shearer came to be one of the most defining female figures in the early Pre-Code Hollywood era.
Ferocious From The Beginning
Norma was born Edith Norma Shearer on the 10th of August, 1902, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
She came from a place of privilege. Her father, Andrew, was a successful businessman, but his marriage to Norma’s mother was far from blissful. He was prone to manic episodes followed by hopelessly depressive lows.
According to Norma, her father would often lurk around the house like a ‘shadow or a ghost’. Norma’s mom, Edith, was beautiful and flamboyant. She also had a tremendous sense of style. She enjoyed the finer things of life and was always one of Norma’s biggest inspirations to become an actress.
Norma announced her dream of acting on her ninth birthday. Edith supported her goal, but she was held back from providing her daughter with her full attention seeing as how she was delegated to being Andrew’s primary caretaker.
The older Norma grew, Edith became increasingly concerned that her psychical flaws might jeopardize her chances of finding success as an actress. Norma herself once described her appearance as being ‘dumpy’. She felt like her shoulders were too broad, her legs too sturdy, and he hands too blunt. On top of that, she felt like her eyes were much too small.
Even though she felt severely limited by her less-than-ideal physical characteristics, Norma remained ferociously determined to succeed. Instead of seeing her perceived deficiencies as roadblocks, she saw them as hurdles that she could overcome through her wit, charm, and ambition.
In 1918, Norma’s otherwise happy childhood came crumbling down when her father’s business collapsed. She felt like everything she had hoped for suddenly was impossible to obtain. Her sister suffered a mental breakdown, and it seemed like her entire family was falling apart.
After being forced to move into a rundown, tiny house in Montreal and experiencing the cruel realities of poverty firsthand, Norma eventually was able to overcome her discouragement and recommit herself to her ambitions.
Norma might have been able to arrive back at a place of optimism, but Edith didn’t share her daughter’s sunshiny outlook. After leaving her husband and moving into a boarding house with her two daughters, Edith decided to move to New York City so that Norma could take a stab at carving out a career for herself in the motion picture business.
Once in the Big Apple, Norma once again found herself disheartened by the fact that New York wasn’t the place of glitz and glamour she had hoped it would be. Far from it, in fact. There, Norma, her sister, and her mother lived in a particularly bad part of town in a dingy, one-room apartment.
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She Never Backed Down
After discovering that New York wasn’t the magical place of opportunity that she had wished for, Norma wasn’t about to let the bleak situation kill her dreams. Sure, her living conditions were less than ideal, but her passion was intact.
In time, she auditioned for the Ziegfeld Follies. She no doubt envisioned her name being emblazoned in the marquee lights, but that experience too ended in disaster.
Florence Ziegfeld wasn’t impressed in the least bit by Norma. In fact, he called her a dog, criticized her for being cross-eyed, and accused her of having stubby legs.
By this point, however, Norma wasn’t about to let one more naysayer hold her back from chasing her dreams. Determined as ever, she hit the streets, knocking on the doors of every studio in the city in search of work.
After learning of an opening at Universal Studios looking for eight pretty girls to serve as extras, she showed up to the audition, where she beat out 50 other girls for a spot. After getting the role, the door was opened for Norma to appear in other extras parts, including one in DW Griffith’s Way Down East.
During a break in filming one day, she approached the legendary director and told him about her dreams of stardom. Once again, however, Norma was told that she would never make it.
Still undeterred, Norma resorted to modeling work, where she found some success. This eventually led her to landing a break when she was billed in the Poverty Row film The Stealers, which hit theaters in 1920.
Three years later, Louis B. Mayer offered her a contract with his studio, Louis B. Mayer Pictures. which Irving Thalberg was the vice president of at the time. Eventually that studio would merge with Metro Pictures and the Samuel Goldwyn Company to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In 1924, Norma starred in MGM’s first film, He Who Gets Slapped.
The film was a huge success and greatly contributed to Norma’s meteoric rise to fame with the newfound studio. By the following year, Norma was taking the lead in several of the studio’s top-billed films, had become one of MGM’s biggest moneymakers and after a long drawn-out battle full of obstacles, was finally a full-fledged star.
Remaining A Star Was No Easy Task
Norma might have found the success that she had long hoped for, but she knew that it would take a lot of hard work to stay a star. The life of actresses back then was often fleeting. And around her, newcomers to the Hollywood scene like Greta Garbo were beginning to make waves.
Norma and Irving Thalberg struck up a romance and made their first public appearance in 1925. In 1927, the couple got married and went on to have two kids. Just a week after tying the knot, The Jazz Singer debuted in theaters. The film was the first full-length feature with sound.
With the sun setting on the silent film era, Norma became determined to not let her star fade like so many other stars of the silent film era had experienced. In the early days of her film career, Shearer had played innocent heroines, but with the rise of talkies, her silken voice was featured in more sophisticated and provocative roles.
By 1930, Norma had become an icon of style. She had the looks to melt hearts and hair that bobbed fashionably. At the time, this was considered to be the peak of sophistication. Even so, her cross-eyedness was still something that some people took issue with. But as we have already seen time and time again, Norma refused to let these kinds of critiques hold her back.
She Reinvented Herself As A Bad Girl
Fearing that the public would soon grow tired of her wholesome, good girl persona, Shearer took it upon herself to reinvent herself once again.
To prove that she wasn’t one-dimensional and that she could be sexy, Norma hired a photographer to take sensual shots of her in a more adult, sophisticated light.
This photoshoot convinced her husband, Irving Thalberg, that she could play the lead in MGM’s upcoming risque picture The Divorceee. The film ended up being yet another huge success and even earned her an Academy Award.
This led to her appearing in several other successful films that followed including 1930s Le Us Be Gay, 1931s Strangers May Kiss, and 1931s A Free Soul.
Seemingly overnight Norma Shearer was being compared to Pre-code sex symbols like Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo. Her sexy photoshoot tactic had proven to be enormously successful. Now that she was beginning to be seen as a sensual seductress, she was finally getting the respect and attention that she had long desired.
Thalberg tragically passed away in 1936 after having a heart attack. This rattled Norma’s world, but she went on to become the first American actress to make it acceptable and chic to be single and not merely a virgin on screen.
Throughout the remainder of the decade, Norma explored love and sex with a level of frankness and honesty that was unparalleled. In fact, she is considered by many to be one of the first significant feminist icons in early Hollywood.
After the death of her husband, Norma wanted to retire at first, but MGM forced her into a six-picture contract. After being denied the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind due to her cross-eyed stare, Norma starred in 1939s The Women.
Three years later in 1942, she retired from acting. Later that year she got married to a ski instructor named Martin Arrouge, whom she would remain wed to until her death. From then on, she shied away from the spotlight and hardly made any public appearances.
On June 12, 1983, Shearer died of bronchial pneumonia at the age of 80.
Norma Shearer might not be a name that you hear too often these days, but back in her day she was one of the most prominent sex symbols in the film industry. She overcame so many roadblocks to achieve the stardom that she had wanted since childhood, and once she had obtained it, she reinvented herself by tapping into her sex appeal. Because of this, Norma Shearer is remembered as being one of the most noteworthy women to embrace sexual liberation in the early days of motion pictures.
Are you a fan of Norma Shearer’s films? If so, did you know that she was considered to be one of Hollywood’s first sexually liberated actresses? Let us know in the comments.
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