Norma Shearer had stated to family and friends alike that she was going to be an actress, but it was difficult to take her seriously. She did have a sense of style. She also had flaws. Her legs were not well turned. Her eyes were blue, which went pale when shot with the orthochromatic film of the time. Her left eye had a tendency to wander, the symptom of a strabismus. Not surprisingly, she was met with indifference.
Norma and Athole managed to get extra work, but her interview with Florenz Ziegfeld, the Follies impresario, was limited to a glance, a grunt, and a hasty exit. The film director D.W. Griffith was less rude but no more encouraging. After Norma had worked for a week as a background extra in his film Way Down East, he told her that she was unphotogenic.
Norma was living with her mother and sister in a shabby apartment at Fifty-seventh Street and Eight Avenue. She had to persist. She consulted the well-known Dr. William Horatio Bates and began exercising her eye muscles. She got roles in three minor films but spent most of 1920 destitute. In January 1921 the Shearer women returned to Montreal, apparently in defeat. Yet their venture had not been in vain.
The Shearer women came back to Montreal only to learn that Aunt Bee had put Grandmother Emily into a home for the aged. While Douglas Shearer supported the three Shearer women, Norma sought work with local photographer James Rice. He and his brother Charlie paid her five dollars for fashion poses and gave her letters of introduction to New York photographers.
Then Norma received a telegram from the agent Edward Small: the star of the Universal Pictures serial Pink Tights had become difficult. Someone had thought of Norma as a replacement, so Edith took Norma back to New York. Then, during the interview, a Universal executive made improper advances to Norma. She complained to Small, but it was a moot point, since the star of Pink Tights had mended her ways. Undaunted, Norma used the Rice photographs to apply for modeling work.
Among the New York illustrators for whom Norma posed in 1921 were Howard Chandler Christy, Ralph Armstrong, and James Montgomery Flagg. She also posed for photographers Arnold Genthe and Alfred Cheney Johnston. When the Kelly Springfield Tire and Rubber Company needed a new model for an ongoing campaign, Norma was both painted and photographed as “Miss Lotta Miles.”
Edward Small continued to represent Norma Shearer, and in mid-1921 she began to get work. Her memoir notes tell that she worked at the Norma Talmadge Studios on a Herbert Brenon film called The Sign on the Door but was cut from the final version. She continued to model but acting jobs came more frequently; she worked on at least ten films in 1922.
Although few of Norma’s roles were in major films, they were seen by industry executives. One of these was Samuel Marx, a writer at the Robertson-Cole studio. In 1918 he had worked at Universal’s New York office with Irving Thalberg, who had since become general manager of Universal’s Los Angeles plant. Marx wrote to Thalberg, telling him to look at Norma’s films.
In early 1923, Norma was wanted in Los Angeles. Small had contract offers from Universal, Hal Roach Productions, and Louis B. Mayer Productions. Small said Mayer was the best bet because Norma’s roles would be dramatic, not comedies or serials, and Mayer was offering a five-year contract (with six-month options) that started at $150 a week, with train fare for both Norma and Edith. No one knew that all three offers had been prompted by one executive. [In 2016, $150 would be more than $3,000.]
Just twenty-three but running Universal Pictures, Irving Thalberg was hamstrung by shortsighted policies and nepotism. On February 15, 1923, he left Universal and joined a smaller company, Louis B. Mayer Productions. One of his first duties was to recast a film called Pleasure Mad. Mayer was unhappy with the leading lady, so Thalberg had his legal counsel Robert Rubin contact Edward Small.
Thalberg had a prodigious reputation. He had run Universal for three years, upgrading its product and improving profits. It was he who had authorized the Pink Tights offer. Small did not know that Thalberg had then suggested Norma to Hal Roach, where Thalberg thought he would go upon leaving Universal. When he went to Mayer instead, he was in a position to ask for Norma himself.
Edith Shearer cosigned Norma’s contract and accompanied her to Los Angeles in early March of 1923. After a five-day train trip, there was no contingent to meet them at the Santa Fe station, only a taxi driver. They took his advice and registered at the Hollywood Hotel, which stood at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. “It harbored some of the best stars,” wrote Norma. “And some of the best mice.”
Louis B. Mayer Productions
Louis B. Mayer was short, stocky, and thirty-nine, the living proof of his favorite adage: “First you crawl. Then you walk. Then you run.” He had escaped the anti-Semitism of Tsarist Russia to become a teenage junk merchant in Nova Scotia, a theater owner in Massachusetts, a distributor for the Eastern Seaboard, and finally a manufacturer of his own films in New York. In 1919 he had moved his company to 3800 Mission Road but by 1923 he needed help. He was lucky to get Thalberg, whom many considered a genius. And Mayer was a brilliant manager. Still, their company had no stars.
When Norma and Edith paid their first visit to the chalet-style studio, they were led to an office by a short, slight young man. Because of his boyish appearance, Norma took him for an office boy. She was brought up short when he was introduced as Irving Thalberg. She made her second error when she told him that she had gotten better offers. “I know,” said Thalberg. “I made them.”
Norma’s first week at Mayer went no better than her first day. She over dressed for a scene in John Stahl’s The Wanters. “My dear, why are you trying so hard to be what you aren’t?” Stahl asked her. She dissolved into tears but could not cry for the camera. Worse, the first day’s rushes showed unattractive closeups. A sympathetic cameraman named Ernest Palmer reshot them, finding the best lighting and angles.
More misfortune followed. Stahl demoted her from the leading role. Cast in Reginald Barker’s Pleasure Mad, she incurred the director’s wrath. She was thoroughly intimidated when he told Mayer that he was wasting his money on her. Mayer used reverse psychology on Norma, telling her she was “yellow.” That did it. “I am NOT yellow!” she shouted at Mayer. “I’ll fight it out! I’ll show you! I can do it!” She put the same fire into her performance, and Thalberg was vindicated.
Norma Shearer had made three films for Louis B. Mayer and three on loan-out when Mayer moved his entire company to Culver City. On April 10, 1924, he merged with two other companies to create a super studio, one that would be equally strong in management, production, and distribution. With this risky merger, Mayer and Thalberg united the Goldwyn plant, the Metro Pictures talent, and the Marcus Loew theater chain. The gamble paid off. What these entities could not do on their own, Mayer and Thalberg did grandly. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer began to overtake the big companies: First National, William Fox, and Famous Players-Lasky-Paramount. Shearer was at the right place at the right time.
In her first two years at M-G-M, Norma Shearer made ten films. Once again, Irving Thalberg’s intuition and Mayer’s business savvy paid off. In late 1925, grosses from Shearer films surpassed those of all others at her studio, and a trade paper announced that she was the first star created by M-G-M. This might have been disputed by John Gilbert or Ramon Novarro, but they had worked elsewhere. How had Shearer become a star? By constantly working to improve her craft, by giving intelligent interviews to the all-important fan magazines, and by playing a variety of roles. She also had the prerequisites of stardom: she looked like no one else and was consistently watchable.
Irving Thalberg should have been Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor. He was good looking and getting richer every year. He was a moviemaker who neither smoked cigars nor cursed, and he actually read books. But the young women who eyed him hungrily learned a secret. Thalberg had been born a blue baby and had later suffered rheumatic fever. He had a heart attack at twenty-six. He might not live another decade.
Shearer knew this; nevertheless, she grew to love her boss. She waited while he pined for the actress Constance Talmadge and dallied with the gold digger Peggy Hopkins Joyce. In 1927 Thalberg finally saw what a treasure there was in the talented, lovely—and patient—Norma Shearer. He proposed to her under a monkey tree in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Shearer accepted and then converted to Judaism.
An Important Marriage
Much has been made of this union. Did Thalberg love Shearer? Did she love him? Did she marry him to “become a star”? First, Shearer had been a star for two years. Second, a film executive could not marry beneath his station. Third, private correspondence between Thalberg and Shearer from this period has the quality of a genuine love affair, full of yearning and impatience. In fact, Thalberg made extra stops on train trips in order to send loving telegrams to his fiancée. The partners in an arranged marriage or a marriage of convenience would not behave in this manner.
Of course Shearer would benefit from marriage to the vice president of the company. She would know as soon as he purchased an important novel or play. But she would still have to audition for the part. In Hollywood, only Norma Talmadge and Marion Davies had productions mounted for them by a husband or lover.
Transition to Sound Films
At the Thalberg-Shearer wedding reception there was talk that both William Fox and Warner Bros. were experimenting with talking pictures. Thalberg dismissed the idea. Who would pay to install costly sound equipment in theaters? As it turned out, the American public paid, creating a two-year revolution. By late 1929, silent films were no longer being made, and Hollywood was enjoying enormous profits.
Many film workers paid for this revolution, but with their careers. Karl Dane, Renée Adorée, and Nils Asther had foreign accents that did not match their images. John Gilbert, the highest-paid male star at M-G-M, suffered a humiliating slide in popularity because his voice differed from the imaginings of his fans.
Oliver Hinsdell and Dr. P.M. Marafioti (among others) were brought to M-G-M to teach vocal culture, and Norma Shearer took lessons to prepare for her sound debut, but the success of a star’s voice depended less on culture and more on subjective response. Fortunately, the fans responded to Marion Davies, to Joan Crawford, and to Shearer. These stars still had to learn technique, though, since eighty percent of early talkies were based on plays. Shearer had never acted on stage, but she made her sound debut in a scene-by-scene adaptation of the stage play The Trial of Mary Dugan. It was a major hit. Then, in quick succession, she played a jewel thief and a society girl. She stayed a star by being versatile.