FIRST LADY OF M-G-M
The Thalberg-Shearer union was the most prestigious in Hollywood. Irving Thalberg was a uniquely gifted production head, respected even by his rivals. Shearer was a top M-G-M star, with as much box-office pull as Lon Chaney, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, Marion Davies, Buster Keaton, and Joan Crawford. In late 1929 Shearer was designated M-G-M’s most important star by the trade paper Variety. In November 1930 she signed a three-picture contract calling for $100,000 per. Shearer was a welcome guest in filmland society, a gracious host at studio functions, and was happily acknowledged the “First Lady of M-G-M.”
Shearer was ambitious, using study and exercise to expand her range. She also used photography to transform her image. When visiting New York, she scheduled sessions with Edward Steichen, Edward Monroe Thayer, and Nickolas Muray. A regal pose from a Muray session became Shearer’s official M-G-M photo. In late 1929 she found a new goal.
Thalberg had bought the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott and was planning to film it as The Divorcee. In the book, a young woman flouts convention after divorcing her husband for infidelity. “I knew that M-G-M was considering borrowing someone from another lot to play it,” said Shearer. “I felt in my heart I could do it. But Irving laughed at me when I told him. It was so utterly different from the type of thing with which I’d been associated.”
When Shearer saw how Ramon Novarro had been interpreted by George Hurrell, an unknown photographer in the Westlake district, she secretly scheduled a session, and Hurrell transformed her into a siren. Shearer showed the proofs to Thalberg. The thirty-year-old genius gasped: “Why, I believe you can play that role!”
033: Ruth Harriet Louise portrait of Norma Shearer, 1928
034: Nickolas Muray portrait of Norma Shearer, 1928
035: Edward Thayer Monroe portrait of Norma Shearer, 1928
036: George Hurrell portrait of Norma Shearer, October 1929
Ex-Wife was filmed as The Divorcee in February 1930. In March 1930 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) adopted a Production Code, which was intended to keep sex and violence out of films. Thalberg had to persuade the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) that Shearer’s film would not encourage divorce. The Divorcee was released in April and was a sensation, making Shearer one of the first stars to buck the Code.
Because of Shearer’s standing and because Thalberg had contributed to the Code text, her films were passed by the SRC when others were not. In Strangers May Kiss, A Free Soul, and Strange Interlude, Shearer’s portrayal of intelligent, honest sexuality set a standard, challenging the Code. Other stars followed her example, and the SRC gradually weakened. When the Code was strengthened by Joseph Breen in 1934, such films could no longer be made; the pre-1934 period was later dubbed “pre-Code.”
037: The Divorcee
The Third Annual Academy Awards banquet was held on November 5, 1930, in the Fiesta Room at the Hollywood Ambassador Hotel. Films made between August 1, 1929 and July 31, 1930, were eligible. At the time, an actor could be nominated for two films, so Shearer was named for Their Own Desire and The Divorcee. Competing with her were Nancy Carroll, Ruth Chatterton, Greta Garbo, and Gloria Swanson. Shearer was voted Best Actress of 1929-30 for The Divorcee. The award both honored her dramatic range and applauded her for tackling a controversial role.
038: Shearer with Oscar
On August 24, 1930, Norma Shearer gave birth to Irving Jr. The family of three shared a home at 9401 Sunset Boulevard with Irving Thalberg’s parents, William and Henrietta Thalberg.
In mid-1931 the Thalbergs moved to Santa Monica’s “Gold Coast,” the expensive strip of real estate on the beach. The Tudor-style home at 707 Palisades Beach Road was designed by John Byers and built by Frank Hellenthall (with assistance from M-G-M art director Cedric Gibbons). It fronted the beach but had soundproof walls and central air conditioning (in deference to Thalberg’s health). Its neighbors included Darryl F. Zanuck, Louis B. Mayer, and Marion Davies.
039: The Thalberg home
Glamour in the Great Depression
In the early ‘30s the Thalbergs joined the super-rich of America, just as the country was sinking into an unprecedented depression. Both Irving and Norma had middle-class beginnings, and, although they were insulated from the public, they owed their good fortune to that public. They contributed to numerous charities, but anonymously. For example, Thalberg paid for the dome of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple but asked Rabbi Edgar Magnin to keep the donation anonymous. Thalberg also kept his name off the credits of his films. “If you’re in a position to give yourself credit,” he said, “you don’t need it.”
As the depression pushed Hollywood into the red, only M-G-M continued to show a profit. Thalberg was credited with this; his filmmaking was shrewd and intuitive. In 1932, the depression’s worst year, Thalberg crafted a series of blockbusters: Grand Hotel, Tarzan the Ape Man, Prosperity, As You Desire Me, and Red Dust. Louis B. Mayer was by then the highest-paid executive in America, yet he resented Thalberg’s fame.
Shearer’s two hit films of 1932 were Strange Interlude, an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play, and Smilin’ Through, a multi-generation romance that earned a profit of nearly $1 million. With Garbo in Sweden and Crawford in a momentary decline, Shearer was truly the First Lady of M-G-M.
040: Thalberg and Shearer at premiere
041: Thalberg and Shearer at party
STANDING BY HER HUSBAND
Thalberg’s genius expressed itself in sixteen-hour days and almost superhuman concentration. On the rare occasions when he looked up from his work, he saw that he was not being fairly compensated. In late September 1932 he demanded more money. This led to a grueling series of confrontations with Mayer and Nicholas Schenck, who controlled Loew’s Inc., M-G-M’s parent company. When they saw that Thalberg was ready to quit, they raised his profit share to 37.5 percent. His triumph was short lived. On December 28, 1932, he suffered a heart attack.
Thalberg’s doctors declared that he would recover if he took a long vacation. This was Mayer and Schenck’s opportunity to eliminate the position of production chief; when and if Thalberg returned, he would be only one of a group of supervisors, to be called “producers.” Thalberg wanted to go to Europe to recover and rest, but this would mean a postponement of Shearer’s projects. Though an absence from the screen could dim her stardom, she chose to go with her husband. Thalberg later praised her for putting his health ahead of her career.
042: Newspaper clipping about Thalbergs’ travel
The Thalbergs left Los Angeles in March 1933, traveled through Germany and France, and were feted by royalty in London. Thalberg used his vacation to formulate plans for his return. He was welcomed back to M-G-M by Mayer in August 1933 and given a beautiful three-story bungalow as an office, then faced resistance from executives who owed him their careers.
As the year ended, M-G-M announced that Thalberg was preparing a super-production of Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette for Shearer. Instead, his first project for her was a sophisticated vehicle. Riptide did well but not as well as expected; some people stayed away because it was called a “bad” film by the grassroots campaign to strengthen the Production Code. In July the MPPDA reconstituted the Code and safeguarded it with a Production Code Administration (PCA).
043: Thalbergs with Irving Jr. in London
044: Vanity Fair page with Steichen portrait of Shearer and Marie Antoinette announcement
045: Riptide ad
Thalberg and Shearer’s next project, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, included adult themes, but it skirted the Code and became a hit, affirming his return to Hollywood. Moreover, it was a triumph for Shearer, whose acting revealed a new subtlety and power.
046: Three Oscar® winners on the set of The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Marie Antoinette was shelved in late 1934 when Shearer became pregnant. Thalberg pressed forward with an increasingly demanding schedule, and, though responsible only for films generated by his production unit, he piled them on. Projects that had been purchased with Shearer in mind went to other actresses. Ann Harding did Biography of a Bachelor Girl, which was not a success. No More Ladies with Joan Crawford was a middling success. China Seas co-starred three Thalberg alumni—Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and Wallace Beery—and was a big success. Even bigger was Mutiny on the Bounty, which won the Academy Award® for Best Picture of 1935. A Night at the Opera restored the Marx Brothers to stardom.
On June 13, 1935, Norma Shearer gave birth to a daughter, Katharine. (She was named for the actress Katharine Cornell, whom Thalberg and Shearer both considered the greatest living American actress, but who declined their many offers to work at M-G-M.)
In spite of his schedule, Thalberg spent a good deal of time with his wife and children.
047: Thalberg relaxes by the pool with Shearer and children
048: Shearer with Gable at Awards ceremony
049: Thalberg accepts Award for Mutiny on the Bounty
A Heartfelt Project
In 1936 Thalberg had an even bigger production slate: The Good Earth, an epic of China; A Day at the Races, a Marx Brothers film; Camille, the Dumas fils story for Greta Garbo; and Maytime, a Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musical (and Thalberg’s first Technicolor film).
Most of all, Thalberg’s attention was on his dream project, Romeo and Juliet, a super-production starring Shearer. Few films before (or since) have had as much research, care, and money lavished on them. (Thalberg had to practically beg Mayer to get approval from Schenck for a $2-million budget.) Romeo and Juliet was to be the crowning point of Shearer’s career, enabling her to retire if she (and her fans) so wished. When the film premiered as a road-show attraction on August 20, 1936, it garnered highly positive reviews, with Shearer’s performance getting the best of them; she had filmed it at thirty-three yet was still the youngest Juliet ever seen on stage or screen. First-week attendance was heavy, and word-of-mouth was good.
050: Shearer rehearsing with Agnes de Mille
051: Thalberg and Shearer outside Romeo and Juliet preview
Death of Irving Thalberg
By the third week, Irving Thalberg sensed that Romeo and Juliet was not going to be the all-out hit he wanted for Shearer; and he had overspent, something he once fired Erich von Stroheim for doing. The disappointment affected Thalberg. He seemed listless, and then he caught a cold. It turned into pneumonia. The infection was severe, but the newly discovered penicillin was only available from an East Coast hospital. When Shearer offered to pay for a charter flight, the attending physician told her to stop interfering. Surrounded by his family, Irving Thalberg died on September 14, 1936. He was thirty-seven.
052: Last family portrait
053: Thalberg funeral