A little while back I reviewed one of Norma Shearer's last movies, We Were Dancing, a relatively inferior film for the former queen of MGM and yet still a fun little romp. I mentioned in my review that history has not been kind to We Were Dancing.
Until recently, the same could be said about Norma Shearer.
Despite being an Academy Award winning actress (for 1930's The Divorcee) and the star of many MGM and Pre-Code classics, Norma was best remembered for being the wife of Irving Thalberg . . . if she was remembered at all. Before Turner Classic Movies and DVDs getting a wider release, The Women was her only film that could be easily viewed and the one that gave people the briefest of insight into Norma.
The Women is a masterful cinematic work, with an ensemble cast to die for, sparkling and biting dialogue, insanely awesome costumes and sets and all brilliantly helmed by the great George Cukor. And while Norma turns in an honest and sweet performance as the devoted and betrayed wife Mary Haines, it is not her best performance nor does it exemplify her body of work.
|Not sexy, eh?|
Of course it couldn't be further from the truth.
Had The Women been made a decade earlier, Norma Shearer could very handily have played the part of homewrecking Crystal Allen (a part that ironically went to Joan Crawford.) In her early career, she specialized in racier roles, that of modern women who believed in taking the man (or men, as it were) for a test drive before buckling down to wedded bliss.
It wasn't an easy road for her in the beginning. She lobbied for the part of Jerry in The Divorcee, a role she desperately wanted and what would be a breakout part for her. Her own husband not only refused her but told her exactly the reason why - - Jerry had to be sexy and seductive and Norma simply didn't fit the bill. Ouch. Mary Haines would have cried over this but not Norma Shearer. She promptly rang up George Hurrell and had some seriously sexy photos taken of herself to show Thalberg that she not only could be a sexy seductress, she damn well was.
The ploy worked and Thalberg capitulated to her demands. She played Jerry - -the wronged wife who told her cheating husband that she had "balanced our accounts" (i.e., slept with his friend) - - to massive critical and public success. She was bestowed with an Academy Award for her acting efforts (defeating herself in 1929's Their Own Desire, of all things) and a plethora of like pictures followed.
In Let Us Be Gay, she was a dowdy housewife who, after throwing her cheating husband out, transforms herself into a sleek and much desired by every man (including her now ex-husband) woman of the world. In Strangers May Kiss, she was a modern young woman who, embroiled in a passionate affair with a reporter, felt no need to muddle things with matrimony. In A Free Soul, she cheated on her decent boyfriend with a dangerous mobster who not only slapped her around but was acquitted of a murder charge by her attorney father. In Private Lives, she played a woman who had recently remarried but on her honeymoon ran into her first husband, with his new wife, also honeymooning, and unable to resist, runs off with him.
In every one of these roles, Norma is delightful, full of energy and bursting with sex appeal. She is about as far away from Mary Haines as imagineable. She proclaims she's "in an orgy, wallowing, and I love it!" That "three years in Paris ought to improve any woman" and "I've been amusing myself with anything and everything that came my way. I know how a man feels about those things now." "To the devil with love," she said and then to a murderous mobster "You're just a new kind of man in a new kind of world."
|Work it, girl|
This is the Norma Shearer that reigned over MGM. The one that set her cap on Irving Thalberg. The one that battled a lazy eye to learn the best angles and makeup tricks to hide the deficiency. The one that had Chester Morris, Rod La Roque, Neil Hamilton, Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery lusting after her on screen, and who knows how many others sitting in theaters? This Norma made men mad with desire.
This woman was a trailblazer; a trailblazer attired in slinky gowns, furs and gazing longingly and languidly from a divan.
If you have only viewed Norma Shearer in action by way of The Women, please do yourself a favor and head to Turner Classic Movies and/or online to pick up one of her Pre-Code classics.
Once you do, or if you have seen Norma in some of the movies I mentioned, give me a comment and let me know which is your favorite and why.