Thursday, May 4, 2017

"The Women" and Norma Shearer's Legacy

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? 
Sadly, many movie watchers believed that she was Mary Haines and Mary Haines very adequately summed up Norma Shearer's career and alleged talent in one fell swoop.  Long rumored to have enjoyed a serious case of nepotism, thanks to being married to MGM head of production Irving Thalberg (Joan Crawford famously complained about not getting choice roles because Norma "sleeps with the boss!"), her part in The Women appeared to give merit to the claims that what Norma lacked in talent and ability, she gained tenfold in marriage.

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 was heady stuff in 1930/1931 and it's still heady stuff today.  I dare you to watch one of these films and believe that Norma Shearer had no talent, that she got these roles thanks to being Mrs. Thalberg.  And I defy you to not fall in love with her, even just a little.

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.


  1. I absolutely loved this post -- Norma Shearer is one of my favorites, and I adore her performances in every one of the movies you mentioned. In fact, you've made me want to pop one in the DVD player right now! :) Good stuff.

    1. She's one of my favorites too, shadows! I wish she had not retired so early but I'm thankful we have some glorious Pre-Codes from her.

      "The Divorcee" is divine but I find myself oddly obsessed with "Strangers May Kiss." I can watch it over and over.

    2. I just had to share with you my post about Strangers May Kiss -- I also to watch it frequently, but the actions of the characters infuriate me. Last summer, I read the book it was based on -- it was SO different, but an excellent read! Here's my post:

    3. Okay, I seriously love your post, Karen! As I said, I adore Strangers May Kiss (and wrote about it on another blog I had at one time but I'm sure I'll focus on it here at some point) but your literary side eye gives me life. Neil Hamilton wasn't given any favors by portraying such a douchebag and Lisbeth was idiotic for overlooking Robert Montgomery's Steve.

      BTW, I recently bought the book and look forward to reading it!

      Thanks so much for posting.