Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Star of the Month Guide: Norma Shearer


TCM's November star of the month is MGM queen Norma Shearer.

TCM is celebrating the career of Norma Shearer  with 23 movies airing each Tuesday in November.  Here's what you need to know about one of old Hollywood's most glamorous stars . FYI: TCM sometimes changes the air times and /or movies, so you can go to www.tcm.com to check the updated schedule.

Born: Aug. 10, 1902, in Montreal.

Died: June 12, 1983, in Woodland Hills, Calif. She is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.

Academy Awards: Shearer won a best actress Oscar for The Divorcee (1930). She was nominated another five times for Their Own Desire (1929); A Free Soul (1931); The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934); Romeo and Juliet (1936), and Marie Antoinette (1938).

Brief bio: Shearer was born to a well-off Montreal family who wanted her to pursue a career as a concert pianist. Shearer was determined to become an actress, and she finally got her way when her father lost a great deal of money in a business venture. She headed to New York City and after striking out on Broadway (she was too short to be a Ziegfeld girl), she tried the nascent film industry. Shearer got a few bit parts in movies made in New York, but, after she arrived in Hollywood, her luck changed thanks to good parts in films like He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and because of the patronage of a young producer named Irving Thalberg. She and Thalberg married in 1927 and Shearer became the "queen of MGM." In the pre-code era, she played thoroughly modern women in films like A Free Soul, while later in the 1930's Thalberg produced lavish costume dramas to showcase her talents. After Thalberg's untimely death in 1936, Shearer's stock fell at MGM, although she did get great parts, especially in comedies like Idiot's Delight (1939) and The Women (1939). Shearer retired from movies after marrying ski instructor Martin Arrouge in 1942. She lived quietly until her death from pneumonia in 1983.

Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg in 1929.
Fun Fact: Shearer maintained her interest in movies even after her retirement. She discovered actress Janet Leigh in 1945 after seeing a photograph of the then college student while vacationing at a ski resort in northern California (Leigh's mother was a receptionist at the hotel). Shearer promptly recommended Leigh to talent agent Lew Wasserman.

My Star of the Month top four: 
My picks are a silent horror film, a pre-code melodrama, and two lavish costume spectacles.
Week 1. He Who Gets Slapped airing at 12:45 a.m.: He Who Gets Slapped was Shearer's breakthrough role. She plays Consuelo, a horseback rider at a Paris circus where Lon Chaney performs as a clown. Shearer got many good notices in a showy role, but this is Chaney's movie. His performance is a tour de force, and, in my opinion, probably the best in his distinguished career.
Week 2A Free Soul airing at 9:30 p.m.: A Free Soul is a prime pre-code soaper about the daughter (Shearer) of an alcoholic attorney (the unforgettable Lionel Barrymore)  who gets in a very dangerous love triangle with two men (Leslie Howard and Clark Gable). This movie is delightful for many reasons -- Shearer is at her histrionic best and this was Gable's breakthrough role as a tough gangster -- but it is most memorable for Barrymore's bravura performance in a courtroom monologue scene. 
Week 3. The Barretts of Wimpole Street airing at 1:15 a.m.: This costume drama about the 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett (Shearer) and her domineering father (Charles Laughton) is simply one of the best films of the 1930's. Shearer, under Thalberg's supervision, gives one of her most sensitive performances, and Laughton is simply brilliant as her possessive father.
Week 4. Marie Antoinette airing at 8 p.m.: This lavish biopic of the doomed French queen is difficult to find, so catch it while you can. This highly enjoyable film features Shearer in full diva mode with elaborate  costumes that accurately reflect 18th century styles. There is also a great supporting cast including Robert Morley as a childish Louis XVI and a very handsome Tyrone Power as a dashing Swedish count.

Old Hollywood video: Norma Shearer giving a morale-boosting speech during World War II. She could have made a good politician.



Fan Magazine Flashback: Robert Taylor and Shearer promote the anti-Nazi drama Escape (1940) in Screenland magazine.


Old Hollywood GIF: Norma gets some shocking news from Rosalind Russell in The Women. via Giphy.




Old Hollywood Archives: Shearer and a female ensemble get their claws out in The Women.

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