Norma Shearer – Feminist Pioneer of Cinema

Day 95 of Colourisation Project – August 10

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Oscar winning actress, Norma Shearer was born this day, August 10, 1902, in Montreal, Canada. Knocked back by Florenz Ziegfeld for being too short, having fat legs and a cast in one eye, Shearer was renowned for her glamour, sophistication and elegance. A striking brunette with a great profile, and a talent for acting, she rose to become one of Hollywood’s biggest film stars of the 1930s.

Norma Shearer

Photographer: Merritt J Siebald – MGM Publicity Still – Norma Shearer – 1925 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

A child model and bit player in New York-based films, Shearer landed her first feature role in 1920 in The Stealers, catching the attention of talent scout and future MGM vice president, Irving Thalberg. (MGM’s rise in Hollywood has been credited to ‘boy wonder,’ Thalberg, who had gained a reputation as a genius for turning out quality films.)

Thalberg secured a five-year contract for Shearer in 1923. From that moment Shearer quickly became a popular star in such films as He Who Gets Slapped (1924), His Secretary (1925) and The Student Prince (1927). Thalberg married his star in 1927, which required Shearer to convert to Judaism. Even after Thalberg died, Shearer continued to observe Judaism up until her own death in 1983.

MGM dubbed her the ‘First Lady of the Screen’ because of their union. Shearer now had her pick of films, parts, costars, and directors. Keen to avoid stereotype roles, Shearer played sexually liberated women in sophisticated contemporary comedies, later appearing in historical and period films, such as The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934). The enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 forced Shearer to drop her celebrated ’emancipated female’ image and move exclusively into period dramas.  (The Production Code was a set of industry moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968).

Making a smooth transition to talkies in The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929) she played a wide variety of roles in a long list of top films; among her most notable roles were The Divorcee (1930), for which she won an Oscar, A Free Soul (1931) with Clarke Gable, Private Lives (1931) opposite Robert Montgomery, the lead role in Smilin’ Through (1932) with Fredric March and Leslie Howard, as Juliet opposite Leslie Howard in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1936), as the tragic title heroine Marie Antoinette (1938) and the lead role in the star-studded The Women (1939).

Shearer who became a naturalized United States citizen in 1931, received six Academy Award nominations in the span of her career, winning a best actress Oscar for her work in The Divorcee (1930). However Shearer’s career stalled after Thalberg’s death from pneumonia in 1936. Poor role choices precipitated an early retirement from the screen in 1942. She turned down the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and the title role in Mrs. Miniver opting instead for fluffy comedies.

For the next forty-one years up until her death in 1983, she made no appearances as an actress and was rarely seen in public. She married Marti Arrouge, a ski instructor, twelve years her junior and happily lived out the rest of her days traveling and skiing. Shearer, preferring anonymity withdrew from Hollywood’s glamour scene. Her secretary stated in 1960, ‘Miss Shearer does not want any publicity. She doesn’t talk to anyone. But I can tell you that she has refused many requests to appear in motion pictures and TV shows’.

Though Shearer’s reputation had faded in the latter part of her life, she left behind a considerable body of work that highlight her creative genius and impressive performances. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Shearer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6636 Hollywood Boulevard.

Shearer is widely acclaimed by some as one of cinema’s feminist pioneers: ‘the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen.’

She died at the Motion Country Picture Home June 12, 1983 at the age of 82.


“Scarlett O’Hara is going to be a thankless and difficult role. The part I’d like to play is Rhett Butler.”   –  Norma Shearer

This entry was posted in Colorization, Colourisation, Film, History, Photography, USA, Women, Women in Film & TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Norma Shearer – Feminist Pioneer of Cinema

  1. Pingback: The Ageless Gloria Swanson | Random Phoughts

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