M-G-M’s nearly forgotten Queen of the Lot is enjoying a mini-revival
America was built on a vague egalitarianism that scorned the worship of kings and queens, and no wonder — many of its early denizens were violent malcontents and wastrels who loathed the class systems of their native Europe that kept them firmly at the bottom. However, nothing idyllic can remain so, and in the absence of a tradition of bluebloods (essential for capitalism), Hollywood helped cultivate, then endlessly satisfy, the average American’s lust for royal imagery. The creation of the star system, which was operating full tilt by the 1920s, was not just cultural myth-making (though it was that), but practical necessity. Exposed to the trappings of wealth and power, audiences would more willingly plunk down their bucks to see America’s own homegrown versions of their imperial predecessors. MGM can be considered the prime mover in this realm; its motto “More stars than there are in heaven” was not mere hyperbole, but hinted at the real ability of movie stars to satisfy longings once confined to religion.
Norma Shearer was one of MGM’s — and Hollywood’s — biggest stars of the 1930s, the “queen of the lot,” without doubt. (She was also very popular in the 1920s, but her films of this period are largely forgotten.) Suggesting in turn the masochistically faithful wife and the sexually adventurous (and gorgeously dressed) modern woman, Shearer mesmerized Depression-era audiences who longed for both the escapist fantasy of sexual freedom (and equality) and the reassuring return to dreary conventional roles. Many of her films combined these elements. In The Divorcee, for example, the emphasis is on modern — she and her husband vow to be equal partners (he even compliments her on how much “like a man” she is!). When Shearer discovers her husband has a momentary drunken lapse into infidelity, she’s disturbed, but he says “it doesn’t matter.” She tests his — and society’s — view by purposely having a “lapse” of her own, which she then confesses to him. His venomous reaction exposes the imbalance underlying the relationship and, embittered (i.e., awakened), Shearer seems to fall into every man’s arms. At the end of the film, though, we learn that this “sexual adventuress” has really had only the one “indiscretion” — she was simply waiting for her husband’s return.
Strangers May Kiss, Let Us Be Gay, and A Free Soul (with Clark Gable) also showed the modern woman torn between the desire for self-fulfillment and the inevitable dragging forces of convention. (Shearer’s ultra-chic contemporary style was usually signified by her seductive Deco wardrobe, courtesy of MGM’s top designer, Adrian.) Toward the end of her career, George Cukor cast her in a role that comments heavily on this early incarnation — Mary, the devoted mother and victimized wife in the classically catty The Women. Here, Norma’s familiar ruthless buoyancy and unyielding “goodness,” contrasted with Joan Crawford’s cynical sexuality as Crystal, are subtly ridiculed — a natural development as the ’30s drew to a close and the world moved toward war and chaos.
This kind of role — the starry-eyed, ever-faithful romantic who must be exposed to the squalid realities of life, usually by a man’s betrayal — was one specialty of Shearer’s, but there were other, more consciously mythic ones that she came to be associated with. Among them — playing literary and historical figures associated with “high culture,” from Juliet (at age 36!) in Romeo and Juliet to the lead in Marie Antoinette. The actress worked in yet another kind of sophisticated genre — the modern drama. Examples: Noel Coward’s breathlessPrivate Lives and Eugene O’Neill’s too-well-named Strange Interlude. Shearer was married to MGM’s production chief Irving Thalberg, and had some degree of freedom in choosing her vehicles, so we can assume she wanted/needed the kind of cultural validation that went along with such parts. Even as they advanced the myth of movie star royalty, these roles were part of the actress’s own ongoing self-creation — a process perhaps inevitable given her background, but one that took its toll on her as woman and actress.
Shearer’s poise, intelligence, her seemingly easy laughter, and sense of high style masked a deep insecurity and a tendency toward depression. Her face in fact often has a hard, masklike quality; her smile seems chiseled, unbreakable — the body armor of self-creation. Her Canadian childhood, recalled later as “a pleasant dream,” was sundered by her father’s financial incompetence, which moved the family from privilege to poverty. Her mother abandoned her father and took her daughters to New York and into the dream world of the movies. A streak of insanity (manic depression) ran through the family that also threatened, and sometimes seemed to claim, Norma. Moviegoers of the 1930s responded strongly to Shearer’s ceaselessly upbeat, smilin’-through attitude, but the mask that imparted this feeling showed increasing cracks as time went on. Shearer passed from venerated star to bewildered, contentious widow when her powerful husband died in 1936. Her movie career ended with Her Cardboard Lover in 1942, and she became a bitter, depressive recluse, now lost in her dream.
While this description seems to point to Shearer as a sympathetic, even tragic character, she rarely moves far enough inside her characterizations to create a genuine sense of pathos. She seems to work too hard for her effects, almost desperately concerned with image and the mechanical aspects of performance, with measuring up to “legitimate theatre” standards with their attendant excessive mannerisms. Shearer’s technical skills, hauteur, and polish made her the ideal MGM star, since these qualities were also the essence of MGM. But the fact that she so completely reflected the modern woman of the 1930s may be more a tribute to the myth-making skills of the studio than to Shearer’s native ability.