REDISCOVERY

In 1957, fifteen years after Norma Shearer’s last film, MGM dropped the hyphens from its corporate logo and created a syndicated television package comprising films released between 1929 and 1948. As a result, millions of people too young to have seen Shearer on the big screen encountered her in their living rooms. The 1970s saw a wave of interest in cinema history. This manifested itself in repertory programs, college courses, and tribute films such as That’s Entertainment!

Shearer’s part in this process was complicated. She was aware of the nostalgia craze but did not participate, except to chide MGM management in 1974 for neglecting to identify her in a clip from Idiot’s Delight. By the time of her death in 1983, her pre-Code films were not being shown on television as often as Marie Antoinette and The Women; consequently, she was best remembered for so-called “noble” roles.

Because Shearer (and her films) had been absent from the scene for so many years, critics like Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel could rewrite history, which they did, characterizing Shearer as the untalented obsession of a myopic executive. Yet, as her films were shown in repertory, historians like James Card of Eastman House strove to undo the damage that had been done by a few hostile critics.

The real Shearer revival began in the 1980s, when MGM-UA Home Video released a number of Shearer titles. In 1988 Turner Network Television began to air the entire Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film library. In 1994 Turner Classic Movies began to showcase Shearer’s films. For the first time, the majority of them could be seen and evaluated.

In the 1990s a number of high-profile books formally reappraised Shearer's work. The first was a major biography by Gavin Lambert. Next came Complicated Women, by Mick LaSalle, film critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. Then came four books by photographer Mark A. Vieira: two revisionist biographies of Irving Thalberg; and two biographies of photographer George Hurrell.

These books recognized the control Shearer exercised over her work, which included her choice of material, her patronage of Hurrell, and her collaboration with designer Gilbert Adrian. As the Internet began to exert influence on popular culture, Shearer’s reputation benefited from increased access to her work and to archival material about her.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Norma Shearer is accorded almost the same kind of respect she knew as First Lady of M-G-M. LaSalle has called her "the exemplar of sophisticated 1930s womanhood . . . exploring love and sex with an honesty that would be considered frank by modern standards.” Shearer is recognized as “the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen," and has been ultimately celebrated as a feminist pioneer.

There have been instances of performers who were given a belated recognition by historians, e.g., Marion Davies. This is the first time that a star’s reputation has been restored by scholars and solidified by the Internet. Her films continue to be exhibited and studied, whether her dual role in Lady of the Night, her breakthrough in The Divorcee, her skillfully nuanced Romeo and Juliet, or her triumphant Marie Antoinette.