Irving Thalberg should have been Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor. He was good looking and getting richer every year. He was a moviemaker who neither smoked cigars nor cursed, and he actually read books. But the young women who eyed him hungrily learned a secret. Thalberg had been born a blue baby and had later suffered rheumatic fever. He had a heart attack at twenty-six. He might not live another decade.
Shearer knew this; nevertheless, she grew to love her boss. She waited while he pined for the actress Constance Talmadge and dallied with the gold digger Peggy Hopkins Joyce. In 1927 Thalberg finally saw what a treasure there was in the talented, lovely—and patient—Norma Shearer. He proposed to her under a monkey tree in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Shearer accepted and then converted to Judaism.
Much has been made of this union. Did Thalberg love Shearer? Did she love him? Did she marry him to “become a star”? First, Shearer had been a star for two years. Second, a film executive could not marry beneath his station. Third, private correspondence between Thalberg and Shearer from this period has the quality of a genuine love affair, full of yearning and impatience. In fact, Thalberg made extra stops on train trips in order to send loving telegrams to his fiancée. The partners in an arranged marriage or a marriage of convenience would not behave in this manner.
Of course Shearer would benefit from marriage to the vice president of the company. She would know as soon as he purchased an important novel or play. But she would still have to audition for the part. In Hollywood, only Norma Talmadge and Marion Davies had productions mounted for them by a husband or lover.
Transition to Sound Films
At the Thalberg-Shearer wedding reception there was talk that both William Fox and Warner Bros. were experimenting with talking pictures. Thalberg dismissed the idea. Who would pay to install costly sound equipment in theaters? As it turned out, the American public paid, creating a two-year revolution. By late 1929, silent films were no longer being made, and Hollywood was enjoying enormous profits.
Many film workers paid for this revolution, but with their careers. Karl Dane, Renée Adorée, and Nils Asther had foreign accents that did not match their images. John Gilbert, the highest-paid male star at M-G-M, suffered a humiliating slide in popularity because his voice differed from the imaginings of his fans.
Oliver Hinsdell and Dr. P.M. Marafioti (among others) were brought to M-G-M to teach vocal culture, and Norma Shearer took lessons to prepare for her sound debut, but the success of a star’s voice depended less on culture and more on subjective response. Fortunately, the fans responded to Marion Davies, to Joan Crawford, and to Shearer. These stars still had to learn technique, though, since eighty percent of early talkies were based on plays. Shearer had never acted on stage, but she made her sound debut in a scene-by-scene adaptation of the stage play The Trial of Mary Dugan. It was a major hit. Then, in quick succession, she played a jewel thief and a society girl. She stayed a star by being versatile.