Norma Shearer had stated to family and friends alike that she was going to be an actress, but it was difficult to take her seriously. She did have a sense of style. She also had flaws. Her legs were not well turned. Her eyes were blue, which went pale when shot with the orthochromatic film of the time. Her left eye had a tendency to wander, the symptom of a strabismus. Not surprisingly, she was met with indifference.
Norma and Athole managed to get extra work, but her interview with Florenz Ziegfeld, the Follies impresario, was limited to a glance, a grunt, and a hasty exit. The film director D.W. Griffith was less rude but no more encouraging. After Norma had worked for a week as a background extra in his film Way Down East, he told her that she was unphotogenic.
Norma was living with her mother and sister in a shabby apartment at Fifty-seventh Street and Eight Avenue. She had to persist. She consulted the well-known Dr. William Horatio Bates and began exercising her eye muscles. She got roles in three minor films but spent most of 1920 destitute. In January 1921 the Shearer women returned to Montreal, apparently in defeat. Yet their venture had not been in vain.
The Shearer women came back to Montreal only to learn that Aunt Bee had put Grandmother Emily into a home for the aged. While Douglas Shearer supported the three Shearer women, Norma sought work with local photographer James Rice. He and his brother Charlie paid her five dollars for fashion poses and gave her letters of introduction to New York photographers.
Then Norma received a telegram from the agent Edward Small: the star of the Universal Pictures serial Pink Tights had become difficult. Someone had thought of Norma as a replacement, so Edith took Norma back to New York. Then, during the interview, a Universal executive made improper advances to Norma. She complained to Small, but it was a moot point, since the star of Pink Tights had mended her ways. Undaunted, Norma used the Rice photographs to apply for modeling work.
Among the New York illustrators for whom Norma posed in 1921 were Howard Chandler Christy, Ralph Armstrong, and James Montgomery Flagg. She also posed for photographers Arnold Genthe and Alfred Cheney Johnston. When the Kelly Springfield Tire and Rubber Company needed a new model for an ongoing campaign, Norma was both painted and photographed as “Miss Lotta Miles.”
Edward Small continued to represent Norma Shearer, and in mid-1921 she began to get work. Her memoir notes tell that she worked at the Norma Talmadge Studios on a Herbert Brenon film called The Sign on the Door but was cut from the final version. She continued to model but acting jobs came more frequently; she worked on at least ten films in 1922.
Although few of Norma’s roles were in major films, they were seen by industry executives. One of these was Samuel Marx, a writer at the Robertson-Cole studio. In 1918 he had worked at Universal’s New York office with Irving Thalberg, who had since become general manager of Universal’s Los Angeles plant. Marx wrote to Thalberg, telling him to look at Norma’s films.
In early 1923, Norma was wanted in Los Angeles. Small had contract offers from Universal, Hal Roach Productions, and Louis B. Mayer Productions. Small said Mayer was the best bet because Norma’s roles would be dramatic, not comedies or serials, and Mayer was offering a five-year contract (with six-month options) that started at $150 a week, with train fare for both Norma and Edith. No one knew that all three offers had been prompted by one executive. [In the 21st century, $150 is the equivalent of $3,000.]