Grief and Conflict
The cynical few who had questioned the Thalberg-Shearer marriage were silenced by the depth of Norma Shearer’s grief. For a time, she blamed herself for Thalberg’s death. Then she herself fell ill with pneumonia. Ironically her husband’s death and her illness increased interest in Romeo and Juliet, but it had gone so far over budget that nothing could help it break even. However, it was praised as Thalberg’s legacy, as were Camille, A Day at the Races, Maytime, and The Good Earth.
Shearer had barely recovered when she learned that Louis B. Mayer was trying to eradicate Thalberg’s name from M-G-M publicity—and deprive his widow and children of something as vital. Thalberg’s contract entitled him to be paid 37.5 percent of profits made from the films he had supervised. This would continue for the entire duration of his M-G-M contract (April 1924 through December 1938). Mayer and legal counsel Robert Rubin declared that Thalberg’s death rendered the clause null and void—and stopped sending checks to Shearer. She needed this annuity for herself and her children. Thalberg had fought for it, and it was rightfully theirs.
Thalberg had left Shearer and the children only $1 million each (after taxes), a surprisingly modest amount for an industry leader. Shearer strategized. She first announced that she would no longer be making films for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which shocked Loew’s. Then she appeared on Louella Parsons’ radio show to tell her public that she needed to support her family. This sent a wave of opprobrium to Mayer’s door. In short order, he and Rubin backed down and offered Shearer a contract: six films at $150,000 each. Shearer signed it on July 14 (Bastille Day 1937), which was significant, because the first film in the agreement would be the long-delayed Marie Antoinette.
When Norma Shearer started work on Marie Antoinette in January 1938, M-G-M had already spent a million on it. Its four-year gestation had included scripts by eleven writers, imported 18-century furniture, and an exhaustive casting process. If Shearer felt more elated than intimidated to be at the center of this production, it was because she was carrying out Thalberg’s plans and was supported by Sidney Franklin, one of his favorite directors.
Then, at the last minute before shooting was to begin, Louis B. Mayer forced Franklin to resign, replacing him with W.S. Van Dyke, ostensibly because “One-Take” Van Dyke would complete the project in less time. It is possible that Mayer wanted to pay back Shearer for the inheritance dispute. Unlike Franklin, Cukor, or Goulding, Van Dyke was not known as an actor’s director, so Shearer would not have the guiding hand of a coach.
Shearer was outvoted in this matter, but she retained control of the project in every other way, seeing that producer Hunt Stromberg kept tabs on Van Dyke’s work. What resulted was an epic that never lost momentum or warmth, and in which Shearer gave a remarkable performance, illuminating the character from blushing girlhood through sensual adulthood to regal power and tragic demise.
Marie Antoinette was given an advertising campaign to match its monumental production values, and a premiere that outshone every previous one. When Shearer entered the French court in the film’s second scene, she was cheered by the audience in the Carthay Circle Theatre. There was no doubt that her comeback was a success. The film grossed more than $3 million. Unfortunately, like a number of epics (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Crusades, The Rains Came), it had gone too far over its budget to break even, much less make a profit. But its grosses proved that Shearer was still a Film Daily Top Ten Star.
As the official mourning period for Irving Thalberg ended, Norma Shearer found herself alone in a city of younger people, but at thirty-five she looked young and was in good health. She began dating. Among her regular dates were actors George Brent and James Stewart. In August 1939, while visiting the New York World’s Fair, she was introduced to the Warner Bros. star George Raft. A romance ensued, and it lasted for more than a year, ending only when Raft’s wife blocked a divorce by demanding a huge settlement. Mickey Rooney later claimed to have had a romance with Shearer, but this has been refuted by Shearer family and friends. Shearer was often photographed with him because he was the highest-grossing star of 1939, but when she sensed that the teenager was intent on an affair, she had him kept away from her.
The Greatest Year
Norma Shearer was a prominent personage in 1939, which was later dubbed “Hollywood’s Greatest Year” for an abundance of excellent films. The studios, fearing that the European market (thirty-two percent of their income) would be lost if war broke out, unilaterally increased budgets, bought big properties, and planned road-show presentations so that revenue would roll in before the anticipated conflict began. Their efforts resulted in a catalogue of classics, one of which enshrined Norma Shearer in the popular hall of fame.
Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt had starred in Robert Sherwood’s antiwar play Idiot’s Delight, and Shearer wanted to emulate Fontanne, so Idiot’s Delight became Shearer’s next vehicle, a curious project for her. The PCA was loath to let M-G-M film Sherwood’s play because of a threat from the Italian government: if M-G-M tried to release the film in Europe, all its pictures would be banned, in both Italy and Germany. Hunt Stromberg made cuts in the script and then teamed Shearer with Clark Gable to improve the film’s appeal. After all this, the film was still banned in Italy and other parts of Europe, which cut into profits. Those who saw the film were delighted by Shearer’s dual characterization (American circus aerialist and European countess), forgetting that this had been her stock in trade since 1924.
Marie Antoinette was still playing around the country when Idiot’s Delight was released, and the French queen would become Shearer’s favorite role, but the film that brought her the most fans was surely George Cukor’s The Women. Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 play portrayed Park Avenue matrons as capricious, vain, and mean. Stromberg retained the play’s conceit, so its cast of 135 (including dogs and monkeys) was all female, which was unprecedented in Hollywood.
Befitting her status, Shearer got the central role, the upstanding wife who loses her husband to a perfume salesgirl. “I hesitated a long time before playing this part,” Shearer told Hedda Hopper. “Then I decided that fighting to hold a husband is every woman’s problem.” Fighting to stay on top of the heap was every star’s problem. “Norma Shearer is chucking a clause in her contract,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “It guarantees that her name will be featured above that of any other woman in her pictures. She is stipulating that both Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell shall be given equal billing with her in The Women.” Shearer made this concession only after Russell went on strike.
Shearer also had an on-set squabble with Crawford, who expressed years of resentment by clicking her knitting needles when Shearer was reading her lines. “I’m just paying her back for all the rudeness she and Irving gave me!” said Crawford. At the completion of filming, Shearer threw a party. Crawford did not attend. When Crawford attended the Los Angeles premiere of The Women, Shearer did not attend. Squabbles aside, The Women became one of the top ten moneymakers of 1939, and The New York Times praised Shearer’s performances as “one of the best she has ever given.”
By 1940, World War Two had begun and M-G-M had lost much of the European market, so it was finally deemed safe to make films about Nazi oppression. In Mervyn LeRoy’s Escape, Shearer played the American mistress of a high-ranking Nazi. Because she sympathizes with a young American man who is rescuing his mother from a concentration camp, she tricks the Nazi and causes his death. Shearer had less screen time than usual, but her role was a pivotal one and her performance was striking for its restraint, comparing favorably with those of the distinguished supporting players Conrad Veidt and Alla Nazimova. The film was banned in Germany but became a box-office success.
“Those Last Two”
Shearer looked at the remaining films in her contract and reasoned that given the sad state of world affairs, comedies were in order. She had been reading scripts from M-G-M’s story department, and rejecting all of them. She also rejected Mayer’s offers of Madame Curie or Mrs. Miniver, both of which became major hits for his discovery Greer Garson. Instead, Shearer had Robert Z. Leonard direct her in an adaptation of We Were Dancing, one of the ten short plays in Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30. It may have worked on a London stage in 1936, but after being reworked by M-G-M producer Orville O. Dull, it didn’t work on the screen: Shearer and Melvyn Douglas slogged through one artificial, unfunny scene after another.
Shearer’s last film should have been auspicious. Her Cardboard Lover was directed by George Cukor and based on a successful two-act play by Jacques Deval. Unfortunately, the two acts lacked substance and the addition of a third act pulled the film from farce to slapstick without improving it. Shearer was at the height of her powers—sleek, elegant, knowing—but she was wasted in situations that were even more artificial than those of her previous film. A worthless script defeated a great star and a gifted director.
When Her Cardboard Lover flopped, a rumor sprang up that Mayer was trying to get rid of Shearer—which he had supposedly done with Greta Garbo and would do with Jeanette MacDonald, Myrna Loy, and Joan Crawford. The Twilight of the Goddesses was not Mayer’s plan to make room for new talent (Lana Turner, Judy Garland, and Greer Garson), but it did accomplish that. Still, when Norma Shearer was asked about We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover, she said: “On those last two, nobody but myself was trying to do me in.” After nineteen years, Shearer and Mayer parted company.