The Power Couple
The Thalberg-Shearer union was the most prestigious in Hollywood. Irving Thalberg was a uniquely gifted production head, respected even by his rivals. Shearer was a top M-G-M star, with as much box-office pull as Lon Chaney, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, Marion Davies, Buster Keaton, and Joan Crawford. In late 1929 Shearer was designated M-G-M’s most important star by the trade paper Variety. In November 1930 she signed a three-picture contract calling for $100,000 per. Shearer was a welcome guest in filmland society, a gracious host at studio functions, and was happily acknowledged the “First Lady of M-G-M.”
Shearer was ambitious, using study and exercise to expand her range. She also used photography to transform her image. When visiting New York, she scheduled sessions with Edward Steichen, Edward Monroe Thayer, and Nickolas Muray. A regal pose from a Muray session became Shearer’s official M-G-M photo. In late 1929 she found a new goal.
Thalberg had bought the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott and was planning to film it as The Divorcee. In the book, a young woman flouts convention after divorcing her husband for infidelity. “I knew that M-G-M was considering borrowing someone from another lot to play it,” said Shearer. “I felt in my heart I could do it. But Irving laughed at me when I told him. It was so utterly different from the type of thing with which I’d been associated.”
When Shearer saw how Ramon Novarro had been interpreted by George Hurrell, an unknown photographer in the Westlake district, she secretly scheduled a session, and Hurrell transformed her into a siren. Shearer showed the proofs to Thalberg. The thirty-year-old genius gasped: “Why, I believe you can play that role!"
Flouting the Production Code
The Divorcee went into production in February 1930. In March 1930 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) adopted a Production Code, which was intended to keep sex and violence out of films. Thalberg had to persuade the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) that Shearer’s film would not encourage divorce. The Divorcee was released in April and was a sensation, making Shearer one of the first stars to buck the Code.
Because of Shearer’s standing and because Thalberg had contributed to the Code text, her films were passed by the SRC when others were not. In Strangers May Kiss, A Free Soul, and Strange Interlude, Shearer’s portrayal of intelligent, honest sexuality set a standard, challenging the Code. Other stars followed her example, and the SRC gradually weakened. When the Code was strengthened by Joseph Breen in 1934, such films could no longer be made; the pre-1934 period was later dubbed “pre-Code.”
The Third Annual Academy Awards banquet was held on November 5, 1930, in the Fiesta Room at the Hollywood Ambassador Hotel. Films made between August 1, 1929 and July 31, 1930, were eligible. At the time, an actor could be nominated for two films, so Shearer was named for Their Own Desire and The Divorcee. Competing with her were Nancy Carroll, Ruth Chatterton, Greta Garbo, and Gloria Swanson. Shearer was voted Best Actress of 1929-30 for The Divorcee. The award both honored her dramatic range and applauded her for tackling a controversial role.
On August 24, 1930, Norma Shearer gave birth to Irving Jr. The family of three shared a home at 9401 Sunset Boulevard with Irving Thalberg’s parents, William and Henrietta Thalberg.
In mid-1931 the Thalbergs moved to Santa Monica’s “Gold Coast,” the expensive strip of real estate on the beach. The Tudor-style home at 707 Palisades Beach Road was designed by John Byers and built by Frank Hellenthall (with assistance from M-G-M art director Cedric Gibbons). It fronted the beach but had soundproof walls and central air conditioning (in deference to Thalberg’s health). Its neighbors included Darryl F. Zanuck, Louis B. Mayer, and Marion Davies.
Glamour in the Great Depression
In the early ‘30s the Thalbergs joined the super-rich of America, just as the country was sinking into an unprecedented depression. Both Irving and Norma had middle-class beginnings, and, although they were insulated from the public, they owed their good fortune to that public. They contributed to numerous charities, but anonymously. For example, Thalberg paid for the dome of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple but asked Rabbi Edgar Magnin to keep the donation anonymous. Thalberg also kept his name off the credits of his films. “If you’re in a position to give yourself credit,” he said, “you don’t need it.”
As the depression pushed Hollywood into the red, only M-G-M continued to show a profit. Thalberg was credited with this; his filmmaking was shrewd and intuitive. In 1932, the depression’s worst year, Thalberg crafted a series of blockbusters: Grand Hotel, Tarzan the Ape Man, Prosperity, As You Desire Me, and Red Dust. Louis B. Mayer was by then the highest-paid executive in America, yet he resented Thalberg’s fame.
Shearer’s two hit films of 1932 were Strange Interlude, an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play, and Smilin’ Through, a multi-generation romance that earned a profit of nearly $1 million. With Garbo in Sweden and Crawford in a momentary decline, Shearer was truly the First Lady of M-G-M.