Norma Shearer (1900-1983)
- Greta Garbo, The Torrent, 1925. Hyped as Sweden’s Shearer, Garbo's arrival in Hollywood and hardly impressed MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. He shoved her into a role he felt unsuitable for Shearer - he was grooming her as star and as his wife. It would be 13 years before Shearer replaced Garbo in a film, by which time Thalberg was dead.
- Joan Crawford, Paid (UK: Within The Law), 1928. The Thalbergs expecting their first child gave Crawford her first star vehicle. As Lucille Le Sueur, her first film job had been as Shearer’s double in long shots of her dual role in Lady of the Night, 1925. Three films later, magazine readers re-named her Joan Crawford.
- Joan Crawford, Grand Hotel, 1931. Even if critic George Nathan found it “dull to the point of complete ennervation,” this was the big MGM hit of the year. And production genius Irving Thalbery wanted his wife to be the racy Flaemmchen. Her fans did not. She obeyed the fans rather than her husband.
- Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman, 1931. Also refused by Joan Crawford, this was Harlow’s second MGM movie after the studio paid Howard Hughes $60,000 for her contract.
- Katharine Hepburn, A Bill of Divorcement, 1931. Norma pushed and pushed for it, then changed her mind. So did director George Cukor. ‘Leggy, certainly,” ran his notes on Hepburn’s test. “Definitely toothy. A New England blueblood. Heiress, I hear. [Wrong that was Kate's lover - for 66 years - Laura Harding, of the American Express family]. An intellectual. By all means a snob. Broad Bryn Mawr vowels . Headstrong. Opinionated, I’m certain. Flashy. Strangely masculine. No doubt a lesbian!” Which is why he introduced her to Greta Garbo...
- Myrna Loy, The Prizefighter and the Lady, 1931. Seven years earlier, Howard Hawks, The Grey Fox, had written The Roughneck and the Lady for his sister-in-law. (He was also a cousinof Carole Lombard and later brother-in-law of Groucho Marx). Not that MGM acknowledged that that in calling this an original by Frances Marion. Hah! The ’32 plan to cash in on the current Red Dust team of Jean Harlow and Clark Gable was thwarted by the suicide of her husband Paul Bern. Also in mourning was his pal, the film’s uncredited co-director with WS Van Dyke... Hawks!
- Helen Hayes, Another Language, 1932. Shearer fled the lead to nurse her husband, MGM’s house genius Irving Thalberg, after his heart attack. Four years later he was dead at at 37. And at 38, she had an affair with Mickey Rooney (aged 19).
- Constance Bennett, Outcast Lady, 1933. Wise move. This was apoor version of The Green Hat play.
- Helen Hayes, Vanessa: Her Love Story, 1934. The book was first bought for Swanson, then Shearer - and finally. Helen made the final part of Hugh Walpole’s Herries Chronicle quartet into a… Hayes Chronicle. Unwillingly. She hated the script and only made the movie because MGM threatened to sue her for the pre-production costs. $90,000.
- Constance Bennett, Outcast Lady, 1934. Dudley Murphy directing Shearer became Robert Z Leonard helming Bennett… for the second time that year…
- Vivien Leigh, Gone With The Wind, 1938.
- Joan Crawford, Susan and God, 1939. Dumb move. MGM shelled out $75,000 for the play for Shearer. She refused it point-blank - “but she’s the mother of a 14-year-old daughter!!!” MGM’s First Lady was 37 and a widow at the time. La Crawford, then 34, relished taking anything from Norm. “I’ll play Wally Beery’s grandmother, if it’s a good part.”
- Greer Garson, Pride and Prejudice, 1939. Dumber move by the actress who was a star because she had decided to be one - according to Robert Morley. Orson Welles was not impressed. He said she was “one of the most minimally talented ladies to appear on the silver screen.”
- Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story, 1939. Hepburn was box-office poison in Hollywood, but the queen of Broadway. MGM chief LB Mayer went to New Yorkto see the play - to buy it for his date, Norma. One slight problem there: Kate had the rights sewn up. For herself.
- Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver, 1941. Dumbest move. At 42, MGM's First Lady again refused to play the mother of a grown-up child. Likewise Garson, at 34. She asked director William Wyler if she needed grey wigs and wrinkles. "Oh no, you look just right." (Pause). "I mean, I want you to look young and vital... the audience will make allowances." She got an Oscar (her acceptance speech remains a record: 5 1/2 minutes). Then British war time Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, said the film’s message was worth 100 battleships. That’s not all... Garson, at 38, wed her screen son, Richard Ney. 28. On MGM’s instructions, the wedding was delayed until the film’s release run had ran. And Shearer quit the scene, in every sense, and married her (much younger) ski instructor in 1942 (until her death).
- Bette Davis, Now Voyager, 1941. Director Edmund Goulding wanted Irene Dunne. Michael Curtiz preferred Norma or Ginger Rogers. Then, the Bette Davis eyes fell on Louella Parsons' item about another Charles K Feldman client, Irene Dunne, being loaned to Warners. Oh no, said Bette... If anyonr was going to say the line, iit was her: “Oh Jerry, don't let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
- Barbara Stanwyck, The Gay Sisters, 1941. Fretting that she’d have to look older than Mary, who already “photographed old,” Bette Davis told head Brother Jack Warner to shove it… to someone else. He called Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn and tried to borrow Shearer, MGM’s First Lady. The problem was solved when Astor split for The Maltese Falcon. Except La Barb had signed by then.
- Miriam Hopkins, Old Acquaintance, 1942. Bette Davis wanted Norma - as the old friend she nearly throttled. Norma stayed retired. And rich. Davis always maintainedthat Hopkins (like Crawford) lusted after her. The two actresses were fierce enemies following Bette’s affair with Miriam’s husband, the Kiev-born director Anatole Litvak.
- Bette Davis, Mr Skeffington, 1943. Shearer, Irene Dunne and Gloria Swanson were closer to Mrs S’s 50 than Davis, Hedy Lamarr, Merle Oberon or Tallulah Bankhead. But then Bette Davis was Bette Davis! When head brother Jack Warner asked the Epstein twin scenarists why the film was behind schedule, they replied: “Bette Davis is a slow director.”
- Gene Tierney, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, 1946. Head Fox Darryl Zanuck battled for Shearer opposite Rex Harrison’s spectre. "Many people, including [Twentieth Century-Fox president] Spyros Skouras, believe that Norma Shearer has one great picture left in her yet," he wrote, "and that she would make the same comeback that Joan Crawford made last year [in Mildred Pierce]. She is certainly no deader than Joan was."
Except she was - never making another film after her 62nd, Her Cardboard Lover, in 1941. And she she had quit at age 40 to follow her doctrine: “Never let them see you after you’ve turned 35. You’re finished if you do!”
- Gloria Swanson, Sunset Blvd, 1949. Searching for an old-timer to play the silents’ queen Norma Desmond, director Billy Wilder went through Mae Murray, Pola Negri, Mae West, even trying to arrange a Garbo comeback. Next? Mary Pickford - and he aplogised mid-way through his pitch about an old star and her much younger gigolo - and left Pickfair, his tale between his legs. Next? Well, Shearer copied Garbo and said retired meant retired - particularly when being offered such a distasteful project. Finally, George Cukor’s light bulb glowed… Swanson!