Norma Shearer

  1. 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.
  2. 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.Next time Shearer had dibs on such a juicy role, Crawford was not so lucky.  Furious, in fact. See below.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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… 
  6. Marion Davies, Polly of the Circus, 1931.    Freaks director Tod Browning was due to re-tread the  Mae Marsh’s weepie with Shearer as the aerialist falling for Clark Gable  – as a clergyman, no less!  (Tracy, sure, but Gable!) Four years on, Gable remained in the dog-collar but it was Davies falling from the trapeze. The 1917 original was the first film beginnig wiith (MGM’s future)  roaring Leo the Lion.
  7. 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 cousin of 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!
  8. 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).
  9. Constance Bennett, Outcast Lady, 1933.        Wise move. This was apoor version of The Green Hat play.
  10. 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.

  11. Constance Bennett, Outcast Lady, 1934.      Dudley Murphy directing Shearer became Robert Z Leonard helming Bennett… for the second time that year…
  12. Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind, 1938.
  13. 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!!!”  Far too soon to be a mother again so soon aftter Littlle Women, People will begin to think she’s…. aged!  Next up: Greer Garson. MGM’s First Lady was 37 and a widow at the time. La Crawford, then 34,  relished taking anything from Norma “I’ll play Wally Beery’s grandmother, if it’s a good part.” And this was, just not
  14. Greer Garson, Pride and Prejudice, 1939    Norma Shearer’s next target was Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet – never made as planned (with Clark Gable as Darcy) in 1936 due to the untimely death of her husband, MGM production icon  Irving Thalberg. Three years on, MGM head lion LB Mayer said it better suited Garson – despite being almost twice  the age of Elizabeth Bennet.Shearer who wa star because she had decided to be one – according to Robert Morley. Orson Welles called her  “one of the most minimally talented ladies to appear on the silver screen.”
  15. 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.
  16. Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver, 1941.    Dumbest move. While shooting We Were Dancing, in 1941, MGM’s  First Lady 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 wartime 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, who chose Her Cardboard Lover instead (and we all remember that oner, right?) and thern quit the scene, in every sense, and married her (much younger) ski instructor in 1942 (until her death).
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. Bette Davis, Now, Voyager, 1942.  “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars…”  Director Edmund Goulding wanted Irene Dunne as the repressed spinster Charlotte Vale. He fell ill and Michael Curtiz took over – and chose Norma Shearer.  Rising director Irving Rapper told his pal Bette Davis that Jack Warner preferred Irene  Dunne.  Davis “demanded” the film, got it – “but not with Curtiz!” She then quit – until hearing Ginger Rogers would replace her.  “Oh, no she will not!:” Bette rewarded Rapper by making him the director of ”the picture  that made me.”  (He had been suspended so often at Warner Bros – ten times in seven years – that Humphrey Bogart told him: “Skippy, one more suspension and you’ll be on the San Francisco Bay Bridge!”). Davis won her fifth successive Oscar nomination, but the movie remains more famous for Paul Henried simultaneously lighting two cigarettes in his  mouth and passing one to Davis. . His idea, said the actor. Mine, said Rapper, admitting it first happened in a DW Griffith silent, circa 1917. Plus, Bette could have said, by Ruth Chatterton and George Brent, in her 1931 film, The Rich Are Always with Us
  20.  Miriam Hopkins,  Old Acquaintance, 1942.  Seconds out of the ring…  Bette Davis wanted Norma Shearer or “Livvy” De Havilland as her co-star – but got Miriam Hopkins, her arch nemesis… second only to Joan Crawford.  They posed for a publicity photo in boxing gloves. Bu they were no joke on the set. In fact, director Edmund Goulding couldn’t face them and passed the chair to Vincent Sherman – the referee in the boxing pix.  In one scenes Hopkins accused Davis of stealing her husband.  And that actually happened in when Davis  had an affair with him –  director Anatole Litvak.,.  After failing on this movie, Davis started an affair with Sherman during their next film. Always good tp have the director on your side when a film is called Mr Skeffington and you’re playing Mrs…
  21. Bette Davis, Mr Skeffington, 1942.  David O Selznick wanted the book in 1940 for James Stepenson and Bette Davis but head bro Jack Warner won it and aimed Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Merle Oberon,  Norma Shearer and Gloria Swanson at Mrs S., wed to John Loder, Paul Lukas or Richard Waring – after  James Stephenson died before the filming began.  (Waring instead became  Mrs S’ brother, Trippy Trellis). Davis rejected her Mrs role first time around. She “couldn’t play 50 at 32“– plus lines like “You’ve never loved anyone but yourself” were way too close to home. She then insisted on Claude Rains: her favourite “actor and colleague.”  as Mr. Plus Vincent Sherman as her director., and, inevitably, had an affair with him. Which usually guaranteed more and better close-ups… The 30-day shooting schedule took 110 days. Because, said the scenarist twins Julius J and Philip G Epstein, “Bette Davis is a slow director.”

  22. 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!” 

  23. Greer Garson, That Forsyte Woman, 1948.   MGM won  the rights to John Galsworthy’s The Forstye Saga in 1937 – and never knew what to do with it.  Instead of the full trilogy, the studio planned a re-titled version of the the first book, The Man of Property, with Joseph L  Mankiewicz directing Franchot Tone as the stuffy banker, Soames Forsyte, and La Crawford as his  unfaithful wife, Irene.  Two more attempts in 1939 and 1949 never flew, either, despite being aimed at  Cark Gable,  Deborah Kerr, Myrna Loy, Michael Wilding, etc.

  24. 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! 
  25. Bette Davis, All About Eve, 1950. 
  26. Jennifer Jones, Tender Is The Night, 1961.     Back in the 30s,. author F Scott Fitzgerald wanted Shearer to be the neurotic Nicole, falling for her shrink, Dr Dick Diver. Her husband, MGM’s  wunderkind production chief Irving Thalberg  simply refused  any such idea!   Elizabeth Taylor and Jennifer Jones were the next candidates in tje 60s .  Jones won.  Or, factually, lost.






 Birth year: 1900Death year: 1983Other name: Casting Calls:  26