Silver Screen Pioneer: The Norma Shearer Story

Black and white photograph of Norma Shearer posing in 1920s fashion. She wears a light-colored cloche hat adorned with a buckle, a plaid skirt, patterned stockings, and white heeled Oxford shoes. She is seated, leaning forward with her chin resting on her hand, smiling gently. She has a fur shawl draped over her shoulders and rests her elbow on a circular wooden stool. The background is a plain, light gradient.
Norma Shearer

Snapshot Biography

Norma Shearer was born on August 11, 1902, in Montreal, Canada. Speaking of her early years, Norma said,

“As a child, mine was a glorious life, one for which I have never ceased to be thankful…My parents were decidedly not the pampering type, which, whether or not they realized at the time, was a substantial rock in the foundations they were building for us. We were given greater freedom and more opportunities to show initiative than is the lot of most youngsters.”

Norma was drawn to acting from a young age, inspired by a vaudeville show she saw on her ninth birthday. Despite self-awareness about some physical imperfections, she was determined to become an actress.

This ambition faced a serious test when her father’s business collapsed in 1918, plunging the family into poverty. But her mother, believing in her daughter’s potential, sold a piano to fund a trip to New York City for Norma to pursue acting. They arrived in New York in January 1920 but faced immediate setbacks, including a harsh rejection in which Norma’s physical appearance was criticized.

Then came a break. As Norma said,

“I learned that Universal Pictures was looking for eight pretty girls to serve as extras. Athole [Norma’s sister] and I showed up and found 50 girls ahead of us. An assistant casting director walked up and down looking us over. He passed up the first three and picked the fourth. The fifth and sixth were unattractive, but the seventh would do, and so on, down the line until seven had been selected—and he was still some ten feet ahead of us. I did some quick thinking. I coughed loudly, and when the man looked in the direction of the cough, I stood on my tiptoes and smiled right at him. Recognizing the awkward ruse to which I’d resorted, he laughed openly and walked over to me and said, ‘You win, Sis. You’re Number Eight.’”

More roles as an extra came after, then came more significant parts, and by the late 1920s, she was a major star, demanding better roles and material, often directly from MGM’s head, Irving Thalberg, whom she married in 1927. Norma became known for roles as spunky, sexually liberated ingénues. And with her roles came much success. She was the first five-time Academy Award acting nominee, winning Best Actress for “The Divorcee” in 1930.

In the final years of her life, Norma’s career and public profile underwent significant changes. After the death of her husband in 1936, Norma fought to secure his estate’s financial rights from MGM. She continued to act in films but eventually retired from acting in 1942. Norma then married Martin Arrougé, a World War II Navy aviator and former ski instructor to her children, and largely withdrew from the Hollywood scene.

Norma passed away on June 12, 1983, of bronchial pneumonia at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California.