Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

1930s: Norma - queen of the Lot

Norma Shearer [1902-1983] is another fascinating example of those '30s stars not that well known today. Her biggest hits were of course as Mary Haines in 1939's hit THE WOMEN, and as MARIE ANTOINETTE in 1938 where she is tremendously affecting at the climax (but Bette's JEZEBEL was unstoppable that year!) She is perfect as the calm lead in Cukor's classic while the others like Crawford's Crystal and Rosalind Russell's Sylvia Fowler (below) make the most of those delicious lines. Add in the Jungle Red saleslady and the model walking around the salon intoning "our new one piece foundation garment, zips up the back and no bones" and that '30s fashion show in colour! Bliss, then. Norma's confrontation scene with Crawford still zings.

Norma was another early starter, winning a beauty contest at 14 and soon in the movies where she came to the attention of hot shot producer Irving Thalberg at MGM. Marrying him made her queen of the lot, getting the choice plum roles before the likes of upstarts like Joan Crawford. Her early popular movies like A FREE SOUL, THE DIVORCEE or LET US BE GAY are not really known now, but those prestige Thalberg productions like THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET and ROMEO AND JULIET in '36 still endure (odd seeing this one now, she and Leslie Howard are really too mature for the roles). Thalberg died in 1937 as Norma scored her biggest hits as Marie Antoinette and Mary Haines, and she is funny in that blonde wig in IDIOT'S DELIGHT with Clark Gable, One of her last was ESCAPE in '42 with Robert Taylor, a gripping drama where they are escaping from the Nazis (already reviewed here, 1940s label).

Norma retired in 1942 marrying a ski instructor ten years her junior - her last gift to the cinema was discovering young Janet Leigh, whose photo she spotted at the ski lodge where Janet's parents worked. Gavin Lambert wrote an interesting biography of Shearer a while back. Below: that '30s version of MARIE ANTOINETTE, perhaps more opulent than the real Versailles?

One can see now that these ladies who retired early so were not on public display or did not become revered as living legends in their old age like the Davises and Crawfords and Stanwycks who kept working, often in lesser vehicles. Irene Dunne, Loretta Young and Margaret Sullavan all were in retirement by the early '50s (Young having transferred to television) as was Jean Arthur who returned for SHANE.

Shearer retired in '42 as did Garbo and Lombard died in that plane crash. Hepburn continued to be the pre-eminent star of the era having a whole new lease of life with Tracy in the '40s and in the late '60s when Bette and Joan were mired in their grand guignol phase .... Norma was no doubt happier away from it all on the ski slopes.

By 1939 though the next raft of stars who would dominate the '40s had emerged: Vivien Leigh was Scarlett O'Hara, Ingrid Bergman was imported from Sweden for INTERMEZZO and Greer Garson was in GOODBYE MR CHIPS, as sisters Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine also reached the top, with those '40s gals (Lana, Rita, Hedy, Jennifer, Judy, Gene, Linda etc) waiting in the wings.

Next: Hepburn and SYLVIA SCARLETT.

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