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Norma Shearer: 1929

July 24, 1929. "Norma Shearer (Mrs. Irving Thalberg)." The Oscar-winning actress at the White House. National Photo Co. glass negative. View full size.

July 24, 1929. "Norma Shearer (Mrs. Irving Thalberg)." The Oscar-winning actress at the White House. National Photo Co. glass negative. View full size.


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Norma in Washington

Norma has long been my favorite Classic Era actress (I run a YahooGroup devoted to her), and I have to wonder what was going on here. If I had to guess, I'd say she was in D.C. with her husband, M-G-M's Head of Production, Irving Thalberg, who was probably at the White House on some important matter pertaining to the motion-picture industry. Thalberg was a very big fish in the business at that time, and the industry itself was the seventh-largest in America then, so he had quite a lot of clout (HIS boss, Louis B. Mayer, was wont to call the White House and ask to speak to the President - and when he did, he got the man on the phone). Shearer is definitely there by invitation; that's the extension leading to the West Wing behind her, and even in 1929, you didn't stroll that part of the WH grounds just because you felt like it, except on public receiving days, a tradition long discontinued for security reasons. The throngs of people that would have been around on one of those days are not in evidence. Shearer is almost directly in front of the West Wing's lobby entrance (to her left, off the right side of the frame).

Norma's classic cloche hat was the salvation of every '20s woman; hairspray hadn't been invented yet, and a cloche kept hair out of sight, except for a fetching curl or two. I can't be sure of the season from the foliage, but if it was any season but Winter, those furs had to have been warm wearing in D.C. (however, there is no sign of the fire that would strike the West Wing on Christmas Eve that year) The pearls, in those days and in those circles, would have been real - and very expensive. Her pumps are metallic-dyed kid, which would have been very chic, flashy even, for D.C. at that time. I doubt that any old-guard D.C. matron mistook her for anything but what she was, an actress.

What's really wonderful about the photo is that Norma is deprived of all her usual on-camera tricks; she did, like all stars, have some physical characteristics that she was insecure about, and she had a pretty fair array of strategies for downplaying them. Here, she's in broad daylight, no screen makeup, no trick Hollywood lighting or special lenses or fancy poses, and she looks great. She's either 27 or 29 years old here, depending on which of her biographers you believe - over a decade younger than Jennifer Aniston (who resembles her) is today. By the way, Norma, who was born in Montreal, was still a Canadian at this point; she didn't take out American citizenship until the '30s.


What a beautiful snapshot of Norma Shearer! I love it. She's by far my favorite actress.

Feh on the new "The Women"

Shearer starred in the original film alongside a fabulously bitchy Joan Crawford and a charmingly catty Rosalind Russell. The current ladies are no match.


When I was a kid, two very richly dressed wealthy sisters always seemed to sit in the row directly in front of us at church. They often wore similar fur stoles like this one, with faces on them (I believe there were fox and mink ones) and I was totally mesmerized each time, focused on the faces of these little dead animals with glass eyes. Once when I mentioned it to my older sister, she said "those are Kolinskis" and being that we lived in a Polish community I thought she meant the sisters. It was many years later that I found out that kolinsky was the name of that style of fur stoles. Turned out the sisters were Italian.


Sticking up for a fellow Canadian, I have to say that a lot of the "accepted wisdom" about Norma Shearer is due to her rivalry with Joan Crawford. Crawford famously described her as "cross-eyed, knock-kneed and she can’t act worth a damn." She was also the one who created the myth that she was only successful because she was "sleeping with the boss" (Thalberg, although some of the more scurrilous writers about Hollywood suggested that Mayer had been there first so to speak). If nothing else their rivalry made their scenes in "The Women" particularly juicy.


Considering her supposed physical faults ("dumpy figure, with shoulders too broad, legs too sturdy, hands too blunt, small eyes that appeared crossed due to a cast in her right eye"), Norma certainly turned out well. There is a certain studied confidence about Norma, but good for her. She knew what she wanted and she got it. She was, afterall, the Queen of MGM--thanks to Irving Thalberg.

I Love Her!

I fell in love with Norma when I stumbled upon a late night showing of "The Divorcee'" on TCM several years ago. What a gorgeous, smart and talented woman! Thanks for this photo; I look at Shorpy every day and this was a very nice surprise!

Lovely necklace

Real pearls! And at such a uniquely 1920's length.


She's not recalled very favorably these days, but my God Norma Shearer was fabulous. And what a great print. Thanks, Shorpy!

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