The Women (1939)
The story of Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg
Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg’s love story is one of great devotion and one whom never would have heard of if they had accepted their limitations.
Diagnosed with a congenital heart defect as a baby he was never expected to have a long life. He spent his childhood and youth reading books and fell in love with the movies when Carl Laemmle showed him a few film productions of his Universal studio. Quickly he rose from executive secretary to studio manager - at 21. When he went to MGM he continued his perfectionism, he was involved in almost every detail of the pictures he produced and he had an uncanny ability to scent out star material - Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer.
Norma had fallen in love with acting when seeing a theater production back home in Canada and had her mind made up to become an actress. She faced rejection but she didn´t give up. She worked as a model, as an extra and worked hard to improve her appearance and her acting. When she eventually accepted Irving´s contract offer, she mistook him for the office boy when arriving at the MGM studios.
She was mesmerized by his eyes instantly. According to her she had never seen such intense eyes before. After being put under contract to MGM things did not go so smooth for her. Her first screen test was a disaster. A cameraman found her crying with vexation over the results and after talking to her and viewing the test, he decided that there should be a retake. The result was her first movie at MGM: Pleasure Mad.
She continued on her way, first with minor parts, and gradually working her way up to starring roles. With Thalberg crafting star images of his stars and creating personas for them, Norma disliked the mediocre films she starred in and pestered Irving on a regular basis for better roles. He didn´t gave in but he was intrigued.
One day after work, Norma received an invitation to attend the premiere of The Gold Rush with Irving. She of course accepted and after the date she told a friend she was in love with Irving. However, it took another year for Irving to realize the same and to ask her out on another date.
After that they began dating frequently and Norma described herself as Irving’s “spare tire”, the girl who was available when his other dates stood him up.
One evening after filming retakes for The Student Prince of old Heidelberg, Norma was called into Irving´s office. He sat behind his desk with a tray of rings. His simple question was, which ring she wanted. And that´s how he proposed. They married on September 29, 1927.
They had two children, Irving Jr. (born in 1930) and Katherine (born in 1935). Both were very loving parents. Irving adored his children and so did Norma. Even more important than her acting career to her, was her husband´s health. She was the most loyal and devoted wife. She willingly put her career on hold for over a year, when Irving suffered a heart attack. She also stuck with him during the hard times he had with Mayer and helped him where she could.
Eventually his obsession with this work took its toll. He became frailer and frailer and he looked very sick. On Labour Day weekend in 1937 he caught a cold, which quickly developed into pneumonia. He had been playing bridge with Harpo Marx and a couple of friends before and the weather was not suited for sitting outside without a pullover, he did despite Norma´s pleadings to put on something warmer.
He ended up being so weak that he was confined to his bed. Norma ordered a specialist to fly in from the East Coast but Irving sensed that it was going to end badly: “’This time I am not going to make it.’ Shearer lowered her head and bit her lip. ‘I´m not going to make it,’ he repeated, then managed a wan smile. ‘Nearer my God to Thee...’ he whispered. Shearer rose from her seat by the bed and walked out of the room, a hand on her face.” (Vieira, “Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder and Producer Prince, 2009) She didn´t leave his side one bit during this time, she neither slept.
After Irving´s death and after his funeral she brought her children to her sister to take care of them for a while. She spent a few weeks alone in their house numb and not quite ready to realize what had actually happened. At the end of the two weeks she collapsed and was diagnosed with pneumonia herself. Within one week she was so ill that her lawyer came to prepare the will. Fortunately she was able to regain her strength.