Norma & Douglas Shearer - Cineplex Legends Inductees
2008 cineplex legends inductee
Dubbed "The Queen of Hollywood" by Louis B. Mayer, Norma Shearer began her movie career not in front of a camera but playing the piano at silent movie theatres in Montreal.
Norma Shearer recalled her childhood as a "pleasant dream" filled with piano, skating, skiing and swimming. By the time she was nine, she knew exactly what she wanted from life: she wanted to be an actress like the Dolly Sisters. When Shearer's parents separated, her mother packed up her daughters, Norma and Athole, and headed for New York City.
Norma gained work as a bit player in small films, one of which was D.W. Griffith's Way Down East (1920). More than one director suggested that she had an eye problem that would make it difficult for her to attain her goal of stardom. A determined Shearer began exercises to strengthen her eyes and spent hours in front of the mirror learning to highlight her best features for the camera. The work paid off.
After a few more small parts and good notices, Shearer caught the attention of an executive at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Irving Thalberg. Under Thalberg's guidance, Norma made a few films that helped build her fan base and polish her acting skills. Her big break came with the role of Kathy in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927). The camera loved her. Thalberg and the studio both liked what they saw and Thalberg proposed marriage to the young starlet. Norma and Irving were wed in the "Hollywood Wedding of the Year" in 1927, and Mrs. Thalberg immediately went back to work as the "Queen of MGM Studios."
Norma had paid her dues in small-budget "B" films and moved on to larger films, including The Divorcee (1930) and her final silent feature, A Lady of Chance (1928). While most silent-film stars failed to make the transition to "talkies," Norma's first talking role, the title character in The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), was a great success. Her "medium pitched, fluent, flexible Canadian accent" was widely imitated and critically applauded. In 1931, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in The Divorcee, accepting her award alongside her brother, Douglas Shearer, who won for Best Sound Recording for The Big House, the only time a brother and sister have been honoured in the same year. At the time, Norma was asked if she had feared the advent of sound in film. She replied: "It offered a new way to express emotion. But, of course, I would have murdered my brother, Douglas, if he hadn't made me sound so good." Although she took time off for the births of her two children, Shearer continued her success in prestige projects, including The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and Romeo and Juliet (1936). The latter would bring her fifth Oscar nomination. Norma took her role as a film star seriously. She exercised daily, had her own hairdresser and makeup artist, and brought her firm sense of style to the screen by insisting that her wardrobe be fashioned by world-renowned designers, including Adrian and Erté.
Norma's perfect life came to a crashing halt when Thalberg died at the age of 37, after his second heart attack, which abruptly changed the course of her career. Norma wanted to retire. Louis B. Mayer didn't want to let his star go. He pressured her to make six more films. Although she would go on to star in Marie Antoinette (1938), The Women (1939) and Escape (1940), she passed up plum roles in Pride and Prejudice, Susan and God, Mrs. Miniver, Gone with the Wind, and Now, Voyager.
Norma Shearer married ski instructor Martin Arrouge in 1942 and retired from the screen forever. She died at the age of 83, her Hollywood legacy as a feminist pioneer in motion pictures firmly cemented in film history.
Douglas Shearer was one of the technical geniuses whose talents were vital to filmmaking and the creation of motion picture magic.
Born into a prominent Montreal family that fell on hard times when his father's business failed, Douglas Shearer left high school in the midst of his graduation year and found a job. Fascinated by light and sound, Shearer shadowed his supervisors at Northern Electric Company, studying their experimental work in the use of electricity for carrying signals over long distances.
Hoping to further the singing, acting, modeling careers of his younger sisters, Norma and Athole, his mother took his two siblings and moved to New York City: Shearer stayed behind with his father, and despite his lack of a secondary school diploma he began studying engineering at McGill University.
By 1923, his sister Norma was experiencing success in front of the camera, and Shearer decided to buy a rail ticket and try his own luck in the burgeoning film industry in California. In 1925, he began his career with MGM Studios with the mandate to experiment with lighting, film, and cameras. When he asked about sound, his boss, Irving Thalberg, said, "That's a long way off, if it ever comes. But yes, sound if you wish."
When MGM decided to make sound pictures in 1928, Shearer was, despite his lack or formal academic training, appointed head of the sound department, a position he held until his retirement. Taking the silent film White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) to a New Jersey recording studio, he added sound effects and music. In those early years, the common practice was to record the sound effects and the music but not the dialogue. Shearer initiated the idea of playing the soundtrack for a musical number so it would be filmed in sync with the music. That groundbreaking film was The Broadway Melody (1929), which won the Oscar for Best Picture that year. It was billed as an "All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!" movie.
Shearer won his first Academy Award for Best Sound Recording with The Big House (1930). At the 1931 ceremony, he shared the stage with younger sister Norma, who won an Academy Award for acting, the only time in Oscar history that a brother and sister were awarded on the same night.
To improve the experience of the moviegoers, Shearer and his team invented what would become the first sound "mixer". In 1936, the "Shearer Horn" became the industry standard.
"The public probably little realizes the various advances in sound pictures," said Shearer, "but some of our troubles and problems have had an element of humour. For example, we experimented much in early days to prevent the falling rain from sounding like dropping bullets when recorded. We learn to damp' the sound with blotting paper on window sills, or felt on the ground out of camera sight."
During World War II, Shearer "disappeared" from Hollywood for a period of nearly two years. Later, it was explained that Shearer, who was also an aviator, had been tapped to work with the Office of Naval Research as a consultant on radar development and devices that determine when and where nuclear explosions take place.
Back in Hollywood, Shearer continued his work in sound technology, earning three more Oscars, two for special effects (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, in 1944, and Green Dolphin Street, in 1947) and another for sound (The Great Caruso, 1951).
Shearer's most important contributions include the development of a sophisticated recording system that largely eliminated unwanted background noise during the sound recording, and the co-creation of the MGM Camera 65 wide-screen system, used for the wide-screen photography of Ben-Hur (1959), which earned him a special Oscar. Shearer is also credited with advancements in projection work, colour balance and background process photography.
During his tenure at MGM, Shearer was involved in improving virtually every scientific and technical aspect of the motion picture business. Upon his death in January of 1971, The New York Times gave Douglas Shearer's obituary 15 column inches on the front page an honour usually reserved for giants of industry, heads of state and very few actors and actresses.