It is quite common to read that Clark Gable slept with every one of his leading ladies. And while that statement has been buzzing around for so long that many people take it as fact, it’s not true at all. In fact, I think the number of leading ladies he starred opposite that he wasn’t romantically involved with far outnumbers the opposite. Perhaps that is why Norma Shearer doesn’t get much attention as one of his onscreen lovelies–in fact she is one of the few that I can think of that I haven’t even heard a rumor he had slept with her! Nonetheless, Ms. Shearer is an interesting footnote in Clark’s personal and professional life.
Norma was the reigning “Queen of the Lot” at MGM by the time Clark was paired with her in his star-making turn in A Free Soul in 1931. She was married to MGM’s head of production, “wonder boy” Irving Thalberg and had recently given birth to his son. Being married to the boss and having 10 years of silent pictures under her belt, Norma had her pick of all the juicy roles at MGM, the biggest and most prestigious studio of that period. In A Free Soul, Norma had the privilege of being Clark’s onscreen love interest before anyone knew that really was a privilege. Before that picture, few people noticed Clark, who had been getting by playing thugs and secondary parts in films such as Night Nurse and The Easiest Way. A Free Soul changed all that. Clark’s star power suddenly skyrocketed, earning him thousands of female fans who were intrigued by him defiling the Queen of MGM and telling her to “take it and like it.”
After Clark’s death, Norma was quoted: “Perhaps that was where Noel Coward got the idea for his line: ‘Every woman should be hit regularly—like a gong.’ And for that sort of thing it was Gable who made villains popular. Instead of the audience’s wanting the good man to get the girl, they wanted the bad man to get the girl.”
Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul
In 1932 Clark and Norma were paired again in the screen adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Strange Interlude. They played friends who end up sleeping together in order to produce a child to masquerade as her husband’s. (Didn’t you know that is the right thing to do when your husband has a family history of mental illness?) Maureen O’Sullivan played the girlfriend of Norma and Clark’s son in the last part of the film and apparently Norma was not a fan of hers. Maureen later recalled, “Norma spoke very little to me, but Gable was kind and attentive. I didn’t even notice she noticed this–but she did, and didn’t like it. She sent a message asking him to spend less time talking with me on the set.”
Clark and Norma in Strange Interlude
Norma and Clark’s relationship when the cameras stopped rolling could be described as cordial and friendly. He was however, not a fan of Norma, as the wife of MGM’s head of production, not wearing any underwear under her costumes!
As a footnote in history, it’s worth mentioning that Norma memorably sparked that infamous Carole Lombard temper at the Mayfair Ball in 1936–the same ball where Clark and Carole first caught each other’s eye. Carole was elected hostess of the ball, and designated it a “White Ball” and everyone was strictly instructed to only wear white. While a few women sneaked on by in pale blue and blush, Norma chose to make no mistake of her shunning of the rule, arriving in a vibrant red dress. Carole was spitting nails! The incident was so whispered about around town that it has been said it was the inspiration for the famous red dress scene in the 1938 Bette Davis film Jezebel.
David Niven, Merle Oberon, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg at the Mayfair Ball
In June 1938, Norma Shearer was announced as having secured the role every actress desired—that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. From the Associated Press:
All’s out in free! The game’s over. Gone with the Wind has been cast.
Norma Shearer, who was born in Canada, will play the role of the Southern spitfire–“charged with electricity and possessed of the devil”–Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” when the picture is made later this year.
But by August 1, Norma “gave up” the role, apparently due to the backlash. From the New York Times:
Norma Shearer today announced her withdrawal from the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s ”Gone With the Wind,” which David O. Selznick is to make as a motion picture. Attributing her decision to fan mail, in which a substantial number of correspondents voiced their opinion that she was unsuited for the part, Miss Shearer made her decision known through the M-G-M publicity department.
Norma seemed an absurd choice for sure. Steve Wilson, curator for the Harry Ransom Center, discovered many details in David O. Selznick’s papers about this apparent casting of Norma as Scarlett:
Selznick had to make a deal with MGM to get Clark Gable. When they first started to get the deal together, Norma Shearer was part of that deal. She had been paired with Clark Gable a couple of times [A Free Soul, Strange Interlude] and they were about to make Idiot’s Delight. I believe she was the driving force behind the deal. She went to Louis B. Mayer and Nicholas Schenck [chairman of the board of Lowe’s, Inc., the owner of MGM] to say she wanted to be in this movie. But the public was not behind her as Scarlett. Some thought she could play Melanie. At one point, when Shearer thought she was going to play Scarlett, she sent a super secret memo to Selznick outlining her thoughts about the script. Basically, she thought that Scarlett — in the early part of the movie — was fine, but later on was not sympathetic enough. She wanted Selznick to change the script to make Scarlett more sympathetic. As it turned out, Shearer leaked this to Hedda Hopper and then the letters really started pouring in. So, that was a surprise to me to learn that Norma Shearer was so involved in that aspect of it and that she really wanted the part so badly that she really went after it very aggressively.”
Truly, Norma would have been absolutely disastrous casting! It seems odd that perfectionist Selznick even remotely considered her. But along came the perfect Scarlett, of course, named Vivien Leigh.
Speaking of Vivien Leigh, here is an interesting anecdote from Gavin Lambert’s biography, Norma Shearer:
[In the 1960’s] when George Cukor gave a party for Vivien Leigh during her last visit to Hollywood, he stage-managed a memorable encounter. As one of the guests commented, Scarlett O’Hara met Marie Antoinette. The two actresses, Vivien with the manic depressive’s wild flash in her eyes, Norma with the dew of unshed tears in hers, began talking immediately about how the public had identified them forever with their most famous roles. Vivien denied that she had anything personally in common with Scarlett, Norma insisted she had never felt like Marie. They laughed and shook their heads at the absurdity of it. Then Vivien said quietly, all the same, it had to mean something. Norma quietly agreed. They have each other long searching looks, and for a moment they seemed very serious and a little sad. Then they laughed again, praising each other’s performance, and kissed.
Not sure how true that is, but an interesting little exchange.
Clark and Norma in Idiot’s Delight (1939)
By the time Clark and Norma were re-teamed for the final time in Idiot’s Delight, Clark was a bonafide star and an Oscar winner with many hits under his belt. His next role was Rhett Butler. Norma, however, was at the end of her career. After her beloved husband’s death in 1936 at the age of 37, she was left a widow with two small children and nearly died of pneumonia herself. She wasn’t seen on the screen for two years. She came back to star in a pet project of Irving’s, Marie Antoinette, which was well received but didn’t grab her the second Oscar she desperately wanted. Norma’s last notable role was in the classic all-female cast film The Women. Her later projects, Escape and Her Cardboard Lover, failed to dazzle and approaching 40 made Norma nervous. She retired from the screen in 1942 and subsequently married to Martin Arrouge, a ski instructor 20 years her junior.
Although Clark and Norma would never grace the screen together again, their paths still crossed. Norma was very close friends to Sylvia Ashley, who would become the fourth Mrs. Clark Gable in 1949. Norma and Sylvia ran in the same circles, naturally, when Sylvia was married to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Sylvia even attended Norma’s wedding to Martin.
Douglas Fairbanks, Sylvia Ashley, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg
Worth noting is that Norma was also was one of only a handful of Clark’s leading ladies to attend his funeral.
Norma Shearer and Martin Arrouge at Clark’s funeral
Sadly, Norma’s name is not usually mentioned when someone recalls great actresses of her era. Contemporaries such as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and yes, even Joan Crawford are mentioned far ahead of her. Which would indeed have saddened her, as she spent her whole life trying to be the shiniest star. Crippled by near-blindness and dementia in her later years, Norma died at the Motion Picture Country Home on June 12, 1985 of bronchial pneumonia. She is buried with Irving Thalberg in the Grand Mausoleum in Forest Lawn Glendale, not too far from Clark and Carole Lombard.
In the 1950’s, Norma sat down and wrote her memoirs. Unfortunately they have never seen the light of day. Martin, her widower, would never let them be published. Why? Probably because they were rather fluffy. One of the few people to read what Norma wrote was actress Janet Leigh, who was discovered by Norma. Janet recalled, “[There was] no real mention of any problems. No reality at all…I wondered what to tell her. Finally I said, ‘How lucky you’ve been, what a wonderful life you’ve had.’ It seemed to go down well.” Apparently, a biographer has now gotten a hold of Norma’s memoirs and we are supposed to be getting a new book on her in the next year–I’m sure with some reality thrown in!
Read more about A Free Soul, Strange Interlude and Idiot’s Delight. See Norma and Irving’s Santa Monica home and see their crypt at Forest Lawn Glendale .
Read more Spotlights:
The Brown Derby Restaurant Part 1
The Brown Derby Restaurant Part 2
The Brown Derby Restaurant Part 3
Have a suggestion for a Spotlight? Leave a comment!