Norma Shearer wasn’t known as the Queen of MGM without reason. Before she married the studio’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, she had proven herself as a talented actress in her own right. Undeterred by criticism and rejection, she clawed her way into a successful career through sheer determination, persistence and discipline. Before Madonna, Shearer was a pioneer in reinventing her image. She was a woman who didn’t take no for an answer and who refused to let anyone else shape her public image. Sadly, she is not as well known today as other classic Hollywood film stars, which is a real shame. Because she is a powerful female role model even now, despite the misconception that she rode her husband’s coat tails to success.
Robert Montgomery has always been one of my favorite actors. His early years of comfort followed by loss gave him the strength and emotional tools needed to make a good actor. Montgomery has never been listed among the acting greats. I believe part of the reason he is excluded from that club is the lack of great parts that really allow him to shine. We see glimpses of it in his films The Big House, The Night Must Fall, They Were Expendable among others. But no one can deny that he was a solid, dependable, capable actor who played opposite some of the greatest leading ladies of the day.
Norma Shearer was one of those leading ladies. Shearer had already been in movies for a decade when she was paired with Montgomery for the first time. Montgomery himself was new to cinema although he had some prior Broadway experience. What a lucky break for him that he was paired with the formidable Norma his first year in the business. She was fearless and willing to take risks in her career. Norma was also willing to appear opposite men of lesser experience than her own. In doing so, she helped bolster the credibility of Montgomery as an actor worth working with. (She did the same with another more famous actor, Clark Gable).
In the years spanning 1929 through 1934, Shearer and Montgomery made five films together. After their first pairing, Shearer herself chose Montgomery as her partner in their next three films. While I am thankful for the five movies they starred in together, I wish there were more. Together, they display a great rapport, believable chemistry and perfect timing.
Whether playing drama or comedy, their roles as society darlings, with plenty of time and money find them well cast. In a time when women were beginning to assert their independence, Shearer’s strength does not overpower or conquer Montgomery’s more congenial but deceptive laissez faire attitude. Onscreen their characters are equal though different. When Shearer’s heroines exert their independence, the Montgomery hero is not threatened by it. In some ways their portrayals have subverted the typical relationship between men and women. We see Shearer asserting more masculine type behavior, ignoring the rules of society, refusing to be shamed or coerced into marriage and pretty much doing whatever she wants to do. Montgomery takes a more feminine role in seeming to acquiesce to Shearer’s heroines all the while shaping things behind the scenes.
After their last film together in 1934, Shearer only made seven more films before retiring from acting altogether. But Robert Montgomery was just getting started in Hollywood. He would go on to star in over thirty more films, playing some of his best parts. He also would go into directing, become a pioneer in the fledgling television industry as well as continue being active in politics before finally becoming a media consultant to the President. Oh and of course one of his best offerings to the public was his daughter Elizabeth, who went on to become famous as Samantha from the popular television series Bewitched.
Altogether, the combined contributions of Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery have left behind a rich legacy for their fans and for film history. Let’s end with a quick look at their joint projects
THEIR OWN DESIRE (1929)
Shearer plays a young woman whose belief in her father is crushed when he announces he is divorcing her mother to marry his lover. After swearing off marriage, Lally falls hard for a nice young man only to discover that his mother is the woman her father is planning to marry. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this. The story isn’t bad and Shearer carries the picture with her talent. But I did find the technical aspects of the film a bit distracting. Coming at the end of the silent film era, it appears that there was still progress to be made in making sound pictures.
THE DIVORCEE (1930)
This is the film famous for revolutionizing Norma’s onscreen image as a proper lady. Even when her husband (Thalberg) denied her the role, she fought hard to prove she could play a more sexually liberated woman. And she won, not only the part, but also an Oscar. Shearer plays Jerry a woman in love with her husband. When he has a one-night stand and then insists it’s no big deal, she decides to prove him right by reciprocating. Ted’s hypocrisy is exposed when he refuses to forgive his wife her own indiscretion, so she declares herself a free woman able to live and act just like a man does. Montgomery has a supporting role as a mutual friend and one of Jerry’s flings.
STRANGERS MAY KISS (1931)
It’s a love triangle folks. Shearer is Lisbeth, a young woman who could care less about getting married. She falls in love with a globetrotting reporter named Alan who is not nearly as committed to her as she is to him. Meanwhile, her long time friend Steve (Montgomery) is patiently waiting around hoping she will eventually agree to marry him. But she spurns him to run off to Mexico with Alan. She finally admits to herself that she isn’t as indifferent to the idea of marriage as she thought, only to learn that Alan is already married. She runs off to Europe throwing herself into multiple affairs and living the high life until Steve tracks her down. But then Alan shows up having secured a divorce from his wife. Who will Lisbeth choose? The production qualities of this film are pretty flawless, but the whole story line just annoyed me to no end. Because of this, it is not my favorite Shearer-Montgomery film.
PRIVATE LIVES (1931)
Based on a Noel Coward play, this is probably the best of Shearer and Montgomery’s films together. They play Amanda and Elyot a couple who were once madly in love, but who have since divorced. These two former lovers run into each other once again while on honeymoons with their current spouses. Unable to resist each other, they run off together only to find that the passion which still draws them together also drives them apart in the form of jealousy and raging fights. This is my favorite of the five pairings of these actors. It has a brisk pace and fantastic dialogue with biting wit and fabulous one-liners. Whether loving or fighting Amanda and Elyot engage each other with their whole heart. Even though, physical abuse is not acceptable, these two have a knock down drag out fight I love watching.
Shearer’s Mary is an American married to a wealthy Englishman who’s way of life requires some adjusting on her part. Mary is an outgoing social creature whose natural tendencies are curbed by the pressures and expectations of her new role. While traveling with her aunt, Mary meets the engaging playboy Tommie. Unfortunately, they are caught in an innocent but compromising situation. Mary’s husband refuses to believe her innocent and asks for a divorce. When she believes all hope is lost with her husband, she reconnects with Tommie in a romantic affair. But her husband suddenly has a change of heart. Can he forgive her actual indiscretion? Though Riptide also co-stars one of my favorite actors, Herbert Marshall as Mary’s stuffy husband, I find this film lacking. It feels a bit stale and dull to me and once again we have the double standard interfering with a woman’s life.