I just want to say that I think Norma Shearer is the bravest woman I’ve ever seen.
That’s the thought that came to me as I watched her opening close-up in MGM’s 1930 comedy-melodrama Let Us Be Gay. Yes, that is Norma Shearer in the image above. Usually I would add “underneath all that make-up” (or wigs, or false noses, or yak hair, as the case may be). Except that there isn’t any make-up. That’s Norma herself, unadorned, the thing itself, presented to viewer scrutiny. Scrubbed of beautifying cosmetics, stripped of flattering lighting, Norma is probably as she looked in real life, first thing on waking in the morning. Perhaps for a 5 o’clock studio call. Or, as in this film scene, to look after her two children. Before the whole, massive Hollywood dream-factory apparatus was hauled out to shape-fake-create her Known-To-The World screen visage.
Please note that Let Us Be Gay comes some ten years before Now, Voyager made frumpishness Oscar-worthy. Norma got there first. Eat your heart out, Bette Davis.
I’ll come right out here and admit that I’m not a Norma Shearer fan. I find her too calculating and arch in her pre-Code films, and too damn noble for my lowdown tastes in her post-Code ones. Just her mannerisms to start with, particularly when she wants to indicate drop-dead sophistication: her waving of wrists, fans, and handkerchiefs, or how she’ll coyly dig a finger into her chin or cantilever her torso while sticking out her elbows like silk-clad flying buttresses. I find myself grinding my teeth when I watch (Norma’s films are murder on my molars). I think she tries too hard—Dietrich merely had to slouch and look blank, and she conveyed volumes. And then there’s her brittle-to-the-point-of-breakage laugh: high-pitched, flutey, and oh-so-carefree. She seems about to raise a champagne glass and launch into Adele’s aria in a roadshow Die Fledermaus. (Truth be known, I’m not that fond of Adele, either.)
But watching Norma in Let Us Be Gay’s early scenes, as a happy housewife devoted to offspring and husband, and as yet unaware that the latter is carrying on an affair with a glamorous blonde, left me in awe. Beauty is so common, so taken-for-granted in Hollywood cinema, that for an actress to allow herself to look plain, even homely, onscreen, surprises us. And beauty, for Norma, was something she worked at. One of my favorite film writers, Stanley Kauffmann, once wrote of Sophia Loren that “[y]ou are convinced that if they fished her out of a swamp and shoved her in front of a camera, she would photograph with the same electric beauty.” I’m convinced that wasn’t the case with Norma Shearer. Her onscreen beauty was a feat of work, discipline, and sheer, gritty will power. Just one example: even before she was shoved before a camera, Shearer had problems with her eyes. They were small and close together (“such pretty little eyes,” Mrs. Patrick Campbell is rumored to have purred when meeting her), and one eye had a cast that made her look cross-eyed onscreen. Furthermore, D.W. Griffith himself told her that her eyes were too light to photograph properly. This is Griffith, mind you, the guy who invented movies. If I’d been told that, I’d have crawled away into a swamp myself, and never raised my head again unless behind sunglasses.
Technology may have solved the photography issue, but Shearer herself corrected the cast, working hours a day at eye exercises recommended by a doctor. I can give you some inside info here; it’s godawful boring to do eye exercises. You need extraordinary tenacity to keep at them. So I’m in awe of Norma. She took nothing for granted, she went after what she wanted with the kind of scorched-earth ambition that you expect in a presidential campaign. If beauty can be willed, Norma willed it with tempered steel, right down to the eyelashes and dimples.
And yet Norma unwills all that for the role of Kitty Brown. The DVD box described her character as “frumpy,” but I confess I wasn’t expecting this degree of frump. Norma with her tiny eyes and thin lips, her wrinkled brow and blotched nose, beneath what looks like a youthful Granny Clampett wig. She’s like Jules Feiffer’s Passionella, brave enough to appear as her real-life, plain, podgy self for the sake of her art. Standing there in flat lighting and a suit made from sackcloth, she looks like an amiable doormat just asking you to scrape your boots on her.
That’s what poor Kitty basically is. She’s her husband’s happy domestic slave, serving him up cigarettes and breakfast in bed, while he complains about the children disturbing his beauty sleep. (Hubby Bob is played by an unappealing Rod LaRocque, whose vocal delivery is as flat and unnuanced as Norma’s lighting.) She just loves this man, trilling “I Love You, I Love You,” as she wafts through various household tasks, sewing her own clothes so they don’t have to spend money on her unnecessary wardrobe. He even complains about that. Yes, imagine that, a man complaining about his wife not spending money on clothes. Ah, but you see, he makes enough money, he says, for her to look good, so why does she have to look….like that…
That a man would be willing to spend his hard-earned dough to make his woman look good tells you something about Bob Brown’s character, something a little unpleasant and narcissistic. Not only does Kitty serve every nagging little need (she cheerfully finds his tie for him, right where he left it), she’s meant to burnish his male earning power. But she’s so much in love with this fellow, she doesn’t sense the undercurrents. It’s the gratitude of the homely woman, who feels lucky to get the trophy man; only she doesn’t realize that he wants a trophy for himself. He finds it in this boa-wreathed blonde, who sashays into his man’s castle to Reveal All to the Little Woman.
This is when I realized how good Norma was, that she’s not relying on sallow skin and a baggy dress to carry her effects. Watch what she does here, the small, beautiful details she brings out. Confronted with Venus in Furs, Kitty glimpses down at her dowdy clothes, suddenly realizing, as if for the first time, that they are dowdy, that whatever pride she may take in her domestic economy, her husband doesn’t see it that way. Yes, he wants the found ties and breakfast trays of housewifely duty, but he wants it wrapped up in sex and glamour and a neat little cloche. Kitty’s dealt a double whammy: she not only sees herself but also her spouse, as he really is. Across Norma’s unadorned face flits complex emotions—bewilderment, shock, fear, dismay, and then a tremulous, scared determination to show that’s she’s as hep as this blonde cat, that she’s on to her husband’s infidelity and really doesn’t mind it one little bit.
Though of course she does. Kitty breaks down in tears, but for once responds with gumption, ordering the philanderer to am-scray and pronto. I usually cringe whenever Norma has a crying scene. She was one of the great onscreen Criers; I’m staggered by her apparently bottomless supply of salt water. Her ease in it annoys me. In reality, people usually try not to cry. It’s a loss of control, a crack in the hard-maintained façade of adulthood. Those who spill the waterworks like a loose tap can seem wimpy and weak, or cannily manipulative. But Norma gauges it right here. She cries to show you the gutsy core of this severely shocked woman. First Kitty flees to privacy; in no way will she reveal her emotions to that trashy dame. And then there’s just a simple command for Bob to leave. No melodrama to it, no pointing finger and thunderous brow. But the feeling is there (you can see the corded muscles in Shearer’s throat, she’s really pulling it out of herself). Kitty’s found her strength, but her heart is still smashed and lying in pieces. She’s given everything to this shallow man and such matters are not easily mended. The moment is gently heartbreaking.
All this is prologue to the meat of the film, which is how Kitty gets both revenge and Bob back. For me, this was the less interesting part; it’s basically a dull drawing-room comedy, with Norma doing her damnedest to live up to the film’s title (“Gay” in its older sense, of being light-hearted and merry; the movie’s not that pre-Code). It’s three years later and Kitty, having learned a few things (she’s been living in Paris for refuge), has managed her own Galatea-like rebirth. Her costumes are stunning (even to a smart little cloche), her hair and make-up gorgeous, her poses provocative and sexy. The plot has her trying to lure her ex-spouse away from a sweet young thing who’s supposed to marry someone else (ostensibly as a favor to the SYT’s grandmother, although Kitty has her own agenda). I do wish Norma could have toned down her Norma Thing here. She laughs that laugh as if practicing scales (“oh, that Shearer,” as Pauline Kael once wrote), and she waves enough fans to start a sirocco.
In Norma’s favor, I’ll note that she’s playing Kitty in layers. Underneath the flamboyant gowns, the extravagant gestures, is a bitter woman who now sees the world and its inhabitants, or at least the smart set she’s taken up with, as plain and stripped of illusion as she once herself had been. Shearer is celebrated today for her pre-Code roles of sophisticated, sexually experienced, liberated women, who offer no apologies for being so. The same year as Let Us Be Gay she also made her Oscar-winning film The Divorcée, which similarly examines a modern woman coping with a marital break-up and the resultant emotions of betrayal, anger, and defiance. As Mick LaSalle notes in the title of his book on pre-Code cinema (greatly admiring of the actress), Shearer played complicated women. She was no one-dimensional 1920s vamp, luring men to the heights of passion and then pushing them off. She played women with souls, who navigate the glittering reefs of love both in and out of marriage, and gamely own up to their responsibilities in doing so. Although she had lots of competition—Garbo, Crawford, Dietrich, Kay Francis, Claudette Colbert, Nancy Carroll—I think Shearer is now perceived as the woman à la mode, setting the standard for that image in the pre-Code era.
So I have to admit, I’ve grudgingly come round to Norma Shearer. I recall once deriding a fellow film-studies student’s admiration of her (“NORma SHEARer!” I hooted; I deserved the dirty look he gave me). She’s not the most effortless or transcendent of actresses; she’ll never transport me the way Garbo can, nor hold my heart in her hand as does the delicately sublime Ann Harding. But even at her most irritatingly flighty, she’ll dig into her character and try to show us something deep down. Like Crawford, beneath the mannerisms she takes her job seriously and gives it her all. And she has one lovely moment at the end of Let Us Be Gay, when she drops the fuss and feathers and becomes quietly, startingly real. “I’m so lonely,” Kitty says—softly, not a declaration, just a stabbing realization of truth. She’s horribly unhappy. Norma lets her body go still and you see her face begin to crumble. She almost cries, but doesn’t. She merely lets Kitty, in all her plain, unadorned feelings, come through. I caught myself holding my breath. Underneath the artifice, Norma finds the art.