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Book Review : A Fan Chronicles the Life of an Early Hollywood Legend

August 01, 1988|CAROLYN SEE

Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence J. Quirk (St. Martins; 266 pages; $16.95)

Once upon a time a girl was born in Montreal. Her father was successful, her mother devoted. She had a sister, Athole, and a brother, Douglas. She was 5 feet 2, once she was grown; she had a cast in her eye, fair-to-middling teeth and legs that were, by her own admission, not so hot. Then her father lost all his money and, suddenly, within the closed confines of a small city's strict society, the family found itself poor. The girl was shamed and humiliated. But the girl was Norma Shearer, and, within a few years, all that would change.

The family split. Douglas stayed with his dad, at least for a while, while mother and the girls left to try their luck in New York City. The three of them lived in one semi-furnished room and boiled water for tea over a spirit lamp. Cold winds forced the three of them to share a bed on cruel winter nights. But by luck and pluck Norma used her few letters of introduction and soon found James R. Quirk, editor of Photoplay (and the author's uncle). Because of old family stories, the author is convinced that Norma and James fell in love, but Norma, though described here several times as "highly sexed," was too ambitious and too young to make any kind of permanent commitment.

For his part, Quirk-the-uncle was instrumental in getting young Norma polished up--the eye fixed, the teeth capped and so on. He supplied the young lady with another round of letters, and soon she had jobs in New York, and soon after that she was summoned to Hollywood.

Girl on the Prowl

By 1926, Louella Parsons would write of Norma Shearer, "She's a girl on the prowl--she wants the right picture, the right kind of money, the right friends--and obviously, the right man, as heaven knows she's taking her time settling on him. That's her Scottish practicality for you. Nothing will throw this girl. She's game for anything they throw at her."

That's a pretty vapid quote, right? But what about this one, from Shearer herself? "MGM is giving me some variety in my roles and for that I'm truly grateful. They give me a chance to stretch my imagination and enlarge my capacity."

In fact, "Norma" is a study in vapid writing, and a careful chronicle of something , but not exactly a life. "Norma" is a study in fanship, written by a man who is partly a film biographer and historian but absolutely and completely a fan.

It's a strange thing, from the looks of this book--and, who knows? It may be true--Norma Shearer had no life except her films. She was a woman who worked hard, on film after film. They are all listed here, each with its own plot: "Rose falls in love with aristocratic Arthur Gower. . . . Though his family looked down on her as a commoner, they wed, and she retires to private life. Soon she finds the aristocratic life depressing and dull as she has little in common with her snobbish, condescending, new in-laws. When some of her theatrical friends call on her, she is revitalized by their joie de vivre, leaves her husband and returns to the stage."

Reviews Reprinted

Selections from a zillion reviews from every film are reprinted: "Notwithstanding that 'The Tower of Lies' is a sincerely made picture and excellent from the artistic and literary viewpoints, it is too heavy for the picture audiences. . . ." And also included here are the requisite statements by celebrities: "I was deeply impressed," opines Basil Rathbone, "with her voice and her general bearing in 'The Last of Mrs. Cheyney.' "

Quirk handles Shearer's real life in a series of bonks , as if he were whacking croquet balls across a lawn. Did she sleep with Jack Gilbert? Probably not! Victor Fleming? Probably not! Jack Pickford? Don't think so! Lew Cody? No way! Irving Thalberg? Sure! She married him! Was she . . . "satisfied" with him? Probably not! Did she have kids? Yep! Did Thalberg die? Yes, because he was sick ! After she retired, did Norma find another? Yes! Martin Arrouge, a ski instructor from Sun Valley, and yes, she was "satisfied" and lived a long and happy life and then she died.

The truth is, Norma's personal life is just not it for Quirk. He's writing as a fan. His sources are listed, his bibliography in movies shows a lot of work, and the "love" here is not to be found in the list of eligible bachelors listed above, but in the unswerving reverence and consuming interest that Quirk shows for the object of his own affection, Norma Shearer, whose films he utterly adores.

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