“I found myself sitting in a car and in the other corner was a girl with the most beautiful eyes. They were the biggest eyes I had ever seen. But they didn’t trust me. I could see that. They never have.”
Those are the words of Norma Shearer, and the “girl with the most beautiful eyes” she refers to is none other than Joan Crawford. Back in 1925, however, when this meeting took place, Joan was the scrawny and virtually unknown Lucille Le Seur, and was brought to the set to perform as Norma’s uncredited double in “Lady of the Night,” a film that had Shearer playing two parts.
Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford (whose name change in the mid-20’s was the winning result of a publicity contest set to find the fresh-faced MGM star a new name) came from very different backgrounds. Crawford was born in San Antonio Texas in 1905, and her father deserted the family when she was only a little girl. Soon, Joan had a new stepfather, Henry Cassin, who owned a local theater. It wasn’t long before Joan longed to be on the stage, and found herself enraptured in the fiery, unstoppable determination that would ultimately become her legacy.
In 1918, Norma’s father lost his business and her sister suffered the first of many nervous breakdowns. Suddenly she found herself living in poverty, but luckily for her, her mother had a plan. Edith Shearer brought her three children to New York City, and urged young Norma to audition for the Ziegfeld Follies.
By the early 20’s, both young women found themselves in Hollywood, and each began working for MGM in 1924. Interestingly, Shearer was cast in MGM’s first production, “He Who Gets Slapped” starring Lon Cheney.
It’s important to note the similarities between these two women, as it’s these shared characteristics that perhaps contributed most to the bitter rivalry. Both Shearer and Crawford had much to overcome to be taken seriously by the studio; Shearer and her unconventional looks, and Crawford and her less-than-glamorous upbringing. Both women had experienced poverty in early life, which gave them an intense drive to succeed, unmatched except only by each other. But even by the mid-20’s, Shearer was getting more frequent and exciting roles than Crawford, not to mention Shearer was successfully pursuing her and Crawford’s boss, Irving Thalberg. The two were soon married, inciting in Crawford a strong sense of jealousy as she feared Shearer would now certainly get the better roles.
By the late 1920’s, neither actress could avoid becoming a “type.” With Crawford typically cast as a fun-loving, hard-partying flapper, and Shearer as the virtuous good girl, both actresses were looking to reinvent their images with more dramatic roles.
In 1929, Hollywood had a new problem: the Hay’s Code, a list given to every studio naming what should and should not be included in a film so that it may be “decent” and “moral” for all audiences. MGM decided to test the boundaries of the new code with “The Divorcee,” a film heavy with themes of sex and adultery. Thalberg, Norma’s husband, initially considered Crawford to be perfect for the role, but little did he know Norma was yearning for the part as an opportunity to change her good girl image. To convince her husband, she had some sexy photos taken (pictured below), and her plan worked. She even won the Academy Award in 1930 for her performance.
Despite earning several coveted dramatic roles in the early 30’s, Joan became more and more outspoken about what she considered to be Norma’s unfair privilege. She was quoted as saying, “She sleeps with the boss. Who can compete with that?” Meanwhile, Norma was earning multiple parts a year that Joan had been trying to get for herself.
Despite such accusations of nepotism, Norma considered herself quite unlucky, as being married to the boss required her to work “twice as hard” to be taken seriously. And as for anyone who accused Norma of marrying the boss simply as a strategy to further her career, they were wrong; Irving Thalberg suffered from a lifelong heart condition which rendered him weak. He was told from an early age that he wouldn’t live past 30 (he actually lived to 37) and was frequently ill. Norma, who was by all accounts a nurturing and loving wife, would take lengthy time off to nurse him back to health.
By the mid-30’s, still at MGM, Joan found herself getting less and less choice roles. Meanwhile, Shearer had succeeded in earning the lead in both Romeo and Juliet (1936) as well as Marie Antoinette (1938), although neither was achieved without much insisting to her husband. The feud by now had taken on a public life of its own, and perhaps to capitalize on this rivalry, both Shearer and Crawford were cast as the leads in MGM’s “The Women” in 1939.
In “The Women” Norma plays Mary Haines, a wealthy and virtuous woman whose husband leaves her for shop girl Joan Crawford. 14 years after their first screen appearance together, the catty and ruthless dialog between the two was directed expertly by George Cukor. Norma had no trouble landing the role, given her unwavering influence over MGM at the time, while Joan had to work for hers much harder, as by 1939 she was considered “box office poison” thanks to several unsuccessful roles over the past couple years. Another issue with casting Crawford was that the role was a great departure from her previous work, leaving even MGM head Louis B Mayer dubious about her abilities, warning her, “It would offend your fans if you played such a cold-hearted bitch.”
Cukor, known for his keen ability to direct women in particular, relished in the idea of working on a film in which the two stars had such a shared bitter rivalry. He secretly sided with Shearer, having had a less than enjoyable experience directing Joan in the past and considering her to be pushy and unprofessional. By all accounts, the relationship between the two stars on set was icy and highly passive aggressive, with Cukor playing the mediator. There’s even an account that while feeding her lines to Norma, Joan purposely tried to get under her skin by knitting with large, clicking knitting needles. Norma eventually asked Joan to leave the set, and Joan left enraged, only to be lectured by Cukor, who condemned her unprofessional behavior.
It’s interesting to note that Joan remained quite outspoken about her animosity towards Shearer throughout a large portion of her career, reportedly making fun of her appearance and what Joan considered to be a lack of talent. Meanwhile, publicly at least, Norma had very few negative things to say. Either way, nearly a century after their first appearance together, we can look back on both of their careers and appreciate what each woman individually brought to MGM, and to early Hollywood as a whole.