Happy 115th (or thereabouts) Birthday, Norma Shearer!

There seems to be widespread confusion regarding Norma Shearer’s date of birth. Some sources say she was born on August 10, others say August 11, and The New York Times​, in its 1983 obituary, cites August 15. The year is in question too: Was she born in 1900, 1902 or 1904?

We trying to cover all our bases by sharing this tribute on the 10th but using the 11th as her birthdate in the video. Whichever date you prefer, we hope you enjoy the video. Happy birthday, Ms. Shearer, wherever you may be!

Here are 10 things you should know about Norma Shearer…

Happy 114th Birthday, Norma Shearer!

There seems to be widespread confusion regarding Norma Shearer’s birthday. Some sources say she was born on August 10, some say August 11, and The New York Times, in its obituary for her, cites August 15. The year is in question too: Was she born in 1900, 1902 or 1904? Biography.com lists her birth as occurring in 1900 and 1902.

We’re going with August 10, 1900, but we cannot promise that’s correct….

Norma Shearer was born Edith Norma Shearer 114 years ago today in Montréal, Québec, Canada. Here are 10 Did-You-Knows about the former Queen of MGM:

  • Shearer, who won a beauty contest at 14, moved to NYC with her (stage) mother and sister Athole (who would later marry legendary director Howard Hawks) four years later. After Florenz Ziegfeld passed on casting Shearer in his Follies, she got some small roles in movies.
  • Irving Thalberg saw some of her early movie work and in 1923 signed Shearer to a contract with with Louis B. Mayer Pictures, a precursor of MGM, where he was vice-president.
  • Shearer made eight—count ’em, 8!—feature pictures in 1924.
  • Shearer converted to Judaism to marry Thalberg in 1927 and continued to observe the faith after his death and for the rest of her life.
  • Norma’s brother, Douglas, won twelve Academy Awards for his work as a sound designer. The pair were the first brother-and-sister tandem to win Oscars.
  • At a point in her career when she appeared in only prestige productions, she played a part in The Stolen Jools (1931), a star-studded short subject intended to raise money for a tuberculosis sanatorium, as the owner of the titular “jools.” Also in the film were such luminaries as Wallace Beery, Buster Keaton, Edward G. Robinson, Laurel and Hardy, and members of the Our Gang cast.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have based one of his stories, “Crazy Sunday,” on one of Shearer’s parties and the story’s protagonist, Stella Calman, on Shearer herself.
  • Weak eye muscles gave Shearer a slightly crossed eye; she worked with eye doctors to improve it and cameramen to disguise it.
  • She was the third woman to win the Best Actress Oscar and the second of three consecutive Canadians to win it (Mary Pickford won it in 1929 and Marie Dressler in 1931).
  • Among the roles she is reported to have turned down were Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Mrs. Miniver, and Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard). Of Scarlett, she said, “Scarlett O’Hara is going to be a thankless and difficult role. The part I’d like to play is Rhett Butler.”

Happy birthday, Norma Shearer, wherever you may be!

Norma Shearer

365 Nights in Hollywood: Reckless Reels

Jimmy Starr began his career in Hollywood in the 1920s, writing the intertitles for silent shorts for producers such as Mack Sennett, the Christie Film Company, and Educational Films Corporation, among others. He also toiled as a gossip and film columnist for the Los Angeles Record in the 1920s and from 1930-1962 for the L.A. Herald-Express.
Starr was also a published author. In the 1940s, he penned a trio of mystery novels, the best known of which, The Corpse Came C.O.D., was made into a movie.
In 1926, Starr authored 365 Nights in Hollywood, a collection of short stories about Hollywood. It was published in a limited edition of 1000, each one signed and numbered by the author, by the David Graham Fischer Corporation, which seems to have been a very small (possibly even a vanity) press.
Here’s “Reckless Reels” from that 1926 collection.

RECKLESS REELS

(A resume)
 
. . . a jazz band . . . colored spotlights . . . evening gowns . . . and stiff shirts . . . laughter . . . silver flasks . . . smacked lips . . . bluish-grey clouds of lingering smoke . . . The Biltmore ballroom on Saturday night . . . the new playground of the movie folk . . . Art Hickman . . .
Alma Rubens strolls along with Ricardo Cortez . . . softly on the heavily napped carpet . . . her gown of silver cloth and royal blue sparkles . . . Rick with his polished black hair . . . immaculate shirt and carefully fitted Tux . . . sparkles . . . murmurs of the “outsiders” sitting along the sides in deep chairs . . . Alma and Rick smile and speak to one or two couples passing. . . .
A very young chap and “deb” are about to enter . . . he notices a small sign—very small—“Couvert $1.50” . . . feels for his checkbook . . . a forced smile . . . she rambles on with a meaningless chatter . . . he rambles back . . . the gay “hello’s and how-are-you’s.” . . .
. . . the dance again . . . Priscilla Dean and her husband, Wheeler Oakman, are the first on the shiny floor . . . Hobart Henley, director, wanders over to Virginia Valli . . . he and Virginia dance . . . Hobart is amused at the throbbing, hot crowd . . .
Constance Talmadge enters . . . there are smiles . . . whispers . . . gasps . . . she is clinging to Norman Terry’s arm . . . he looks satisfied . . . the flappers’ hearts flutter . . . they join Mr. and Mrs. Earl Williams . . . Constance nods to a few around her . . . her press agent is there with a well known society girl, Dot Hubbard . . . Constance calls to him. . . .
A young man with streaks of grey at his temples sits alone in the far corner . . . he seems to be gazing at the interior decorations . . . they are beautiful and sparkling . . . he shifts to watch the constant stream of humans passing the entrance archway . . . there are actors, writers, business men, members of “The Nothing-to-Do-Club,” stately dowagers bedecked with diamonds, tottering old men still sowing their wild oats; gag men with serious faces; heroes with disgusted countenances, villains with heroine-winning smiles; comedians with Blue Law expressions; extra men and girls with eyes for those who “wonder who they are?” questions. . . .
Colleen Moore and her husband, John McCormick, saunter in . . . Ben Lyon is with Dorothy Dore . . . his latest wise-crack is “Since James Kirkwood made a picture entitled, ‘Discontented Husbands,’ what is Lila Lee doing?” . . . his friend Jack Santoro doesn’t laugh . . . Ben, however, is prepared and does his own laughing . . . he sucks grenadine punch through a straw in a tall, delicately wrought glass . . . Ben tells another one: “Now that the Culver City studio is making ‘The Purple Bathtub,’ can Harry Gribbon play the part of the color-blind plumber?” . . . Jack almost smiles . . . Ben laughs and decides to dance with Helen Ferguson again . . . Jack does ditto with Dorothy. . . .
Georges Jaimaie, expert on Paris lingo, does his stuff in French at the next table . . . Baroness d’Estreilles, American representative for Boue Soeurs in Paris, is displaying a new Parisian creation at Priscilla Dean’s table now. . . .
. . . the hurrying waiters add to the zest of the excitement . . . there is always excitement . . . roving eyes . . . searching for things to talk about . . . catty remarks . . . compliments . . . impromptu speeches on the film slump . . . unanswered questions . . . bits of scandal . . . criticisms on The Modern Girl . . . views on Life . . . invitations for next week’s dinners and parties . . . flirtations . . . lovers’ quarrels . . . slang . . .

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Formerly Famous: Ursula Parrott

The Woman Accused (1933), starring Cary Grant and Nancy Carroll, was an unusual picture in that it was co-written, as is trumpeted in the movie’s opening credits, by “ten of the world’s greatest authors”: Rupert Hughes, Vicki Baum, Viña Delmar, Irvin S. Cobb, Gertrude Atherton, J. P. McEvoy, Zane Grey, Ursula Parrott, Polan Banks, and Sophie Kerr.

That roster of once-prominent scribes moves one to ponder the fleeting nature of fame. How many of those names are familiar to the average person today? An entirely unscientific survey we conducted found that most folks recognize exactly one: Zane Grey. The others, it seems, are all but forgotten. It’s as if Stephen King, David Sedaris, Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, J. K. Rowling and another handful of today’s most prominent authors teamed to write a serialized novel that was then made into a movie. Would movie buffs in the year 2090, while watching that picture, scratch their heads over the identities of these writers?

We did a little digging on The Woman Accused‘s ten authors and found Parrott most intriguing. She was sort of the Candace Bushnell of her day, trafficking in proto-chick lit that examined the trials and tribulations endured by the “New Woman” of the 1920s and the freshly minted morals by which she lived.

Born in Boston in 1899, Parrott graduated from Radcliffe. She moved to Greenwich Village in 1920, where she married the first of her four husbands, Lindesay Marc Parrott, in 1922. The Parrotts divorced in 1925. Parrott wrote what she knew in composing her first novel, Ex-Wife, in 1929. The book’s subject matter was so scandalous in its time that it was initially published anonymously. Despite that (or perhaps because of it), it sold more than 100,000 copies the first year. Ex-Wife tells the tale of Pat and Peter, a married couple in their twenties who are convinced they needn’t follow the old rules in the pursuit of marital bliss. But when Peter, who has strayed, learns that Pat has done the same (just once, and in a tipsy moment of emotional weakness), his attitude toward her behavior is no longer so modern.

The rest of the novel is devoted to Pat’s coming to terms with her new status as an ex-wife. From our 21st century perspective, Pat’s post-split behavior is not especially shocking—she allows herself a few dispassionate flings and submits to the abortion of a pregnancy for which Peter is responsible. Having moved out of the apartment she shared with Peter, Pat rooms with Lucia, a woman in her thirties who, having already undergone the transition from wife to ex-wife, serves as a soothing and encouraging mentor to Pat. They are two fashionable, well-read, cosmopolitan women navigating an existence that more closely resembles life in 2011 than one might expect.

Author Francine Prose, in her introduction to the 1989 reissue of Ex-Wife wrote: “It’s striking how much of Ex-Wife seems far less dated than many of [F. Scott] Fitzgerald‘s Jazz Age stories”—and it’s true. Pat’s daily life comes off as remarkably similar to those led by so many urban, urbane women today.

MGM paid the then-extravagant sum of $20,000 fro the film rights to Ex-Wife, though the resulting picture, 1930’s The Divorcee, starring Norma Shearer and Chester Morris, is at best a loose adaptation of Parrott’s novel. That didn’t keep her from answering the door when Hollywood again came knocking. Between 1930 and 1936, eight more pictures were made based on Parrott’s novel and stories.

As a writer, Parrott was at her most successful between 1929 and the early 1940s. Her son has estimated that she earned in the neighborhood of $700,000—between $8-$10 million in today’s dollars—over that span. But Parrott spent the money as quickly as she made it, and when her career began a slow but steady slide in the ’40s, there was little left to show for her successes.

Like her fiction, Parrott’s life was not without its marital disruptions and scandals. Wed and divorced four times, she found herself hauled into court in 1943 for helping a young soldier escape from military prison. What’s more, the soldier was accused of trafficking in marijuana. Parrott was also reportedly the victim of numerous attempts at blackmail, and in 1953 she was again in the news when, as Time magazine reported, “her hotel presented a $225.20 bill and refused to accept her check.” Parrott spent 30 hours in a jail in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, with her French poodle, Coco.

In 1957, Ursula Parrott died of cancer at age 58. Her final days were spent in the charity ward of a New York City hospital. Today, the once-celebrated Parrott is so little remembered that only recently was she finally given an entry at Wikipedia, that online repository for otherwise forgotten figures. When first we composed this account, in the summer of 2010, no entry for her was to be found there.

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Zelda, the Magazine of the Vintage Nouveau.