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

Kids say the darnedest things

When we were growing up in the pre-cable-television 1960s and early ’70s, there were just three major networks, the educational channel, and, at times, a UHF station available to us.

And in those days, we spent hours watching the output of the Hal Roach studios, in the form of Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy shorts.

We have no evidence to back us up, but we suspect that if you were to ask the average 20-year-old if he or she has ever seen a short from either of those series, the answer would be no.

Which is fair enough, of course. It’s the nature of pop culture to constantly renew itself (we have a theory about that—the Unsealed Sausage Casing Theory—which we will perhaps share with you at a future date). Though we’re unapologetic fans of both the Gang (later known, of course, as The Little Rascals) and Stan and Ollie, we are resolved, as the years pass, not to become cranky geezers bemoaning the fact these kids today have never heard of … well, you fill in the blank.

And let’s face it, it’s not as though these shorts were a part of our own popular culture. Though the Roach studios were a going concern from 1914 till 1960, these particular series date to the 1920s and ’30s, several decades before we showed up.

No, it’s all about exposure, and with the rise in the 1980s of cable television and VCRs and, later, of DVDs and the Internet, no 21st century kid could ever possibly be as bored and desperate for something to distract him as we were back in the 1960s, when, often as not, we turned to these shorts for lack of anything else to watch.

But we remain fond of them, and that’s why it pleases us so to inform you that Turner Classic Movies is paying tribute to Hal Roach and his studio this month. Tomorrow, TCM is celebrating in style with a 24-hour marathon of 53 Our Gang shorts that begins at 8 p.m. (L&H get the same treatment next week). They’ve snuck in one musical short—Gems Of M-G-M (1931), which airs at 3:15 a.m.—that seems to have no Our Gang connection, but it does feature Marion Harris and the Brox Sisters, both of whom can be heard on Cladrite Radio, so we expect it, too, is worth catching.

If, like us, you grew up watching the adventures of Spanky, Stymie, Alfalfa, Darla, and all the rest, you’ll require no further convincing to tune in for at least a few of these shorts. But if you’re younger and are only vaguely aware (if that) of these films, we strongly urge you to immerse yourself in them. Just imagine it’s a Saturday afternoon in 1966. You’re somehwere bewteen five and fifteen years old. It’s too hot (or cold) to go outside, and there’s nothing else worth watching on the three or four television channels you have available to you.

That’ll put you in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate these comic gems.

We’ve got the full line-up of shorts for you below the fold.
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