Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence J. Quirk

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I wanted to love this book, I really did. Unfortunately, it fell far short of the mark and I’m sort of regretting having bought it.

I didn’t fall in love with Norma Shearer until I was in my 30s. Sure, I had heard of her before, but I never really paid enough attention to her. Certainly not enough to warrant developing a full-blown obsession with her. It wasn’t until I had gotten a little older that I really started appreciating her beauty, her elegance, her talent, and her status as the lioness of MGM.

Plus, she was Canadian like me so that worked in her favour.

When I reached my 30s, I starting gobbling up anything I could find with her name on it – films, books, magazines, stamps, you name it. Hunting down copies of Norma Shearer biographies is harder than you’d imagine (why is that?) and oftentimes, when you eventually do find a decent secondhand copy of one online, the price is extortionately high. Hence why I’m regretting having purchased my First Edition copy of Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence J. Quirk.

Honestly, guys? This biography stunk. I wouldn’t even really call it a biography. It was more like a lengthy magazine article written by some fanboy stanning his favourite actress. Author Lawrence J. Quirk’s uncle was the editor and publisher of legendary film magazine Photoplay from 1914 to 1932, so it’s obvious where Quirk accumulated most of his research and interview quotes from. Quirk grew up surrounded by classic film actors, actresses, directors, producers, screenwriters, and studio moguls. Though I didn’t like this book, I must say that Quirk seemed to have very respectful, engaging relationships with most of the people mentioned in his biography of Shearer, particularly with Norma herself.

That’s what bothers me, though. Quirk is obviously biased and he painted a sickly sweet portrait of Norma Shearer that the reader can’t help but wonder if it’s indeed all true or just fluffy nonsense. Reading this biography, it’s obvious that Quirk avoided mentioning any negative stories or information about Shearer and her life in this book. No one’s life is that rosy and readers aren’t stupid enough to believe it is. Let me give you an example of what I mean:

Norma and her two siblings (sister Athole and brother Douglas) were born into a fairly wealthy family and were raised in a large, luxurious home in Quebec, Canada. Norma’s father ran a successful construction business for years and that’s how he was able to support his family in comfort. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, the construction company fails, goes under, and the Shearer family loses everything. Flip a couple of pages and Norma, Athole, and Douglas have moved to New York City with their mother. Norma’s father is hardly ever mentioned again in the book and neither is how on earth the family could afford to move to NYC after having lost EVERYTHING.

The unfortunate goings-on in Norma Shearer’s life and career are either glossed over or, in this case, skipped over entirely in this biography and this reader just didn’t dig it.

I learned that Herbert Marshall had a false wooden leg, but I learned zilch about Shearer.

One other thing that got on my nerves was that every time one of Norma’s films were mentioned in this book, Quirk found it necessary to divulge whether she was in love with any of her male co-stars during production. And it was never if she was in love with one of them, it was who she was in love with or having a torrid affair with. Quirk just assumed Shearer was having it off with every male co-star she shared the screen with. So, like, if A Free Soul (1931) was mentioned, Quirk would automatically jump in and say NORMA WAS IN LOVE WITH GABLE! and if Marie Antoinette (1938) was mentioned, Quirk’d be like NORMA WAS INFATUATED WITH TYRONE POWER!

Dude.

Lastly, I want to make it clear to everyone reading this that I didn’t learn anything new about Norma Shearer after having read this book. I learned that Herbert Marshall had a false wooden leg, but I learned zilch about Shearer. Trouble is, this book doesn’t really teach its reader anything aside from what movies Shearer made, the order she made them in, who she starred with, and what the film’s synopsis was (oh, and who she was reportedly banging on-set). Reading this was like reading a play-by-play of Norma Shearer’s filmic resume. BOR-RING!

Yes, Irving Thalberg was mentioned but still, all you really learned about him was that he was sickly and incompetent and unfeeling in the bedroom. Surely, MGM’s boy wonder deserves more page space than that! Oh, and if you’re hoping to find some juicy gossip in here about onscreen (and offscreen) rivalries, think again. There ain’t no such thing.

Overall, I’m going to give Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence J. Quirk a rating of 1.5 stars out of 5. Savage, I know, but wholly warranted in my opinion. If you’re looking for a great biography of Norma Shearer, go for Gavin Lambert’s book. That one’s a real winner.

This book review was posted for Raquel’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge.

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8 thoughts on “Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence J. Quirk

  1. I read this years ago and am glad it was just borrowed from the library and didn’t make its way into my personal collection. I had the same annoyances you had when you read it. Felt like it was a friend of a friend writing a really biased portrayal. Gavin Lambert’s book was far better IMHO. It’s also the first gift my husband ever gave to me which makes it a treasured keepsake. Thanks for your thoughtful review!

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    1. Carlos knew how to please you from Day One, eh? What an awesome (first) gift that book must have been. Your heart must have melted when he presented it to you 🙂

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  2. The author who made me re-think Norma Shearer was Mick LaSalle in his book Complicated Women.

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  3. Thanks for the honest review!! I think I’ll steer clear of this one and read the biography you recommended. 🙂

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