On today’s date in 1924, Montréal-born actor Norma Shearer starred in one of the first releases of the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, He Who Gets Slapped, alongside Lon Chaney and John Gilbert.
Although it was the first MGM production to begin filming, He Who Gets Slapped wasn’t the newly formed studio’s first release. Expecting a higher attendance during the holidays, studio executives delayed the release of the film, which was critically hailed upon release and eventually proved profitable.
Based on a popular Russian play, the film was directed by Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjostrom. After being humiliated by his disloyal wife and undergoing a major career setback, the film’s protagonist—a brilliant scientist—joins the circus to become a clown. He eventually meets a new love interest, one of the act’s bareback riders, and seeks to make amends for his past mistakes.
Born in Montréal’s upper-middle class Westmount area, Shearer’s lifestyle changed significantly during the Great Depression, when she was taken along with her sister to New York City with the hope of earning money as an actor. She took whatever small parts came her way, and she eventually landed a role in the 1920 movie The Stealers. The film brought her to the attention of Irving Thalberg, who later became MGM’s general manager, and found Shearer to offer her a role in The Wanters (1923).
By 1927, Shearer worked on a total of 13 MGM films, each of which were produced for less than $200,000 but became box-office hits. She worked on her first production with a budget exceeding $1 million—Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg—later that year.
After the filming of The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, Thalberg proposed to Shearer, and the couple wed in September 1927.
After Thalberg’s unexpected death in 1936, Shearer retired from film and eventually left the Hollywood social scene.
“Miss Shearer does not want any publicity,” Shearer’s secretary told the Milwaukee Journal in a story published on Sept. 23, 1960. “She doesn’t talk to anyone. But I can tell you that she has refused many requests to appear in motion pictures and TV shows.”
Shearer eventually died on June 12, 1983, in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 80 years old.
CANADIANS IN HOLLYWOOD
In 2008, as part of its second set of stamps in the the Canadians in Hollywood series (Scott #2280), Canada Post honoured Shearer (SC #2280c) alongside three other Canadians who found fame in Hollywood—Marie Dressler (SC #2280a), Chief Dan George (SC #2280b) and Raymond Burr (SC #2280d). Printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company on Spicers paper using five-colour lithography plus varnish, each of these 52-cent stamps has general tagging along each side.
Designed by John Belisle and Kosta Tsetsekas, of Vancouver’s Signals Design Group, the stamps use images created by artist Neal Armstrong, who painted the images for the first set of stamps. The Shearer stamp features an art deco scene that is reminiscent of many of her films.
“Neal has done a great job of capturing the essence of each actor and creating a sense that this is a sequel,” said Belisle. “We also wanted to connect the audience to these stamps, so we used illustrator Adam Rogers to craft the souvenir sheet and official first-day cover. Adam created a vintage feel that gives a real impression of being in a theatre watching a movie. The crowd is at the front, and the stamps sit right on the screen.”