“You are not sexy in THAT way.”

When Irving Thalberg snatched up the screen rights to Ursula Parrott’s racy bestselling novel “Ex-Wife” almost as soon as it was published in the summer of 1929 for the absolutely ridiculous amount of $20,000, he pretty much already had a star in mind. Joan Crawford, he thought, would be prefect for the lead role of Jerry, a betrayed wife who seeks revenge for her husband’s infidelities in the arms, and beds, of other men.  A lot of other men (at one point in the final film, Jerry sneers at her husband: “From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to!”). And Joan Crawford was eager to break away from her flapper image and tackle some meatier parts, so headlining the MGM film adaptation of the book – which would be called The Divorcee – would be a great career opportunity for her.

Irving Thalberg’s wife, the stunning Norma Shearer, was also ready to break away from her girl next door image,  and when she read the script for The Divorcee, she knew right away that it was exactly the sort of thing she was looking for.  So she mentioned it to Thalberg, who frankly just didn’t think she was the right type to play a libertine vamp with a voracious sexual appetite.  “You are not sexy in that way,” he told her.

He must have been blind, deaf, and dead.

Now that’s the kind of a statement that any red-blooded Canadian girl might be outright offended at hearing from her husband.  But Norma was undeterred – it was the part of Jerry that she wanted and it was the part of Jerry, by God, that she would have.  All she had to do, she figured, was to somehow prove to her husband that should could be every bit the screen siren that Joan Crawford could be, and then some. She brainstormed with her good friend and fellow actor Ramon Novarro, who showed her some stunning publicity shots he’d recently commissioned, the work of an unknown young portrait photographer named George Hurrell.  The photos were exotic and glamorous and positively brimming over with sexuality.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you photographed so beautifully!” she gasped.

Of course, that was the answer.  Norma was convinced that this Hurrell fellow was the man who could change her husband’s mind about whether or not she was sexy in “that way.” Keeping it all on the hush-hush, especially from her husband, she contacted the young photographer and arranged a special photo shoot. She went out and got what Irving Thalberg would years later appreciatively remember as “just about the goldest and most brocaded negligee she could find.”  And Hurrell consulted with her and worked as hard as he could to showcase her considerable assets to their best advantage.  And so it was that one fine October morning in 1929, Norma Shearer came downstairs while Irving Thalberg was at breakfast and casually tossed a portfolio in his lap.  Thalberg opened the portfolio to find:

It’s a wonder he didn’t scorch his fingers while he was paging through the pictures. ‘Not in that way,’ indeed!

He might have been dead before, but you better believe these photos resuscitated him, and he now looked at his wife in an entirely new light.  Norma got the role, and later got an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in the movie, beating out Greta Garbo in Anna Christie. Thalberg couldn’t have been more pleased, since The Divorcee, released in 1930, was a gigantic smash hit for MGM. Joan Crawford, who had never really liked Norma Shearer, also never forgot and never forgave. This was the first time she lost a role to Norma, but it would not be the last.

As for Hurrell, Norma Shearer was grateful to the young photographer; without his stunning photos, it is certain that she would never have wrested the role away from Joan Crawford. His work on these photos sent an electric shock through the ranks at MGM, and it wasn’t long before Howard Strickling, head of MGM’s publicity department, had offered Hurrell a position as MGM’s official portrait photographer. Although Hurrell was initially reluctant, he eventually accepted the offer in December of that same year and began a career that would produce a gorgeous photographic record of the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era and beyond.

As an aside, these photos indirectly kicked off another spectacular career in the movies. Norma Shearer knew, and the photos had proven, that the right costuming would be essential to putting this character across. So she insisted on the services of MGM’s practically brand-new head costume designer. His devastatingly slinky and sensuous costume designs for Norma Shearer’s character made all the ladies swoon, and half the men as well, and Adrian was suddenly the most in-demand costumer in Hollywood.

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About Maurice

I suffer from acute cinemisery: A lingering depression that can only be alleviated by watching too many damn movies. Sometimes I share them. With someone like you.

Posted on November 25, 2014, in Fun Stuff, Movie People, Photos and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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