It's the TCM day Mick LaSalle has been waiting for. The film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle has made a second career out of promoting Norma Shearer as the greatest of the semi-forgotten stars of Classical Hollywood, and whilst we can debate that until the proverbial cows come home, she made a chunk of pre-Code films that are certainly worth paying attention to.
Shearer was a somewhat plain looking woman with a lazy eye, but once married to "boy wonder" chief of MGM Irving Thallberg, she was given free reign to do pretty much whatever she wanted. She became one of the biggest box office stars of the 1930s by alternating alarmingly dopey faithful wife roles with star turns that redefined what a female star could get away with.
Shearer's fertile "independent woman" period started with The Divorcee in 1930. Shearer won an Oscar as Jerry, a wife whose husband plays lip service to the idea of gender equality, but feels very differently once Jerry finds out he's been unfaithful and announces her intention to settle the score. For the next three years, Shearer moved from one "sophisticated" role to another, playing women who, whilst admittedly in occupation of various points on the morality timeline, insisted that their desires were as important as the desires of the men they used to sate them.
It's absolutely insane, then, that she followed up 1934's adultery-themed Riptide as the doomed teenage lover in 1936's Romeo and Juliet. After Thallberg died (in 1937, at the age of 37), Shearer's career fell by the wayside. She's best known today for her work in George Cukor's The Women (1939), as the cuckolded wife who desperately clings to the starry-eyed romanticism that she's clearly grown too old for. She made just three films after that, and died 40 years later in obscurity.
TCM's programmed the good, racy stuff for prime time. The Women starts at 8 EST, followed by The Divorcee, A Free Soul (notable for costar Clark Gable and Shearer's completely see-through silk dress) and Riptide.