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Oscar Profile #95: Douglas Shearer

Born November 17, 1899 in Westmount, Quebec, Canada to a prominent family, young Douglas stayed with his father when his parents divorced and his mother moved to New York with his two younger sisters, Athole and Norma. The women eventually made their way to Hollywood where they worked as actresses in the early 1920s. While visiting sister Norma, a rising star at MGM, Douglas was offered a job working for MGM. He became fascinated with the possibilities l\of sound on film and provided many innovations that led to his being named head of MGM’s sound department when they moved to talkies in 1928.

In 1928 he took the silent White Shadows in the South Seas to a New Jersey studio where he added sound effects and music, but no dialogue. In 1929 he came up with the idea of playing the sound track for a musical number that that it would be filmed in sync with the music for the all talking, singing, all dancing The Broadway Melody, which would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar for 1928/29. The following year Shearer won the first of 14 Oscars for the sound recording of The Big House. His sister Norma won that year’s Best Actress Oscar for The Divorcee making them the first sibling Oscar winners.

Over the course of his forty year career, Shearer would win five Oscars for sound recording; two for special effects; four technical awards, two scientific awards and an award of merit. He would receive another ten nominations for sound recording and another four nominations for special effects.

Among the 928 feature films he worded on were some of the biggest titles in MGM history including San Francisco; The Wizard of Oz; The Philadelphia Story; Mrs. Miniver; The Human Comedy; Meet Me in St. Louis; Green Dolphin Street; Easter Parade; An American in Paris; Quo Vadis; Singin’ in the Rain; The Band Wgon and his last, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He continued working behind the scenes for another ten years before retiring. He died in 1971 at 71.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

SAN FRANCICO (1936), directed by W.S. Van Dyke

Oscars for Special Effects hadn’t yet been introduced by the Academy or Shearer would certainly have won that award as well as the film’s only Oscar for Best Sound. As a point of clarification, the Best Special Effects award from 1939 to 1962 was given jointly for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Effects. Although the visual effects are what strikes audiences most immediately, the visuals often tell just part of the story, they go hand in hand with the sound effects of which Shearer was a master. He provided both sound recording and sound effects for all the films he worked on. The highlight of San Francisco is unquestionably the earthquake and its aftermath vividly presented by Russell A. Cully (Visuals) and Shearer (sound).

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), directed by Victor Fleming

An honorary award for Special Effects went to 1938’s Spawn of the North after which the category was established beginning in 1939. A. Arnold Gillespie was nominated for his visual effects and Shearer for his sound effects but they lost to The Rains Came.

With its flying witches and monkeys, and other eye-popping effects, The Wizard of Oz remains a one-of-a-kind experience. Despite there being eleven nominees for Best Sound Recording, Shearer’s work in that area was not recognized although he was nominated in that category for the all but forgotten musical, Balalaika.

GREEN DOLPHIN STREET (1947), directed by Victor Saville

The epic tale of a man who proposes by letter to the wrong sister and marries her while his intended becomes a nun, moves from England to New Zealand and back again with some of the screen’s greatest special effects paving the way. Lana Turner, Richard Hart, Van Heflin, Donna Reed, Gladys Cooper, Frank Morgan, Edmund Gwenn and Dame May Whitty share the screen with an earthquake, tidal wave and attack by the Mouri.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1969), directed by Vincente Minnelli

Oddly, Shearer’s 1951 Oscar nomination and win came for his sound recording of the less highly regarded musical, The Great Caruso, instead of for the year’s big Oscar winner in which his immaculate recording gives full measure to the Gershwins’ immortal music and the brilliance of its cast headed by Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron and Georges Guetary, a last minute replacement for Maurice Chevalier.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952), directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

How marvelous it must have been for Minnelli and his cast headed by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen to have Shearer, the man who mixed MGM’s earliest talkies which are so gloriously spoofed here.

DOUGLAS SHEARER AND HIS 14 OSCARS AND 14 ADDITIONAL OSCAR NOMINATIONS

  • The Big House (1929/30) - Oscar – Best Sound
  • Viva Villa! (1934) - Nominated – Best Sound
  • Naughty Marietta (1935) - Oscar – Best Sound
  • Technical Award (1935) - Oscar - For the development of an automatic control system for cameras and sound equipment.
  • San Francisco (1936) - Oscar – Best Sound
  • Award of Merit (1936) - Oscar – For the automatic development of a two-way horn system and biased Class A push-pull recording system
  • .

  • Maytime (1937) - Nominated – Best Sound
  • Technical Award (1937) - Oscar- – For the development of a film drive mechanism.
  • Scientific Award (1937) - Oscar – For a method of obtaining an increased amount of noise reduction.
  • Sweethearts (1934) - Nominated – Best Sound
  • Balalaika (1939) - Nominated – Best Sound
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939) - Nominated – Best Special Effects
  • Strike Up the Band (1940) - Oscar – Best Sound
  • Boom Town (1940) - Nominated – Best Special Effects
  • The Chocolate Soldier (1941) - Nominated – Best Sound
  • Flight Command (1941) - Nominated – Best Special Effects
  • Technical Award (1941) - Oscar- – For pioneering the development of fine grain emulsions for variable sound density in studio productions.
  • Mrs. Miniver (1942) - Nominated – Best Sound
  • Mrs. Miniver (1942) - Nominated – Best Special Effects
  • Madame Curie (1943) - Nominated – Best Sound
  • Kismet (1944) - Nominated – Best Sound
  • Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) - Oscar – Best Special Effects
  • They Were Expendable (1945) - Nominated – Best Sound
  • Green Dolphin Street (1947) - Nominated – Best Sound
  • Green Dolphin Street (1947) - Oscar – Best Special Effects
  • The Great Caruso (1951) - Oscar – Best Sound
  • Scientific Award (1959) - Oscar – For the development of a system of producing and exhibiting wide film motion pictures known as Camera 65.
  • Technical Award (1963) - Oscar- – For the engineering of an improved Background Process Projection System.
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