One of the pleasures of writing on what you enjoy is sharing something personal about a common subject. When I first discovered Marie Dressler, I was not impressed. I had thought that film stars should fall into glamour and grace or tough guys with guns, swords, and horses. It took me a few years to appreciate the unique talent of Marie Dressler.
Marie is, I am proud to say, a Canadian from a small town called Cobourg, in the province of Ontario. My first memory of Marie Dressler was on one of those parental car trips that was all the rage in pre-DVD players for the kids in the vehicle days. We had stopped in Cobourg to go to someone’s house for tea: Marie Dressler. To me it was just another stop in an old house on another trip into the country with my parents. I remember the fine furniture and the fact the chairs were hard to sit on with annoying cushions tied with string. The tea house was nothing special. Iced tea was ordered for me while I stared at the picture of an old woman scowling above me. I put scoops of what I thought was sugar as it was in a bowl on the table only to find that it was salt which had me gagging.
Marie Dressler was not blessed with the best of looks to be a major star; yet she was in both film and Broadway. She was at one time the highest paid actress on the New York stage winning awards and playing to packed houses in roles of comedic excellence. Mack Sennett , another Canadian, brought her to the screen in the film version of the play Marie had been in called TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914) with Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Norman. The die was cast and Marie’s star began to rise in a series of comedy roles including TILLIE’S TOMATO SURPRISE (1915) and TILLIE WAKES UP (1917).
Marie could and did continue with her Broadway career as actors did in those days as the film world was considered as not being on the level of theatre. Strange how today film actors go back to theatre to experience the joys that the stage can bring. The acting styles were similar, though, filled with expansive gestures and expressions because the destroyer of careers had not come into play: sound.
Marie had a hard life previous to this rise to stardom. She was born Lelia Marie Koerber in 1868. Canada was under the influence of English Victorian customs. Opportunities for girls were vastly different from that of boys. When you think of it, that unfortunately remains the same in some cases.
Marie often worked as a singer with her sister who was considered more desirable. Through the years leading to Hollywood , she would continue to defy the odds of body type and looks with sheer drive, and an ability to communicate honestly with an audience. Marie was known to have a big heart and never forgot a kindness. She often slept in clothes hampers in theatres after shows because she could not afford a hotel. Once when she had accommodation – but no food- a kindly person offered her a meal in the dining room of a hotel. Years later, when she was a success, Dressler went back to the hotel, found the same fellow and repaid him the debt in full.
Dressler impressed me with the honesty of her craft of acting which is on display in the pictures MIN AND BILL (1930) and TUGBOAT ANNIE (1933), both made with co-star Wallace Beery. These pictures, despite being years apart, are linked not only with the two stars but with the idea that they both portray down and out poor people making the best of what they have. MIN AND BILL has Dressler and Beery connected through a hotel while TUGBOAT ANNIE has them linked operating tugboat. These two pictures also have Robert Young, who becomes the Captain of a large passenger ship in TUGBOAT ANNIE. MIN AND BILL features a female ward played by Dorothy Jordan who is being given the chance of a lifetime by being given to a rich couple who raise her as their own.
MIN AND BILL and TUGBOAT ANNIE are stories of the ‘noble poor,’ who sacrifice so that others may gain in life. Two examples are STELLA DALLAS (1937), and HERO FOR SALE (1933). It is the honesty and love of the craft that is on display, evident in a shaving scene from MIN AND BILL. Here are two actors sure of themselves, playing something that sums up their love/ hate relationship.
The love/hate was also off screen as well with Beery, whom was notorious for not rehearsing and ad libbing dialogue because of his vast experience. Legend is that he was put in his place verbally by Dressler on the set and the two became friends.
Marie Dressler was given the best actress Oscar for MIN AND BILL in 1930 which showed she could do serious roles as well as comic. She received nominations again in 1932 for EMMA and in 1933 for what would become her epitaph on film in DINNER AT EIGHT. Dressler had defied the odds of body type, age, and stature to rise to the top of her profession which was tragically cut short by her death from cancer in 1934.
Fitting that Dressler’s last lines on film would be with the original blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow, in DINNER AT EIGHT. Dressler gently lampooned her own image in the scene as she walked through the doorway at the film’s conclusion. Marie Dressler may have exited the film on screen but she will never nor should she ever be forgotten. Seek her out if you have not.