Will Rogers paid tribute to Marie Dressler on the radio just before her death in 1934. “Marie Dressler is the real queen of our movies,” the actor/humorist said of the woman who reigned supreme in theaters across the country in the preceding years. Dressler was a super star in her 60s, not an easy fete in a business that glorifies youth and glamour. The highest paid MGM star making $5,000 a week, Marie Dressler was not a conventional beauty in the movie star sense, but she had universal appeal. And how! Audiences couldn’t get enough of her quick-witted down-to-earth persona and expressed their appreciation by buying movie tickets at a rapid rate.
Marie Dressler was born Leila von Koerber on November 9, 1868. Her birthplace in Cobourg, Ontario now houses a museum and foundation in her honor, a well-deserved homage to one of the greatest comediennes to ever grace the silver screen.
Marie’s childhood was a difficult one. Her impoverished family moved from town to town often. That was due to Marie’s father who was difficult, to put it mildly. Alexander von Koerber had a passion for music and a hair-trigger temper. She was deathly afraid of him. In contrast, Marie wrote that her home was where her mother was. Anne Henderson, the daughter of a well-to-do Irish-Canadian trader, made a home for Marie and her sister Bonita in every town no matter how long they stayed. Marie described her mother as an angel and credited Anne with teaching her the value of laughter and a sense of the dramatic by way of the plays Anne directed through the churches in the various towns in which the family lived.
“For fifty years,” Marie wrote, “it has been my lot to make my living on the stage…and I have earned my break by making other people laugh.”
Marie Dressler, who had little to no formal schooling, described herself as homely and in part credited her looks for a gift for clowning, which served her career well. Dressler left home for the stage at age fourteen to perform regularly with amateur companies and traveling troupes. By 1892 she changed her name and headed for New York where she used her singing talents to compliment her comedy. Her first Broadway show was The Robber of the Rhine in 1892 in which she appeared with Maurice Barrymore, father to the famous acting clan. During that production, Marie described how she told Barrymore she longed to be a dramatic actor, to which he replied she should not tempt fate.
Dressler had her first big stage success with The Lady Slavey in 1896 and by the turn of the century, she was one of vaudeville’s big stars. Her Broadway career lasted through the 1920s. Given her stage success, I was quite surprised to read that Ms. Dressler suffered from terrible stage fright her entire life.
Of her stage work, it was the production of Tillie’s Nightmare in 1910 that resulted in her greatest success. Of the part she said, “For five years, I was Tillie.” And for many years thereafter, the public remembered me, not as Marie Dressler, but as Tillie. For nearly a decade, hardly a day passed that somebody didn’t write me, or approach me in person with the request, “Please do another Tillie.””
It makes sense that Marie Dressler would make her screen debut by recreating Tillie in Tillie’s Punctured Romance directed by another talented Canadian, Mack Sennett. Tillie’s Punctured Romance is a landmark film. Not only did it co-star Charlie Chaplin, who was recommended by Dressler for the part, and Mabel Normand in their first feature film, but the movie is credited with being the first full-length screen comedy so successful it garnered two sequels, Howell Hansel’s Tillie’s Tomato Surprise (1915) and Harry Davenport’s Tillie Wakes Up (1917). The sequels were nowhere near as successful as the original, but two things about Dressler in Tillie’s Punctured Romance must have struck audiences in 1914 as they do me when I watch the movie: her unbridled energy and her prowess for physical comedy. Marie Dressler loved to perform in front of the camera and the camera loved her.
Dressler was extremely proud of the success of Tillie’s Punctured Romance describing how its popularity actually built theaters. She could have gotten any stage or movie role she wanted following Tillie, but when a World War waged she decided to play whatever part she could – selling bonds, making speeches, entertaining the troops. She continued fighting after the War for causes near her heart and would continue to do so for the rest of her life. This was true even when it negatively affected her career.
Given the time Marie Dressler spent doing good for people, it’s no wonder her career both on stage and screen suffered for much of the 1920s. And things didn’t look good. She wrote a memoir, The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling in 1924 with few prospects in the horizon. That is until 1927 when she again began to have some success in films thanks in large part to her friend and screenwriting legend, Frances Marion. The two women met in 1911 when reporter Marion interviewed Dressler. This many years later, upon learning that Marie was going through hard times, Frances Marion brought Dressler to the attention of Irving Thalberg at MGM for the new script she’d written with Marie in mind. That script turned into George W. Hill‘s The Callahans and the Murphys (1927). Marie Dressler had a blast making the picture, but it didn’t do well. Still, now in Hollywood and with friends like Marion rooting for her, Dressler was working steadily and garnering attention once again in the motion picture business. She made notable appearances in MGM’s all-star musical The Hollywood Revue of 1929, opposite William Haines in Sam Wood‘s The Girl Said No and Norma Shearer in Robert Z. Leonard‘s Let Us Be Gay both in 1930, a year that proved the most important in Marie Dressler’s movie career.
HEAR FOR YOURSELF! movie posters demanded of audiences for Clarence Brown‘s Anna Christie, superstar Greta Garbo‘s first talking picture released in February 1930. Written for the screen by Frances Marion, Anna Christie was a huge box office hit and Garbo’s voice fascinated as expected. But there is nothing stingy, baby, about Dressler’s performance as the dissolute Marthy. Many silent film actors suffered with the coming of sound, but it only made Marie Dressler better, allowing her impeccable timing to fulfill her on-screen talent to its fullest capacity. Anna Christie and Marie Dressler’s clever interpretation in it made her a star. She stole the movie from Garbo. As Adela Rogers St. John wrote in an article about Marie in 1933, “give her enough footage and she’ll steal any picture from anybody.” Dressler made an art of it with her honesty and a unique combination of comedy and pathos that can slice at you without warning.
“After Anna Christie there was never any question about parts for me. Metro (Goldwyn Mayer) put me under contract at once.”
Marie Dressler made 6 pictures released in 1930. The last of those, George W. Hill’s Min and Bill, also written by Frances Marion, was another important one to her career. Dressler described her role as Min as the one she waited for her entire career. She never imagined, however, that the role would bring her the biggest acting honor she could ever receive. At age sixty. In 1930 Hollywood. A resurgence of the highest order. A star was reborn.
I admit to not having seen Min and Bill in years. Poor planning left a copy unavailable to me for this entry. However, I remember one thing about the film vividly, Marie Dressler’s facial expressions, her vitality of emotion that rendered the role etched in my mind. No doubt that gift came from her years on stage and in silent film, but which few actors knew how to use. Thanks to those talents, Min and Bill was hugely popular. So much so, in fact, that that MGM re-teamed Dressler with Wallace Beery for Tugboat Annie in 1933. One must attribute that mostly to Marie Dressler as Wally is a bit hard to take. Nevertheless, Annie has a lot of similarities with Min including her rough and tough exterior and the soft, pliable heart inside. I’d like to say this is the characterization Marie Dressler excelled at, but she could play an uncaring socialite with equal vigor.
While we are constantly going on about the glitz and glamor of classic Hollywood, it’s kind of nice to know that the biggest star at the biggest studio in Hollywood in the early 1930s was not Garbo, or Crawford, or Shearer, but a woman who looked like the average person, who looked lived in. Marie Dressler’s movies all brought huge profits to MGM and she was named the top film star of 1932 and 1933. Tugboat Annie was the studio’s biggest moneymaker in 1933 and Dressler’s portrayal of Annie, hailed as one that “Crowns all her previous works,” was honored with a Time Magazine cover in August of that year.
Despite terrific starring performances in several movies, Marie Dressler is best remembered for one line she delivered in George Cukor‘s Dinner at Eight (1933). It’s telling that Marie gets top billing in the ensemble piece although she – once again – steals the movie, this time from a group of notables that assembles for dinner at the house of a high society couple. Marie delivers a wonderful performance in what is her last comic hurrah in films. She was already sick with the cancer that would consume her by this point, but you’d never know it. Her introductory scene in the film opposite Lionel Barrymore has a wonderful familiarity to it. Later Marie plays a hilarious scene with Billie Burke during which she explains the charms of New York. The pièce de résistance, however, is that famous scene with Jean Harlow at the end of the movie.
Judgmental, ex-stage star Carlotta and ill-mannered, social-climbing trophy wife Kitty walk toward the dinner table when Kitty attempts small talk, “I was reading a book the other day, Kitty says nonchalantly, which causes Carlotta to stop dead in her tracks as if she’d run into a truck, “Reading a book?” she asks looking at the young woman. “Yes. It’s all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?” Carlotta looks her over intently, “Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.”
The line and delivery are perfection.
Marie Dressler’s story is much more interesting than any movie could ever be and certainly much more than I could ever portray in a blog post. She had severe lows in her life as well as incredible accomplishments only a few of which are noted here. Dressler was a ham in the vein of Lionel Barrymore, but she was also incredibly humble and grateful for every person who gave her a shot along the way. She valued her stardom at 60 saying it was better than popularity at 20. Marie had a terrific sense of humor in life. I’ve always enjoyed watching Marie Dressler in movies, but I am completely taken with her after having spent a good deal of time with her story in the past few weeks.
Classic Hollywood is filled with stories of betrayal, jealousy, and cutthroat rivalries. After all, cat fights are endlessly entertaining to read about, but as I read about Marie Dressler all that surfaced was admiration and support. Particularly interesting are the stories of the women who impacted her life, such as Frances Marion and Adela Rogers St. John, and how mutual support and respect made all the difference. Dressler’s is a woman’s story as much as it one of hard work and perseverance.
Marie Dressler received a second Academy Award nomination in 1932 for her performance in Clarence Brown’s Emma as her star continued to shine. Her performance in Emma is a favorite and the movie was another big hit for MGM. Here she plays a housekeeper forced to care for four children after their mother dies. Emma raises the children as her own, but only one appreciates and loves her. The other three are spoiled brats who turn on her in life’s worst ways. As was her style, Marie Dressler portrays Emma with honesty, breaking your heart at every turn proving once again, as she does in Min and Bill, that her dramatic skills were as potent as her comedic ones. A truly great actor was Marie Dressler.
In her book, My Own Story, which was published in 1934 after her death, Marie calls herself a trouper. Everywhere that anything has been written about her mentions one constant – her love of her work. “When I’m through with pictures…” she used to say as Adela Rogers St. John wrote, but everyone knew she would never have been through with pictures – if not for her death of cancer in 1934, the height of her career.
On Academy Awards night in 1931, Norma Shearer mirrored Marie’s words. As Shearer handed Marie Dressler her statuette Norma said Marie was the “grandest old trouper of them all,” as an audience of the famous beamed and cried for Dressler’s outstanding talent and generous heart.
My Own Story by Marie Dressler
In 2008, Canada Post released a four-stamp series honoring four Canadian movie stars: Raymond Burr, Chief Dan George, Norma Shearer, and Marie Dressler. Here is an image of her stamp: