As the talkies and the Depression hit Hollywood practically simultaneously, an old vaudeville trouper named Marie Dressler found the greatest success of her spotty career. Large, rumbly and rubber-faced, able to pile triple-take onto double-take, Dressler was a queen of schtick who was also able to create a disciplined sort of deep-seated pathos. Even if you didn’t know her whole story, it was clear that this big old woman on screen was both a major comic/dramatic talent and a shaky monument to perseverance. In what is surely a labor of love, Matthew Kennedy’s biography of Dressler, now out in paperback, reveals as much as can be known about her real-life story, detailing all the hard knocks and reversals of fortune that made her a 30s icon.
Dressler was born in Ontario in 1868, a self-described ugly duckling who hated her unloving father and took to the road at the age of fourteen. She started out in comic opera and theatrical parodies, playing parts like Katisha in The Mikado, and she later shared the stage with Lillian Russell, a fabled beauty of the time who became her friend. Called “the greatest low comedienne of the world,” Dressler was always getting into trouble with managers; she once gave up the theater to sell hot dogs on Coney Island. Such willingness to enter the workaday world showed Dressler as a salt of the earth type who gave herself few airs. Several marriages didn’t turn out well and Kennedy theorizes that Dressler may have been a lesbian: she does seem to have had a romantic attachment to a former actress named Claire Du Brey late in life. Though she had few sexual/romantic options with men or women, this doesn’t seem to have bothered Dressler unduly. As she once winningly said, “Life is full of compensations.”
Well into her forties, she made her first movie, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), a feature for Mack Sennett based on one of her biggest stage hits, Tillie’s Nightmare. In this film, the first full-length feature comedy, Dressler is an enormous, scary lady not unlike the Divine of John Waters’ later trash epics, her bumptious physicality set off against the daintiness of Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. During this period, Dressler plunged herself wholeheartedly into World War I bond-selling and was instrumental in the forming of Actor’s Equity, which got her partially blacklisted. Several serious illnesses also slowed her down and, as she entered her fifties, a long period of personal and professional humiliation brought Dressler low. Her knockabout style of comedy was seen as old-fashioned and no longer workable; in the book’s most harrowing scene, Kennedy describes a performance where Dressler couldn’t seem to get a laugh. After her exit, a man turned to her screenwriter friend Frances Marion, who was sitting in the audience, and said, “Pitiful, isn’t it? When will those old-timers learn to quit?” Her money dwindling and her fame long-gone, Dressler got to a point where she seriously considered suicide.
In a knick-of-time twist of fate, director Allan Dwan saw Dressler dining in a hotel and sent her a note about appearing in a film he was working on; she claimed that the note came right at the moment when she was going to go up to her room and jump out the window. After playing a small part in Dwan’s movie The Joy Girl (1927), Dressler began to see that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Her pal Frances Marion brought Dressler out to Hollywood for work. Mainly she did small roles, and she made a hit as Marion Davies’ gorgon mother in The Patsy (1928), a hilarious comedy. But it was when sound came in that Dressler solidified her unlikely career comeback.
In The Vagabond Lover (1929), a comatose vehicle for a zombie-like Rudy Vallee, Dressler commands the camera’s attention with every last trick in her arsenal. As a haughty society lady, she’s like an outré Margaret Dumont with the DT’s. Dressler grimaces, stares, and does lunatic takes and huge reactions to anything anybody says. She does so much mugging that she probably lifted every wallet in the audience, and everybody started to wonder, “Who is that?” They found out when Garbo finally talked in Anna Christie (1930), an adaptation of a Eugene O’Neill play with a juicy supporting part for an older woman. Traveling to the other end of the social spectrum, Dressler played Marthy, a drunken wharf rat twitching with bleary-eyed regrets and pitiful but valiant reminders of her own lost dignity. In only two sequences she steals the film right away from Garbo. Stealing a movie from Rudy Vallee was one thing, but taking a film from the Divine One in her talking debut really put Dressler on the map.
MGM signed her and put her in popular but close to unwatchable comedies with Polly Moran and two films with Wallace Beery that made her a household name, Min and Bill (1931) and Tugboat Annie (1933). In these movies, Dressler is hugely broad in her comic effects, but she sustains the dramatic moments with her hard-earned knowledge of life’s setbacks and cruel ironies. Towards the end of Tugboat Annie, her character begs for money to get a new boiler for her boat, only to see her drunken husband (Beery) crash and ruin it. Watching Dressler view the wreck and then stoically tear up the check she has in her hands is heart-piercingly poignant, and it really sticks in your gut because she plays it so calmly, as if the destruction of a life and livelihood was hard but endurable. For audiences dealing with the Depression, this attitude marked Marie as one of their own, and she was widely beloved at the time for all the right reasons.
She made a lot out of a somewhat shameless vehicle, Emma (1932), and was very touching in one scene on a lake where she talks to her new husband (Jean Hersholt) about how she appreciates the good fortune that has come to her so late in the day. Dressler was ill with cancer when she made her best film, Dinner at Eight (1933), George Cukor’s biting ensemble comedy-drama about monetary desperation in high society. As Carlotta Vance, a grand retired thespian in need of cash, Dressler drips with furs and remembered lovers, and she even convinces us that she was once a great beauty. “I belong to the Delmonico’s period,” she says, getting to actually be Lillian Russell at last. It’s a surprising, generous role that Dressler plays superbly, down to her last famous exchange with nubile Jean Harlow, who’s read a book that says machinery will soon take the place of every profession. Looking her up and down, Dressler replies, “Oh my dear, that’s something you need never worry about,” seamlessly blending dart-like sarcasm and earthy generosity for the young vamp. Dressler died in 1934, a little angry that she couldn’t enjoy her unlikely run of luck for a little while longer.
The story of Dressler’s career is one of the most anomalous and curious of show business tales, and Kennedy does a thorough, passionate job of bringing her art and her dramatic story back to life.
Dan Callahan is a contributor to The House Next Door. His writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal, and Senses of Cinema among other publications.