It’s Oscar time. What better way to celebrate the 2008 Academy Awards than by having a q&a about the best actress Oscar winner … of 1931?
(Or rather, for the period 1930-31, as the Oscars in those days covered films released in the Los Angeles area from August 1 to July 31.)
And who was the best actress winner that year?
Well, none other than – according to US film exhibitors’ polls – the biggest box office attraction in the United States of the early 1930s.
That’s Joan Crawford, right?
Go get yourself a film history book. Grable was the biggest female box office attraction of the 1940s.
Marie Dressler – an actress without Betty Grable’s legs (or Barbara Stanwyck’s, for that matter), or Greta Garbo’s androgynous allure, or Jean Harlow’s sweet-and-tarty sexiness, or Norma Shearer’s poise, or Joan Crawford’s penciled eyebrows and shoulder pads.
Dressler, in fact, was at the time old enough to be those young actresses’ mother – and looked old enough to be their mothers’ (big, bulky, boisterous) mother.
A star in vaudeville at the turn of the 20th century, Marie Dressler was a major stage name in the 1910s, a time when she also appeared in a handful of silent comedies, including what is reportedly the first feature-length comedy ever made, (the recently restored) Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), opposite Charles Chaplin and Mabel Normand.
Not long thereafter, Dressler was a down-and-out has-been.
Through the assistance of old friends – especially screenwriter Frances Marion – in the late 1920s Dressler had a minor career renaissance, playing mostly supporting roles in various Hollywood films.
At about that time, the talkies arrived. MGM featured Dressler in the all-star musical The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and in the following year she landed a (hilarious) supporting role in The Girl Said No, stealing the movie from its nominal star, William Haines.
Also in 1930, she supported Norma Shearer in Let Us Be Gay— nearly running away with the film – and Greta Garbo in the English-language version of Anna Christie. Garbo received an Academy Award nomination for her overwrought performance, but many felt that the heavy, heavy drama belonged to Dressler’s barfly.
That same year, Dressler played leads in two films that would unexpectedly catapult her to superstardom: the highly popular quickie Caught Short, opposite comedienne Polly Moran (above, with Charles Morton and Anita Page), and the sentimental mother(ly) love drama Min and Bill, squabbling with boyfriend Wallace Beery while resorting to whatever means necessary – even murder – to protect waif Dorothy Jordan. Needless to say, Dressler’s unlikely heroine must pay for it at the end. That mix of broad humor, unabashed sentiment, and out-of-control mugging became MGM’s most profitable hit of the year.
Following her Oscar win for Min and Bill, Dressler was kept busy at the studio. She starred in more broad comedies – Politics, Reducing, Prosperity, all three with Polly Moran, and Tugboat Annie, once again opposite Wallace Beery; the sudsy drama Emma, for which she received another Academy Award nomination; the David O. Selznick-produced all-star comedy-drama Dinner at Eight, in which she was top billed; and The Late Christopher Bean, a dramatic comedy co-starring Lionel Barrymore.
And then it all came to an abrupt end. Dressler died of cancer in 1934, at the age of 65.
With the exception of the well-received Dinner at Eight, Dressler’s vehicles were major box office hits (especially in the United States), but were not considered high-class entertainment. (“It is regrettable that Miss Dressler and Mr. Beery should have been cast for the first time together in this far from pleasant film,” read Mordaunt Hall’s Min and Bill review in the New York Times.) That may explain the dearth of critical appraisal of her career and performances. Also, I should add that although audiences loved Dressler, more than a few critics found her acting style much too mannered.
Indeed, Marie Dressler could never be accused of being a subtle actress. That said, at her best – Let Us Be Gay (right, with Norma Shearer), The Girl Said No, Dinner at Eight, the last scene in Min and Bill – she remains as effective as ever.
A few years ago, author Matthew Kennedy wrote a Marie Dressler bio appropriately titled Marie Dressler. Matt, whom I met at a book reading of his Edmund Goulding bio, Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory (that’s going to be our next q&a), and who was q&a’ed on this blog following the publication of his Joan Blondell biography, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes, has kindly agreed to take another look at his old biographical subject. See next page.
(Also, make sure to check out Jeff Cohen’s look at the aborted 1930 MGM musical The March of Time, in which Marie Dressler had a role.)
First of all, what made you decide to write a book on Marie Dressler, a performer who died in 1934?
Well, she does seem to be a member of the obscurati, doesn’t she? But once I started looking at her life, I was hooked.
In the early 1990s, some friends and I saw Dinner at Eight at the Crest Theater, an old movie palace in downtown Sacramento. Yes, we all agreed, Jean Harlow was hysterical and perfect, but we really fell in love with Marie Dressler as the faded actress Carlotta Vance. I had known of Marie for years, but this was the fist time I’d seen her with a theater audience, and the reactions were so strong.
Then for the next few years, I wrote nothing but film reviews, and a nagging question was lurking in the back of my head: Do I have a book in me? It was a question I didn’t dare say out loud for the longest time. Then somehow the idea of writing a book and Marie were combined, and I began to see her as a subject for a biography. When I did some preliminary research, and saw her name attached to legendary show business people like Lillian Russell, Charlie Chaplin, and Louis B. Mayer, that sealed the deal. Of course I didn’t know what I was in for, but I had to jump off that cliff and make a commitment. And once enough information was collected, the doubt went away and I was consumed by this amazing woman for four years.
Now, who was Marie Dressler? What kind of person and performer was she?
Marie was Canadian by birth, born in Cobourg, a lovely colonial town on the north shore of Lake Ontario, in 1868 (or 1869, depending on who or what you believe). She knew early on that she was large, awkward, and had the face of “a mud fence.” Her salvation was in making people laugh. Nothing gave her more pleasure, though being a clown her entire life came at a cost. She also developed great fortitude. Her father was abusive, she and her sister and parents moved frequently, and they were often impoverished.
When she began performing in operettas and later in vaudeville, Marie developed the discipline necessary to survive the grueling demands of the stage. She had little formal education, was a good singer, and made her own clothes. Her private life was a bit of a mess. She was married briefly in the 1890s, and was later involved with a no-good bigamist who took her money. She was extremely generous and politically active, selling war bonds during World War I and later becoming a champion of women’s suffrage. She was a major force behind the creation of America’s first theatrical union, but she later took an anti-union stance in Hollywood. Such contradictions keep a biographer guessing.
One of the great joys in writing this book was researching Marie’s early years. It was a fun challenge to reproduce the life of a traveling actress in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and overlay that with the major events of the day that impacted her life, including the Titanic and World War I. Her long stage career exists only in scrapbooks, programs, on microfilm, and historic pages of newspapers online. To assemble the whole story of her touring life and relationships with fabled names in American theater such as Lillian Russell, Weber & Fields, the Shuberts, Eddie Foy, Florenz Ziegfeld, and Anna Held, I had to visit the special collections of several libraries in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, New York, Washington, and LA.
There is a museum and archive with exhibits devoted to her in Cobourg, complete with an annual film festival. The good people of the Marie Dressler Foundation are keeping her memory alive. So writing this book introduced me to all sorts of wonderful and unexpected people and places. Slowly a picture emerged of who she was as a person, and I’ve tried to capture that in the book.
Everyone I interviewed who knew Marie, including actresses Maureen O’Sullivan, Anita Page, Joan Marsh, and Karen Morley, director Joseph Newman, and nurse Grace Annable, said very kind things about her. She was warm, professional, funny, and comforting. She had insecurities – about her looks and the social class of her family most apparently – but they didn’t seem to cloud people’s fondness of her.
Marie Dressler was very popular in vaudeville at the turn of the 20th century. Did she try to become a silent film star? She was in Tillie’s Punctured Romance with Charles Chaplin and Mabel Normand in 1914, but she doesn’t seem to have quite caught on. Why not?
As told in the book, Marie was a huge star when Mack Sennett approached her to film a loose adaptation of her stage play Tillie’s Nightmare. The result, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, is quite important in film history. Released in 1914, it was the first feature-length comedy, Marie’s film debut, and an early example of Chaplin honing his skills and developing the Tramp.
The film was a big hit, but Marie later sued Sennett, claiming he denied her her share of the profits. She took the bad advice of her manager-boyfriend and alienated early film producers with high demands. So she was blackballed, and the few silent films she made after Tillie were financed by her production company, which eventually went bankrupt.
The failure of her early silent film career was due to bad business decisions, not because she didn’t come across on the screen. Tillie’s Punctured Romance is a primitive movie, no doubt about it, but it is easy to see what made Marie, Chaplin, and Normand so popular. There are some seriously funny bits, and I marvel at Marie’s willingness to be the butt of so many jokes about her looks and weight. Wherever she goes, that giant rear end of hers causes mere mortals to topple like dominoes. She and Chaplin make a fabulously odd couple, and it’s too bad they didn’t work together again.
Marie had a big ego, and she really used it at this point in her career. She, like most people at the time, believed movies were strictly for the lower classes. They were cheap entertainment with no lasting value. When she came to see otherwise, she had already alienated Sennett and any other would-be backers. So she was rather self-defeating as far as an early film career was concerned.
Also, strictly from an artistic viewpoint, she was less effective in silents than she was in talkies. She had a fantastic voice with great range of emotions, and obviously that goes unrealized in silents. When she opened her mouth to talk in the late 1920s, she was a revelation.
Marie Dressler made her Hollywood comeback in the late 1920s. How did that happen?
As Marie told it, and as captured in the book, she owes her late life success to Frances Marion. Marion was a cub reporter when she interviewed Marie in 1911 on tour in San Francisco. Marie took a liking to her, they reconnected off and on through the years, and became close friends.
When Marion became a major screenwriter during the early years of MGM, she wrote a screenplay for Marie. Irving Thalberg approved of the casting, albeit reluctantly, since Marie was then a destitute has-been. The movie was called The Callahans and the Murphys, and it came out in 1927 to positive reviews. But the comeback didn’t take on the first try. The Callahans was a comedy filled with jokes delivered by and aimed at the Irish; and outraged Irish-Americans, backed by the Roman Catholic church, protested the movie.
Studio chief Louis B. Mayer saw no option but to appease the angry mob, and pulled the film from distribution before it was widely seen. Today, sad to say, it’s a lost film. Fortunately, Marie made an impression, so The Callahans and the Murphys led to small movie roles here and there. But everything changed dramatically when Anna Christie [above right] was released in early 1930. This was famously Greta Garbo’s first talkie, but Marie, as a waterfront drunk with a big heart, stole the show. Audiences went nuts for her. With Anna Christie, Marie’s comeback was complete.
Following her comeback in mostly supporting roles, Marie Dressler, then in her sixties, became a major film star. I know that Ruth Gordon became a film leading lady in her 70s, and so did Jessica Tandy. George Burns had a couple of hits when he was in his 80s. But Dressler was a top box office attraction throughout the early 1930s.
Is she a unique case among old-timers, whether male or female? And why do you think audiences in the early 1930s became so enthusiastic about a very matronly sixty-something-year-old?
What you’ve touched on here, André, is what drew me to Marie in the first place. If she is remembered today, it’s for her amazing stardom at the end of her life in the early 1930s. And, yes, she is a unique case and will be forever. According to movie exhibitors polled at the time, Marie was the number one box office attraction across America in 1932 and 1933. Number one! That puts her ahead of Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, James Cagney, and Greta Garbo. Every movie Marie made after Anna Christie brought in piles of money for her home studio, MGM, and helped it weather the Depression.
In the book, I suggest that the key to her success was timing. An overweight, jowly, elder actress came to represent the optimism necessary to endure the Depression. One man I interviewed who remembered her said that people flocked to see her movies because she gave them hope. One look at her and you could believe that she was a symbol of love, courage, and survival, which was exactly what the times needed. Her stardom is one of the great anomalies in Hollywood history, a kind of adoration that isn’t supposed to happen to an older, homely woman.
Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler in Min and Bill
How did Marie Dressler react to her newfound stardom?
Marie basked in her success. She had been through enough trials in life – points when she couldn’t get a job – and so she was more than ready for fame and adoration. I think audiences loved that they could give that to her, too. It made them feel good to shower her with love, because she took it so gratefully and graciously. She was the loving grandmother that her fans wanted to protect and comfort, while she comforted, amused, and moved them in return.
Her stardom also points to something missing from modern movies. In the 1930s and into the 1940s, American films had an array of character types, including the “imperious older woman.” Marie’s success was without peer, but she was not alone in the anti-glamour, anti-youth department. There were Margaret Dumont, Lucile Watson, Alison Skipworth, May Robson, Mary Boland, Beulah Bondi, and Spring Byington, among others. They were simply fantastic, and their types have all but disappeared from the screen. Or today, they toil beyond the glare of recognition – fine actresses like Celia Weston, Grace Zabriskie, and Margo Martindale. Kathy Bates has maintained a thriving film career, but it seems to me that today the middle aged or older actress is expected to look young, and those without great beauty have to attempt the sexy glamour routine anyway. Whatever happened to the embrace of dignified and vital maturity?
Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery. Marie Dressler and Polly Moran (right, in Reducing). How did those screen couples get along? And why do you think Dressler became a top star but not her partner Moran?
When Marie carried a movie by herself, the results were spectacular. So why MGM insisted on putting her in partner movies with Wallace Beery and Polly Moran is a bit mysterious. Marie didn’t like Beery as a person, but then from everything I’ve read, he wasn’t particularly likable. In fact, most paint him as a real son of a bitch – loud, impatient, and belittling. But they do play off each other marvelously; the two old troupers evoking so much life experience when they are on screen together.
Marie and Beery formed such an indelible impression in the early 1930s that they are often listed as among the screen’s all-time great duos. But they only made two movies together as a true team, Min and Bill and Tugboat Annie. If Marie came to symbolize endurance against breadlines and foreclosures, she and Beery together doubled the impact.
Marie spoke kindly of Polly Moran, but she did come to chafe at the rather uninspired comedies the two of them were given. Their first co-starring talkie, Caught Short, is unavailable, but Reducing, Politics, and Prosperity are all silly and entertaining. In the book I suggest they are good time-capsule movies, especially Prosperity, which deals with the Depression head-on in its plot.
It’s true that Moran did not become a big star, and in fact struggled to maintain a career after Marie died. When I see them together, I’m automatically drawn to Marie, who knew every trick of upstaging. Moran’s comedy is broad like Marie’s, but she lacks Marie’s edge of sweetness and show of humanity. Marie could be self-deprecating, bellicose, tender, cutting, goofy, and sentimental in the space of one sentence. Moran simply didn’t have that range.
What was Marie Dressler’s relationship with MGM head Louis B. Mayer like? Who chose her MGM vehicles?
Marie was always gracious to Mayer in public, and was deeply grateful for his support of her career. He was one of the architects of her success, and she knew it. But behind closed doors she complained that she wasn’t being paid what she was worth, and that Mayer could be stranglingly possessive.
Mayer absolutely loved Marie in that paternalistic way he loved his favorite contractees. He once declared that the three greatest actors he ever worked with were Garbo, Spencer Tracy, and Marie. Not only was she hugely talented and profitable for MGM, but her difficult behavior earlier in her career was gone – so that the latter-day Marie was highly cooperative.
She was also a delightful party guest, amusing governors, presidents, and other dignitaries passing through Hollywood. She was a guest in Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s White House, and was part of the William Randolph Hearst/San Simeon party crowd. No wonder Mayer loved her so much.
Irving Thalberg, with Frances Marion’s input, made most of the creative decisions that directly affected Marie’s career, while Mayer would order another fast, cheap, and profitable Polly Moran comedy whenever MGM was feeling the pinch of the Depression.
Marie was especially close to studio publicist Howard Strickling. In fact, she gave him her Academy Award for Min and Bill when she knew she was dying of cancer.
Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight.
Some reviewers have complained that Marie Dressler didn’t act. They say she overacted. What do you think?
Writing about her as an actress was tough, because there is no one remotely like her anymore. If you watch her performances today, you can see that she was a true-blue ham. And I can see how that would bother people, but for me it’s an essential part of her charm. If I settle into a Marie Dressler picture, I know I won’t get naturalism by today’s standards. Neither will I get fart jokes, horny frat boys, or mean-spirited mockery. Instead, Marie offered character-driven humor.
She played the charwoman or the grand dame with equal distinction. And she played to the camera as if it were the back row of a vaudeville theater, mugging and overreacting shamelessly. But because she was so good at it, and so experienced, it became who she was as an actress. It’s Marie and her character becoming one. And behind all that mugging is someone so warm, so funny, and so human, that she makes a beeline straight to your heart. Call it overacting, but it’s hard to deny her entertainment value, even today. Once you see Marie Dressler on the screen, you don’t forget her!
The 1933 all-star Dinner at Eight is probably Marie Dressler’s best-remembered film. How did filming go? Was it well received at the time?
Dinner at Eight was filmed on a very tight schedule, since it involved some of the biggest names at the studio in an ensemble, and they were all needed on other sets as well. This is one of George Cukor’s first movies as a director, and he was masterful at working with Marie, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lee Tracy, and Billie Burke. Reportedly, there were no raging egos, and everyone was happy with their roles and performances.
Dinner at Eight was received extremely well both critically and commercially. It was a direct descendant of the newly defined ensemble movie that MGM perfected the year before with Grand Hotel. As enduring entertainment, I think Dinner at Eight edges out Grand Hotel. It is creaky in parts, but most of it is still so funny and wise.
Marie’s down-on-her-luck actress Carlotta, the twittering of Billie Burke, the boudoir sparring of Harlow and Beery – this is classic American film comedy at its very best. And of course there’s the exchange between Marie and Harlow that has a secure place among the great moments ever captured on film. Something about machinery taking the place of every profession…
Marie Dressler’s last movie was The Late Christopher Bean. Considering that it’s an MGM film – currently owned by Time Warner – why is it unavailable?
I believe it has to do with the estate of the play’s author, Sidney Howard. I’m happy to say that the film survives, and we can only hope that it will be seen someday on Turner Classic Movies and elsewhere. I went to the Eastman House in Rochester to see it. It’s not Marie’s best, but it is a pleasing slice of Americana co-starring Lionel Barrymore and Beulah Bondi. Marie was very ill during production, but you’d never know it. She is fine, bringing both humor and nostalgic wistfulness to her character.
Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight
Marie Dressler and Claire Du Brey. Were they really lovers? Did you go through Du Brey’s papers? (I believe actor John Phillip Law is in possession of them.)
Ah, the lesbian love question! I talked with Mr. Law, and met with the actress Sierra Pecheur, who knew Du Brey and shared portions of her writing. But Du Brey is problematic as a source. First of all, Marie was dying of cancer during much of the time the two were together. Du Brey wrote exacting details on medical treatments, surgeries, and recoveries, but her papers are of no help on the subject of a sexual relationship, which is consistent with an era of discretion.
Marie was old (by 1930s standards), overweight, and mortally sick – not exactly the formula for a sex life of any kind. It was all she could do to keep her energy up for the camera and her fans. Du Brey felt that Marie was working and partying herself to death, and in 1932 they had a falling out that was never reconciled. Du Brey later sued Marie’s estate, claiming she was owed back pay for her services as Marie’s nurse. So, you see, her accounts come with conflicting motives.
This is where biography writing gets tricky. The two were emotionally intimate, no question of that. They lived and traveled together for a time. But there is also the question of identity. Even if they had sexual relations, both had been married to men. And they were together at a time when being an overt lesbian was unthinkable for someone of Marie’s fame. And some of the posthumous rumors are just crazy, such as the one about Marie and Garbo being lovers. Please.
As a writer, I try to juggle professional accomplishments with the more private, and sometimes salacious, aspects of a life. Distinguishing between the plausible, the verifiable, and the outlandish isn’t always easy. I know you faced even greater challenges of this sort with Ramon Novarro. And when the lurid takes on mythic proportions, as it did with Novarro’s murder, the challenges are huge. You met them beautifully, by the way.
My impression of Marie is that she loved men and women. Whether that love was sexual is unclear. She made a living out of being unsexy, and that must have affected her romantic options as well as her self-esteem in matters of the heart. So I regret, André, that this brings me to the unsatisfying answer of “I don’t know.”
Marie Dressler died at the height of her fame. I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but do you have any idea as to where Dressler’s career was headed? Did MGM have more starring roles lined up for her?
Very good question, André, since Marie went out on top and in demand. I trace what might have been in the book. MGM was ready to work her like a pack mule, and there is every reason to believe that she would have continued being hugely popular had she lived longer.
Columbia wanted her for Lady for a Day [May Robson got the role and an Academy Award nomination in 1933] and Paramount wanted her for A Son Comes Home [made with Mary Boland in 1936]. MGM was developing something called “Mrs. Van Kleek” for her, and wanted to team her with Marion Davies for “Paid to Laugh.”
Marie and Harlow made such an impression together in Dinner at Eight, that Mayer was putting together a movie to highlight the two of them. MGM tried to get W.C. Fields on loan from Paramount to star with Marie. And Marie and Will Rogers formed a mutual admiration society. One newspaper planted a story that they were to be teamed for a film version of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!. [Dressler’s would-be role is probably the one that went to Aline MacMahon in the 1935 MGM version.]
And finally, were there any roles that Marie Dressler wanted to play but didn’t get a chance to do? Did she have a favorite among her roles?
It seemed to me that Marie most loved the role she just finished. The fact that her career in talkies was cut short by cancer is truly sad, for we can only imagine the performances and partnerships that would have made her career even more memorable. I can so easily imagine her in The Women, directed by her friend George Cukor. And with sensitive direction, she would have been a magnificent Ma Joad, or Ma Kettle, or Mother Courage.
Thanks so much for letting me ponder Marie again, André. It’s been a few years since the book came out, and it’s a lot of fun to look at her again. What a woman!
Images: Courtesy of Matthew Kennedy.