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A Great Big Girl Like Me

A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler

Victoria Sturtevant
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    A Great Big Girl Like Me
    Book Description:

    In this study of Marie Dressler, MGM's most profitable movie star in the early 1930s, Victoria Sturtevant analyzes Dressler's use of her body to challenge Hollywood's standards for leading ladies. At five feet seven inches tall and two hundred pounds, Dressler was never considered the popular "delicate beauty," often playing ugly ducklings, old maids, doting mothers, and imperious dowagers. However, Dressler's body, her fearless physicality, and her athletic slapstick routines commanded the screen. Although an unlikely movie star, Dressler represented for Depression-era audiences a sign of abundance and generosity in a time of scarcity._x000B__x000B_This premier analysis of her body of work explores how Dressler refocused the generic frame of her films beyond the shallow problems of the rich and beautiful, instead dignifying the marginalized, the elderly, women, and the poor. Sturtevant inteprets the meanings of Dressler's body through different genres, venues, and historical periods by looking at her vaudeville career, her transgressive representation of an "unruly" yet sexual body in Emma and Christopher Bean, ideas of the body politic in the films Politics and Prosperity, and Dressler as a mythic body in Min and Bill and Tugboat Annie.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09262-6
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Tillie’s Punctured Romance: Genre and the Body
    (pp. 1-29)

    Marie Dressler was never a delicate beauty. In her earliest films, she played ugly ducklings and old maids, and in her later career she played doting mothers and imperious dowagers. Though this sounds like the career trajectory of a supporting actress, Dressler was definitely a star, the central protagonist of most of her films, and the woman you can’t take your eyes off, even in the films that tried in vain to push her to the background (figure 1). Many of her extraordinary early sound pictures, such asMin and Bill(MGM, 1930),Politics(MGM, 1931),Emma(MGM, 1932), and...

  5. 2 Breaking Boundaries: The Unruly Body
    (pp. 30-59)

    From 1927 to 1930, Marie Dressler played queens or slatterns and very few other types in between. A publicity still juxtaposing two very different characters from her films of 1930 illustrates some of the extraordinary paradoxes of her supporting roles (figure 5).¹ Dressed in cotton and wool, the shadow of her rumpled hat falling across her face, the Dressler on the right is in character as the degraded wharf-front prostitute Marthy fromAnna Christie. Her face is wrinkled and soft, the lines of her mouth turned gently downward with good humor and the slackness of a drinker. She leans tentatively...

  6. 3 Politics and Prosperity: The Body Politic
    (pp. 60-92)

    The most popular and profitable films of Dressler’s starring years were her films with Polly Moran, a series of unpretentious manic comedies featuring broad slapstick that recalled the silent era: pratfalls, pies in the face, drunken stumbling. The low budgets and low-brow humor of these movies have contributed to their being eclipsed by the bigger literary properties of Dressler’s career (and Dressler herself hated them), but they are among the most interesting of her films for their populism, their energy, and their portraits of feminine solidarity. Moran has a kind of shrill, nervous comic style that looks even more unbalanced...

  7. 4 Min and Bill and Tugboat Annie: The Mythic Body
    (pp. 93-125)

    When a fan clipped the above verse from a newspaper and mailed it to Marie Dressler, claiming it “exactly expresses how I feel about you,” the star was so touched by the tribute that she had the poem engraved on a small metal plate and carried it around in her handbag. When she died, the poem was read aloud at her funeral, and the engraving was placed in the casket with her body.¹ It is likely that most stars of the 1920s and 1930s were compared in the press, explicitly or implicitly, to gods or supernatural beings.² Dressler’s own studio,...

  8. 5 Emma and Christopher Bean: The Sexual Body
    (pp. 126-160)

    By 1930, Marie Dressler had long since traded her vanity for the pleasures of comic stardom. A reviewer wrote of her 1910 appearance inTillie’s Nightmare, “The show is dominated by an actress whose sole aim is to make herself a monstrosity that she may use ugliness as a bludgeon to wallop the ignorant into blithering and painful laughter.”¹ Dressler’s unruly body was similarly castigated as an unwholesome form of comedy inThe Callahans and the Murphys. Her first autobiography was calledThe Life Story of an Ugly Duckling, and Dressler often spoke about her homeliness. Her two autobiographies are...

  9. Conclusion Dinner at Eight: The Unclosed Body
    (pp. 161-172)

    Dressler’s unique stardom presented an ideological challenge to the generic logic of Hollywood filmmaking that went beyond the right to dictate to directors (career control), buy diamond bracelets (economic control), and get fat (bodily control—or pleasurable uncontrol). Her films also afforded the actress a certain ideological flexibility, bending generic boundaries to accommodate her performances of excess. But Richard Dyer cautions against too much enthusiasm for so-called subversive stars, asking if “these represent real challenges to thestatus quoand the dominant ideology or are simply ‘holidays’ from it.”¹ Most of Marie Dressler’s films opened up the possibility of female...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 173-184)
  11. Filmography: Dressler’s Feature Films
    (pp. 185-186)
  12. Index
    (pp. 187-194)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 195-197)