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Marie Dressler

Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star

Betty Lee
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 336
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    Marie Dressler
    Book Description:

    " She was homely, overweight, and over the hill, but there was a time when Marie Dressler outdrew such cinema sex symbols as Garbo, Dietrich, and Harlow. To movie audiences suffering the hardships of the Great Depression, she was Everywoman, and in the early 1930s her charming mixture of pathos and comedy packed movie theaters everywhere. In the early days of the century, Dressler was constantly in the headlines. She took up the cause of the "ponies" in the chorus lines, earning them better pay and benefits. She played in productions organized to raise money for the women's suffrage movement. And during World War I she claimed she sold more liberty bonds than any other individual in the United States. Dressler was an astute observer of public mood and taste. When she was lucky enough to find work in the newly minted Hollywood talkies, she grabbed the brass ring with fierce enthusiasm, even making three films in the year before her death, when she was so sick she had to rest between scenes on a sofa just out of camera range. The two-hundred-pound actress's remarkable stage presence captivated audiences even though her roles were not Hollywood beauties. She played tough, practical characters such as the old wharf rat in Anna Christie (1930), the waterfront innkeeper in Min and Bill (1931) -- for which she won the Academy Award for best actress -- the aging housekeeper in Emma (1932), and the title role in Tugboat Annie (1933). She spoke honestly to her audiences, and troubled people in the comforting darkness of the Depression-era movie theaters embraced her as one of themselves.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4571-6
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. ix-x)

    She was homely, overweight, and decidedly over the hill, but in the early 1930s Marie Dressler easily outdrew such cinematic sex symbols as Garbo, Dietrich, and Harlow. To movie audiences suffering the hardships of the Great Depression, she was Everywoman. She was Bill’s plain partner Min, Tugboat Annie, and Emma, the tough, no-nonsense broad who was more at home on the waterfront or in the kitchen than in the rarefied salons of Fifth Avenue. And, even if she happened to be invited to Dinner at Eight in one of those salons, Dressler was the actress who made it clear that...

  4. 1 Birthday Wishes 1933
    (pp. 1-3)

    It is Thursday, the ninth of November, 1933, and the evening is still and soft in Los Angeles. Eight hundred invited guests jam the entrances to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in Culver City. Klieg lights spotlight comedian Will Rogers, wearing his familiar Stetson. Norma Shearer and her husband, MGM producer Irving Thalberg, emerge from their black limousine with the easy grace of royalty. Lionel Barrymore makes his way into the enormous sound stage that has been transformed for the festivities. Heads turn to note the arrival of Jean Harlow with her new husband, Hal Rosson. Clark Gable, Mary Pickford, Jimmy Durante,...

  5. 2 First Taste of Drama 1868-1882
    (pp. 4-12)

    In the mid-nineteenth century, Cobourg, Ontario, was a muddy little community of six thousand residents with a good harbor but fading dreams of competing with the Southern Ontario cities of Hamilton and Toronto as a center of industry. Back in the 1850s, the city fathers believed that the building of the east-west Grand Trunk Railway from Toronto to Montreal and the construction of the north-south Cobourg and Peterborough Railway would bring prosperity to the region. But by 1860, the Cobourg and Peterborough line had almost ceased operation because of a successful challenge from the rival Port Hope to Lindsay line...

  6. 3 On the Road 1882-1892
    (pp. 13-22)

    Marie Dressler gives us no information as to where she and Bonita began working with the Nevada Stock Company, but she does tell us in her autobiographies that she made her professional debut as Cigarette inUnder Two Flags. Dressler writes that she was almost paralyzed with stage fright before her first appearance, and no wonder.Under Two Flagswas a dramatization of British novelist Ouida’s somewhat naughty novel of life in the Foreign Legion. The stage treatment had been written by Richard Ganthony, a young playwright who traveled with the Nevada company. Ouida’s description of the dancing girl Cigarette...

  7. 4 Champion of the Underdog 1892-1900
    (pp. 23-36)

    The boom on Broadway in the early years of the 1890s was an extension of the economic euphoria that gilded the 1880s. In the United States, industry had expanded rapidly since the Civil War. Trusts had developed to limit competition and to fix prices for oil, sugar, and other commodities, and there was even talk of a syndicate or trust being planned to control theatrical booking activity. Overproduction was rife: too many stoves and not enough people to buy them, railroads overbuilt for the number of passengers buying tickets, and banks staggering from high-risk loans. The American economy was ripe...

  8. 5 Entrepreneurial Spirit 1900-1904
    (pp. 37-48)

    The turn of the century was a magical time on Broadway. The 1899-1900 season had offered eighty-seven theatrical productions, with no less than five openings on New Year’s Eve alone. The new century’s theatrical celebrities were such legendary thespians as Ada Rehan, John Drew, and the popular Maude Adams. Minnie Maddern Fiske was playing in Langdon Mitchell’sBecky Sharpat the Fifth Avenue Theatre, and Lionel Barrymore was the star—and also the victim of atrocious reviews—of James A. Herne’sSag Harbour. The Spanish-American War had helped vitalize the national economy, and Americans were flush with cash again after...

  9. 6 Theatrical Aristocrat 1904-1907
    (pp. 49-59)

    If you wanted to enjoy an evening of light entertainment on Broadway in 1904, you had a multiplicity of choices. But the best bets were Proctor’s Palace at Twenty-Third Street, Tony Pastor’s Music Hall on Fourteenth Street, Keith’s at Thirty-Fourth Street, and the Weber and Fields Music Hall on Twenty-Ninth. At these theatrical emporia, you could hear the top popular vocalists and comedians of the day. And there were also the choruses—squads of attractive young men and gorgeous young women who danced their way through lavishly produced musical extravaganzas. The eight-hundred-seat Weber and Fields Music Hall was very much...

  10. 7 Sunny Jim 1907-1910
    (pp. 60-72)

    Details of James Henry Dalton’s installation as a thirteen-yearlong presence in Marie Dressler’s life is still somewhat of a mystery, partly because of the actress’s lifelong unwillingness to discuss the relationship and partly because stories that have managed to surface are often skewed. Dressler did make a statement when Dalton died in 1921 that she had met him in 1907 and that he had been in financial distress at the time. Other snippets of information about Sunny Jim, as he was widely known despite his ugly temper, show he was amply built—at least as large as Dressler. He had...

  11. 8 The Working Girl 1910-1912
    (pp. 73-85)

    The Klaw-Erlanger-Frohman theatre syndicate was still very much in evidence in 1909, but the powerful trust had been challenged by another show business group. The Shubert Theatrical Corporation, controlled by brothers Jacob (Jake) and Lee Shubert, scored a major victory over the long-entrenched combine. In 1906, the brothers had thumbed their noses at Abe Erlanger’s edict that if sixty-one-year-old Sarah Bernhardt appeared in America under the Shubert banner, all Klaw and Erlanger houses daring to accept a Bernhardt booking would be shut out of the trust. In defiant response, the Shuberts presented the great Parisian actress in such nontheatrical settings...

  12. 9 The Height of Her Power 1912-1913
    (pp. 86-95)

    Dressler constantly insisted that she was not a militant suffragette, though she liked to hold forth on women’s need to strive for financial independence. She also never hesitated to speak up in defense of the female underdog, both in and out of show business. “But,” she once told a reporter during the days when “Votes for Women” was becoming a rallying cry among New York feminists, “I believe there is something radically wrong with our womanhood when so many are clamoring to take man’s place in the management of public affairs. Personally, I am a staunch believer in woman’s equality...

  13. 10 Marie Dressler’s Merry Gambol 1914
    (pp. 96-108)

    Faced with the painful reality that their financial resources were dwindling, Dressler and Dalton were optimistic that a new production ofThe Merry Gambolwould provide a welcome shot in the pocketbook. After some negotiation in New York, Sunny Jim traveled to San Francisco and signed a forty-week contract with Gilbert M. Anderson, former silent-film cowboy star also known as Bronco Billy, who was owner of the Gaiety Theatre on O’Farrel Street. The contract specified a Monday, January 26, 1914, opening date and stipulated that Anderson would be responsible for production expenses and would pay Dressler twenty-five hundred dollars for...

  14. 11 Mix-ups and Movies 1914-1915
    (pp. 109-120)

    Dressler and Dalton headed for the Vermont farm as soon as the train from Los Angeles deposited them in New York. For the actress, it was a welcome surcease from the trauma of San Francisco and the challenging, fourteen-week stint in front of the Keystone movie cameras. It was also a chance for Dressler to be alone with Sunny Jim and to try to rationalize her feelings about the relationship. At some time during the Vermont break, she obviously decided to stick with Dalton, despite his faults. After all, he was an impressive-looking escort, and the actress must have found...

  15. 12 War Work 1916-1918
    (pp. 121-132)

    Although President Woodrow Wilson had assured the nation that he was a neutral observer of the savage war in Europe, Americans were nevertheless apprehensive about the future. Horror stories brought back to the United States by those who had toured the overcrowded French and Belgian hospitals were casting a pall over the country. Dressler herself attended the Sunday afternoon salons held by her good friends Elisabeth Marbury, Elsie de Wolfe, and Anne Morgan, who had each personally witnessed the devastation as well as the growing problem of the European homeless. In 1915 and 1916, the actress became a highly visible...

  16. 13 Striking for the Ponies 1919
    (pp. 133-144)

    Business on Broadway picked up considerably during the summer of 1918, though there was a worrying hiatus as the United States battled a savage “Spanish” influenza epidemic. Dressler continued with her war work during the year, professionally alert to the news that theatrical managers were becoming confident enough to cast some new productions. The trend looked promising. But she was also aware that landing a new and important role could prove to be difficult; many of the 1918 offerings were propagandatinged war plays—scarcely Dressler-type shows larded with music and mayhem. Movies were just as daunting. Hollywood had just released...

  17. 14 Marie’s Nightmare 1920-1927
    (pp. 145-156)

    The revival ofTillie’s Nightmarefizzled in the early summer of 1920, and Dressler reluctantly disbanded the company. Early receipts from the tour had adequately covered expenses, but as audiences began to thin out, it was clear that she could not afford to continue meeting a payroll. Besides, Dalton was far from well. Although there is no precise evidence as to when he suffered his stroke, it is more than likely that it happened during the last weeks of theTillietour or soon after it ended. In any case, Sunny Jim’s increasingly serious health problems made it more difficult...

  18. 15 Door to the Future 1927-1929
    (pp. 157-168)

    Dressler’s friends were frankly horrified at her plan to become a Parisian hotelkeeper. When she returned to the Manhattan apartment with her steamship ticket and broke the news to Nella Webb, the young astrologer wailed, “Marie, you’re coming into a new cycle, one of the best periods of your life! The biggest success of all is ahead of you. All your life you’ve been a clown. Now you’re going to be an actress!” Webb was quite specific with her predictions. She had consulted her charts and determined that Dressler was about to enter an extraordinarily productive seven-year period, beginning January...

  19. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  20. 16 Queen Marie 1929-1931
    (pp. 169-182)

    Dressler rented a pleasant white house on Hillside Avenue in Hollywood not long after she decided to stay in Los Angeles. Late in 1929, however, she moved to a three-year-old, Spanish-Mediterranean-style home at 718 Milner Road in Whitley Heights. A year or so later, the actress leased a ten-room house at 623 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills from journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns. Both Dressler and her closest friends always agreed that the Bedford Drive residence came close to the kind of home the actress had always wanted. Yet Dressler insisted on moving again toward the end of 1932,...

  21. 17 The Little Doctor 1931-1932
    (pp. 183-196)

    Life for Dressler had begun to change even after the release ofAnna Christiein 1930. But by the timeMin and Billwas dominating the national box office, followed in January 1931 by the release of the less-successful Dressler-Moran comedy,Reducing, MGM was delivering fan mail to the Bedford Drive house in sacks. Social invitations from such Hollywood luminaries as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst, and Norma Shearer and her powerful husband, Irving Thalberg, began to roll in. Dressler dutifully turned up at some of the parties, but as Claire Dubrey made clear...

  22. 18 The Treatment 1931-1932
    (pp. 197-209)

    By the end of 1931, the deepening Depression was beginning to devastate the seemingly inviolate dream factories of Hollywood. Most of the studios had been able to ride out the first years of the financial holocaust with profits from the novelty of sound, but now it was becoming more difficult to attract the cash-strapped public into the theatres. In an attempt to turn the tide, RKO Radio spent money it could ill afford on an expensive adaptation of Edna Ferber’s western novelCimarron. The movie made major stars out of newcomers Richard Dix and Irene Dunne, and the picture racked...

  23. 19 Prosperity 1932
    (pp. 210-221)

    Prosperity, the eighth movie to star the Marie Dressler–Polly Moran comedy team, turned out to be the last. When the picture went into production in March 1932, breadlines were longer than lines at the theatre box offices, and MGM’s bosses were well aware that the therapeutic laughter generated by talented screen comics was worth its weight in stock options. The glossy, big name pictures being manufactured at the Culver City studio were still contributing handsomely to MGM’s profit; Mayer banked on the sex appeal of Crawford, Harlow, Garbo, and Gable, and the competition battled back with popular comedians such...

  24. 20 God’s Exhibit A to the World 1932
    (pp. 222-234)

    The fun continued as the party detrained at Grand Central Station. J.J. Murdock and MGM publicity staffer Milton Beecher were on hand to greet the star and to help clear a path through the fans, reporters, and fawning redcaps to a waiting limousine. A platoon of mounted police had to escort the automobile through the crush outside of the station and, after a slow drive, into the foyer of the Savoy-Plaza Hotel. Friends were waiting in the suite with flowers, gifts, and adoring hugs and kisses: Hallie Phillips, Jimmy Forbes, wealthy bachelor Herman Sartorius, and violinist Fritz Kreisler and his...

  25. 21 Mayer’s Marathon 1932-1933
    (pp. 235-245)

    The New York visit ended with an orgy of social activity, despite the fact that Dressler suffered a slight hemorrhage—an incident that sent the actress and Dubrey hurrying to Dr. Glover for advice and reassurance. The pathologist agreed that such events were worrying but explained that, because there were no arteries involved, the bleeding itself was not dangerous. But he repeated his previous warnings: Dressler should rest and keep off her feet as much as possible.

    But there was so much to do before leaving for California! Dressler hosted a lavish dinner for ten at the American Women’s Association,...

  26. 22 And to All, Goodnight 1933
    (pp. 246-256)

    Norman Reilly Raine, the Canadian veteran of the First World War who created “Tugboat Annie,” always insisted that he had written the successfulSaturday Evening Postseries with Marie Dressler in mind. The seven original stories revolved around the tough female captain of the tugboatNarcissusworking out of the Puget Sound docks in Washington State. Captain Annie Brennan was a widow in thePosttales, but after MGM acquired the property, Annie’s spouse, Terry, was resurrected so that Wallace Beery could rejoin Dressler in a quasi–Min and Billreprise.

    The studio was clearly betting that the venture would...

  27. 23 Flutter of Doubt 1934
    (pp. 257-269)

    Dressler had been picking away at a project since September 1933 that at first she regarded as a necessary duty but had come to feel was a decided bore. She had agreed to cooperate with literary agent Edith Burrows and her client author Mildred Harrington on a series of four autobiographical articles, to be published inRedbookmagazine. The articles would then be expanded into a book “as told to” Harrington. Little, Brown and Company of New York had expressed an interest, and during her visit to New York in October Dressler had signed a contract with Harrington and Burrows...

  28. Marie Dressler Filmography
    (pp. 270-274)
  29. Notes
    (pp. 275-299)
  30. Bibliography
    (pp. 300-303)
  31. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 304-304)
  32. Index
    (pp. 305-320)