More than a character actress, Marie Dressler was a genuine star of the Golden Era in Hollywood. She was the first female star who ever made the cover of Time Magazine.
But she rarely had it easy. She was a large, ugly woman who had generally been imposed on as the ungainly object of comedy for more agile and appealing spirits, observes British critic David Thomson.
In other words, early in her career Dressler made do as the butt of jokes devised by Mack Sennett and implemented by Charlie Chaplin. Adds Thomson: Dressler was as close to a Mother Courage as Hollywood could run.
Dressler made her film debut in 1914’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance, with Chaplin and Mabel Normand, playing a rich harridan role she had perfected on the stage. A native of Ontario, Canada, started her career in opera, then moved onto the stage and vaudeville and then into the “silents.”
She made four more such films for Sennett, but by 1919 her career was on the fast track to nowhere. Dressler then hied off to Europe where she made some comedy shorts in France. Her lack of success at this stage got to the actress, who began to entertain suicidal thoughts.
Her savior came in the form of director Allan Dwan, who cast her in a small part in 1927’s The Joy Girl, a Fox Film comedy about the romantic vicissitudes of a young socialite. That kick started her career in the first decade of the “talkies,” and led to other roles at MGM and other studios.
By the Thirties, Dressler was a star. In 1930, she more than held her own with Greta Garbo in Anna Christie, and with Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night. The year’s peak for her was Min and Bill, a drama about the crusty proprietors of a waterfront hotel (Marie played the wife opposite Wallace Beery as the husband) who raise an abandoned child.
The role won for Marie a Best actress Oscar in 1931, and, a year later, a designation as 1932’s top film star, the same year she was nominated for another best actress Oscar in Emma with Jean Hersholt. Quite a feat.
Dressler and Beery famously reunited in 1933’s Tugboat Annie. Also in 1933, Dressler appeared in perhaps her most memorable picture, director George Cukor’s Dinner At Eight — getting off one of the most cutting comedy lines in American film:
In response to sexpot Jean Harlow’s anxiety that machinery will replace all professions, Dressler as the formidable ‘Carlotta Vance,’ soothingly murmurs, Oh my dear, that is something you need never worry about.
Dressler fought cancer for much of her career, and she finally succumbed in 1934 at age 65. She left an estate worth more than $300,000, quite a fortune at the height of America’s Great Depression.