You are gazing at what director King Vidor once described as “the large, expressive visage” of today’s personality, a woman “never one for subtlety in comedy, nor was she subtle in grief.”
She was one of the biggest movie stars of her day. She’d had a long and bumpy career on Broadway, in vaudeville and in silent pictures. At her death of cancer in 1934, she was not only BIG box office but a well-loved and genuinely mourned movie star.
Who is this woman?
Hello Everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to discuss one of filmdom’s unique stars, Marie Dressler.
Pulling no punches, British author-critic David Thomson describes her this way: She was a large, ugly woman…a harridan.
Dressler later became, he added, a worldly an engagingly cynical old lady …who in (director George Cukor’s 1933 comedy Dinner At Eight) listens skeptically to Jean Harlow’s anxiety that machinery will take the place of every profession, and murmurs, ‘Oh my dear, that is something you need never worry about.’
The span of Dressler’s career was impressive. Born Leila Koerber in Ontario, Canada in 1868, she put in extended stints in opera, the stage and vaudeville before making her silent movie debut in 1915 in Mack Sennett’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which happened to costar Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand.
Her silent career took some twists and turns, but unlike many of her peers, Dressler survived the transition to ‘talkies.’ When sound came in in the late Twenties, Hollywood harvested a new crop personalities based on their vocal qualities, wrote movie pioneer-mogul Jesse Lasky. Top favorites of the silent era had dropped out of sight.
George Bancroft, who had been worth $5,000 or $6,000 a week to us until he had to open his mouth…Clara Bow found the strain too much for her nerves and voluntarily retired...Jack Gilbert had to abidicate as king of romantic stars at the top of his orbit…Norma Talmadge, Colleen Moore and Florence Vidor were cut down in their glory…
While Marie Dressler came out of retirement, and zoomed to the heights again at the age of sixty-one.
In the Great Depression years, Dresser’s career soared. She was teamed with favored co-star Wallace Beery in 1930’s Min and Bill, playing the good-hearted owner of a dockside hotel and collecting a best actress Oscar for her efforts. The pair reunited in MGM’s Tugboat Annie three years later.
Dressler costarred with Greta Garbo in Anna Christie, MGM’s 1930 adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play, and one gets the impression that the veteran actress was underwhelmed by the personality quirks of the ‘Swedish Sphinx.’
A year later, Dressler escorted her royal guest and friend Baroness Ravensdale (aka Mary Curzon, a British aristocrat who spent a lifetime working for good causes) to Greta’s dressing room in on the set of Mata Hari, which Garbo was filming opposite Ramon Novarro.
Marie Dressler could not get her even to say ‘How do you do’ to me, recalled the Baroness. But Marie Dressler would not stomach such impoliteness, wrote Curzon in her 1953 book, In Many Rhythms, about her travels to Hollywood.
In retaliation, the Dressler prevailed upon director George Fitzmaurice to cast Curzon as an extra. For four hours I rehearsed a small scene with Garbo, Ramon Navarro and two others. So I was able to watch that elusive creature when she was in her prime.
Garbo later discovered the trick, and was “very angry.” Dressler, no doubt, was smiling.
Special bonus: Here’s a fantastic piece of history. Dressler was the first woman, EVER, to be on the cover of Time Magazine.