This week is the 150th birthday of Marie Dressler, an amazing character actress. She is one of those actors that play the mother or the wealthy aunt or the uptight grandmother that is really there to create conflict and contrast between the leading roles, but I end up watching her. Later in her film career, they would give her these lines, little throw away quips that were so hilarious and I hope she really loved being able to sneak in zingers while the rest of the characters were too caught up in love and so forth to notice. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss since she has left.
NAME: Marie Dressler
OCCUPATION: Film Actress, Theater Actress, Comedian
BIRTHDATE: November 09, 1868
DEATH DATE: July 28, 1934
PLACE OF BIRTH: Cobourg, Canada
PLACE OF DEATH: Santa Barbara, California
Originally: Leila Marie Koerber
Best Known For: Marie Dressler is best known for her acting in the theater and film, winning an Oscar.
Dressler had appeared in two shorts as herself, but her first role in a feature film came in 1914, at the age of 44. After Mack Sennett became the owner of his namesake motion picture studio, he convinced Dressler to star in his 1914 silent film Tillie’s Punctured Romance. The film was to be the first full-length, six-reel motion picture comedy. According to Sennett, a prospective budget of $200,000 meant that he needed “a star whose name and face meant something to every possible theatre-goer in the United States and the British Empire.” The movie was based on Dressler’s hit Tillie’s Nightmare, a choice credited either to Dressler or to a Keystone studio employee. Dressler herself claims to have cast Charles Chaplin in the movie as her leading man, and was “proud to have had a part in giving him his first big chance.” Instead of his recently invented Tramp character, Chaplin played a villainous rogue. Silent film comedienne Mabel Normand also starred in the movie. Tillie’s Punctured Romance was a hit with audiences and Dressler appeared in two Tillie sequels and other comedies until 1918, when she returned to vaudeville.
In 1919, during the Actors’ Equity strike in New York City, the Chorus Equity Association was formed and voted Dressler its first president. Dressler was blacklisted by the theater production companies due to her strong stance. Dressler found it difficult to find work during the 1920s. She left New York for Hollywood in search of work in films.
In 1927, Frances Marion, an MGM screenwriter, came to Dressler’s rescue. Dressler had shown great kindness to Marion during the filming of Tillie Wakes Up in 1917, and in return, Marion used her influence with MGM’s production chief Irving Thalberg to return Dressler to the screen. Her first MGM feature was The Callahans and the Murphys (1927), a rowdy silent comedy co-starring Dressler (as Ma Callahan) with another former Mack Sennett comedienne, Polly Moran, written by Marion.
The film was initially a success, but the portrayal of Irish characters caused a protest in the Irish World newspaper, protests by the American Irish Vigilance Committee, and pickets outside the film’s New York theatre. The film was first cut by MGM in an attempt to appease the Irish community, then eventually pulled from release after Cardinal Dougherty of the diocese of Philadelphia called MGM president Nicholas Schenck. It was not shown again, and the negative and prints may have been destroyed. While the film brought her to Hollywood, it did not establish Dressler’s career. Her next appearance was a minor part in the First National film Breakfast at Sunrise. She appeared again with Moran in Bringing Up Father, another film written by Marion, and also appeared in an early color film, The Joy Girl. Dressler returned to MGM in 1928’s The Patsy in a winning portrayal, playing the fluttery mother to star Marion Davies and Jane Winton.
Hollywood was converting from silent films, but “talkies” presented no problems for Dressler, whose rumbling voice could handle both sympathetic scenes and snappy comebacks (she’s the wisecracking stage actress in Chasing Rainbows and the dubious matron in Rudy Vallee’s Vagabond Lover). Early in 1930, Dressler joined Edward Everett Horton’s theater troupe in L.A. to play a princess in Ferenc Molnár’s The Swan. But after one week, she quit the troupe. She proceeded to leave Horton flat, much to his indignation.
Frances Marion persuaded Thalberg to give Dressler the role of Marthy, the old harridan who welcomes Greta Garbo home after the search for her father, in the 1930 film Anna Christie. Garbo and the critics were impressed by Dressler’s acting ability, and so was MGM, which quickly signed her to a $500-per-week contract.
A robust, full-bodied woman of very plain features, Dressler went on to act in comic films which were very popular with the movie-going public and an equally lucrative investment for MGM. Although past sixty years of age, she quickly became Hollywood’s number one box-office attraction, and stayed on top until her death at age 65. In addition to her comedic genius and her natural elegance, Dressler demonstrated her considerable talents by taking on serious roles. For her starring portrayal in Min and Bill, with Wallace Beery, she won the 1930–31 Academy Award for Best Actress (the eligibility years were staggered at that time). Dressler was nominated again for Best Actress for her 1932 starring role in Emma. With that film, Dressler demonstrated her profound generosity to other performers. Dressler personally insisted that her studio bosses cast a friend of hers, a largely unknown young actor named Richard Cromwell, in the lead opposite her. This break helped launch his career.
Dressler followed these successes with more hits in 1933, including the comedy Dinner at Eight, in which she played an aging but vivacious former stage actress. Dressler had a memorable bit with Jean Harlow in the film:
Harlow: Do you know that the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Dressler: Oh my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.
Following the release of that film, Dressler appeared on the cover of Time magazine, in its August 7, 1933, issue. MGM held a huge birthday party for Dressler in 1933, broadcast live via radio. Her newly regenerated career came to an abrupt end when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1934. MGM head Louis B. Mayer learned of Dressler’s illness from her doctor and asked that she not be told. To keep her home, he ordered her not to travel on her vacation because he wanted to put her in a new film. Dressler was furious but complied.
Dressler appeared in more than forty films, and achieved her greatest successes in talking pictures made during the last years of her life. Always seeing herself as physically unattractive, she wrote an autobiography titled The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling.
On Saturday July 28, 1934, Dressler died of cancer at the age of 65 in Santa Barbara, California. After a private funeral held at The Wee Kirk o’ the Heather chapel, Dressler was interred in a crypt in the Great Mausoleum in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale in Glendale, California.
Dressler left an estate worth $310,000, the bulk left to her sister Bonita. Dressler left her 1931 automobile and $35,000 in her will to her maid of twenty years, Mamie Cox, and $15,000 to Cox’s husband Jerry, who had served as Dressler’s butler for four years. The two used the funds to open the Cocoanut Grove night club in Savannah, Georgia in 1936, named after the night club in Los Angeles.
Dressler’s birth home in Cobourg, Ontario is known as the “Marie Dressler House” and is open to the public. The home was converted to a restaurant in 1937 and operated as a restaurant until 1989, when it was damaged by fire. It was restored but did not open again as a restaurant. It was the office of the Cobourg Chamber of Commerce until its conversion to its current use as a museum about Dressler and as a visitor information office for Cobourg. Each year, the Marie Dressler Foundation Vintage Film Festival is held, with screenings in Cobourg and in Port Hope, Ontario.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Marie Dressler has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1731 Vine Street, added in 1960.
Canada Post, as part of its “Canada in Hollywood” series, issued a postage stamp on June 30, 2008 to honour Marie Dressler.