Yesterday marked actress Marie Dressler's birthday. She was born on November 9, 1868 in Ontario, Canada, and died of cancer at the age of 65 in July 1934. During her lifetime, she moved from vaudeville to the legitimate stage to the movies, working with some of the most illustrious actors of the day. Her later film work features some of the most layered and moving performances on film - even more extraordinary when considering the age's taste for flamboyance and stagey overacting.
Dressler got her start on the stage in 1892 at the age of 14, in the operetta, Robber of the Rhine, written by and starring Maurice Barrymore, father of Lionel, John, and Ethel. Marie was a big girl, not very pretty, but with a brilliant talent for comedy. So instead of the light-opera ingenue roles she originally sought, she soon gained success in the broader, more slapstick world of vaudeville. She also recorded comic songs on wax cylinders with the Edison Company, some of which survive (click here for "The Working Girl Song"). In 1914, director Mack Sennett, an old friend from Canada, invited her to Los Angeles to film a comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance, starring Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. The movie was a hit, but Dressler had trouble finding roles, and soon she was back on stage in New York.
The acting jobs there dried up after Dressler took a strong and vocal pro-labor stance during a dispute between theater workers and management, and she was blacklisted. Hollywood stepped in again when another friend, the writer and director Frances Marion, convinced Irving Thalberg at MGM to give her a contract. Marie, approaching sixty, quickly became one of MGM's most popular stars, both with audiences and her fellow performers. Louis B. Mayer referred to her as "the most adored person ever to set foot in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio." In fact, she was Hollywood's number-one box office draw.
Dressler, having been trained for the stage and having a resonant, expressive voice that could move smoothly from coo to roar, had no trouble making the switch from silents to talkies. She also proved able, like many comic actors, to handle dramatic parts with finesse, depth, and sensitivity. Her first talkie was Anna Christie, opposite Greta Garbo. She played the gin-sodden wharf rat Marthy in an understated and moving performance that almost eclipsed Garbo's melodramatic Anna.
In 1930, she starred opposite Wallace Beery in Min and Bill. Dressler plays Min Divot, an innkeeper and a woman who has seen better days, who sacrifices all for her adopted daughter, Nancy. In this scene, Min tries to keep Bella, Nancy's biological mother and an opportunistic tramp (played by Marjorie Rambeau), from taking Nancy away and ruining her life.
For this performance, Marie Dressler won the 1930 Best Actress Oscar.
But my favorite Dressler performance comes in one of my all-time favorite movies, 1933's Dinner at Eight. Directed by George Cukor and with a stellar script by Dressler's old friend Frances Marion, it features uniformly excellent performances by a star-studded ensemble cast: Lionel Barrymore, Billie Burke, John Barrymore (one of the most unforgettable scenes in cinema is John's Larry Renault, a washed-up, middle-aged, bankrupt actor, carefully lighting and staging his own suicide scene), Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, and Dressler as the aging demimondaine, Carlotta Vance. Dressler imbues Carlotta with humor, depth of feeling, and great humanity; there is a poignant undercurrent in her performance that never slides into pathos. It is also a tour-de-force of comic timing. In fact, the movie ends with one of the most famous and best-executed double-takes in movie history:
Happy Birthday, Marie! You were one classy dame!