Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Famous Women of Size: Marie Dressler

"Fate cast me to play the role of an ugly duckling with no promise of swanning. I have played my life as a comedy rather than the tragedy many would have made of it."
---Marie Dressler

Have you heard of Marie Dressler? She was a famous actress on both stage and screen in the early part of the 20th century. At one point, she was more famous and popular than many of the Hollywood stars we hear about today.

She was the top draw at the box office for most of the early 1930s, and the highest-paid star in Hollywood for several years. She was so famous and so popular that she was the cover of Time Magazine in its August 7, 1933 issue.

She was nominated as Best Actress for two years, and won it in 1931, despite being an older woman (in her 60s) in Hollywood, which, as today, worshipped mostly the young and beautiful.

Oh yes, and she was a woman of size.

I had to know more. How come there was this famous fat movie star and I'd never heard of her?

How I Came To Know Her

Several years ago, I was doing a research project, and looking at silent movies was part of that research. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them, really.

(To my surprise, I particularly enjoyed Buster Keaton. If you ever get a chance to watch some of his early silent movie work, you should definitely take advantage of it!)

At one point I was watching some of the old, early Charlie Chaplin movies, and there he was, dancing with a big, tall, fat lady in a comedy routine.

The movie was titled, "Tillie's Punctured Romance," and it was made in 1914. Chaplin was not a big star yet; it was his first really big film.

I was entranced. So I made it a point to research her more.

Her Life

Marie Dressler was born as Leila Marie Koerber in 1868 or 1869 (sources differ) in Ontario, Canada. Her family moved frequently, so she learned to make people laugh early. She started her stage career at 14 by running away to be in traveling acting companies, and changed her name to Marie Dressler because her family didn't approve of her stage ambitions.

She eventually made a career in light opera and on Broadway, but always felt the pull of the vaudeville stage, where she was known for her "full-figured body." Her sense of humor and natural comic timing helped create a career for her there and strongly influenced her broad acting style.

She became a film star only in middle age, appearing in her first film at the age of 42. Her first really big film was the afore-mentioned "Tillie's Punctured Romance" in 1914 at age 46 with Charlie Chaplin. It was based on a stage play she had starred in called "Tillie's Nightmare."

After "Tillie's Punctured Romance," Dressler made two more "Tillie" movies: "Tillie's Tomato Surprise" (1915) and "Tillie Wakes Up" (1917). However, bad business decisions killed her film career.

She left movies and went back to Vaudeville in 1918, but soon got into trouble:

In 1919, during the Actors' Equity strike in New York City, the Chorus Equity Association was formed and voted Dressler its first president. In 1927, Dressler was secretly blacklisted by the theater production companies due to her strong stance in a labor dispute.
Out of work and broke, she fell upon hard times for quite a while in the 20s until her career was revived near the end of the decade with the help of friends. From 1927 to 1930, she played a series of smart-alecky older-woman supporting roles, which slowly gained her notice in Hollywood.

Her Stardom

By the 1930s, she had become a major star and had moved into mature (and sometimes serious) leading lady roles, quite an accomplishment for a woman in her 60s who was known for her homely face and "robust" body.

In 1931, she won a Best Actress Oscar for "Min and Bill." In 1932 she was nominated again for her leading role in "Emma."

In 1933, she appeared in "Dinner at Eight" as "an aging but vivacious former stage actress" opposite Jean Harlow. Her scene with Harlow at the end is considered a classic.

Indeed, it is her over-the-top acting skills that really make Dressler stand out. By today's more naturalistic standards, she overacts a bit......but remember that she was working from the more stylized standards of the day.

Matthew Kennedy, author of a biography of Marie Dressler, says this about her acting:

She played to the camera as if it were the back row of a vaudeville theater, mugging and overreacting shamelessly. But because she was so good at it, and so experienced, it became who she was as an actress. It’s Marie and her character becoming one. And behind all that mugging is someone so warm, so funny, and so human, that she makes a beeline straight to your heart. Call it overacting, but it’s hard to deny her entertainment value, even today. Once you see Marie Dressler on the screen, you don’t forget her!
Her many years in Vaudeville had honed her vocal skills and her facial reactions until she was a master of comic timing and delivery, especially in the imperious grand dame roles.

However, she also proved that she could be memorable in humble working-woman, down-on-her-luck serious roles. It was for these roles that she was nominated for Best Actress.

This picture is from "Min and Bill," the movie for which she won Best Actress. Hardly a glamorous Hollywood role, but Dressler made it her own.

She showed that she had a wider range of acting range than most people expected her to have, and was able to use her looks to her advantage against all expectations.


Alas, at the height of her career, Dressler was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Even though she was in great pain at times, she insisted on continuing to work and made both "Tugboat Annie" and "Dinner at Eight" while seriously ill. She died shortly afterwards:

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.

[She died] on Saturday 28 July 1934 in Santa Barbara, California and is interred in a crypt in the Great Mausoleum in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Marie Dressler has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1731 Vine Street.
Dressler died at the height of her career, and was one of the most beloved and popular movie stars of the early Depression.

Kindness to Others

One thing Dressler was known for was her kindness to fellow actors. Two of these actors later paid her back by giving her the jobs that launched and/or revived her career.

For example, during her stage career, she helped get fellow Canadian Mack Sennett (of Keystone Cops fame) a job in the theater. When he became a director, he asked her to be in the "Tillie" movies, thereby igniting her film career. They later had a falling out, but his support in the early years was crucial in establishing a wider audience for her.

Another influential friend was Frances Marion, one of the most influential and famous women screenwriters in Hollywood. Marion helped revive Dressler's career after Dressler was blacklisted because of her pro-labor activities. According to Wikipedia:

Dressler had shown great kindness to Marion during the filming of Tillie Wakes Up in 1917, and in return, Marion used her influence with Thalberg to get Dressler a number of supporting roles, including the queen in Breakfast at Sunrise and a snappy maid in Chasing Rainbows. She was then established as a funny supporting woman.

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. Both Garbo and the critics were impressed by Dressler's acting ability, and so was MGM, who quickly signed Dressler to a $500-per-week contract.
Marion also was a writer on many of Dressler's biggest films, including "Min and Bill," "Emma," and "Dinner at Eight." They remained close for years.

Even after she became a big star, Dressler continued to be generous to other actors. She helped cement the career of Richard Cromwell by insisting that he be cast in the lead opposite her (on loan from another studio) in 1932's film, "Emma," for which she was nominated as Best Actress.

MGM Studio boss Louis B. Mayer called Dressler "the most adored person ever to set foot in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio."

Musings On Dressler's Popularity

Some authors contend that it was the Depression that helped make a woman of Dressler's "looks" so popular.

According to that theory, her ordinary appearance, plain face, humility and grace.....combined with her sense of humor and self-effacing nature.....made her seem like just another one of the folks, like all the other people struggling to make a living in that time.

Her face and body looked well-lived in, like she had seen a lot of troubles in life, yet had triumphed over them with grace and humor and sheer grit. It made her audience readily able to relate to and identify with her and want to see her succeed.

In his biography, Matthew Kennedy discusses her appeal:

An overweight, jowly, elder actress came to represent the optimism necessary to endure the Depression. One man I interviewed who remembered her said that people flocked to see her movies because she gave them hope. One look at her and you could believe that she was a symbol of love, courage, and survival, which was exactly what the times needed. Her stardom is one of the great anomalies in Hollywood history, a kind of adoration that isn’t supposed to happen to an older, homely woman.
She was a woman of size who carried herself with dignity and pride, but who wasn't afraid to make fun of herself either. She was a woman of considerable talent who refused to let others' biases about her looks keep her down, and in the end, turned her greatest liability into her greatest asset.

She died at age 65, a pretty good lifespan for people in that era, but sadly too early. Imagine the work she could have done in Hollywood with a little more time. What a loss to us all!

Marie Dressler Quotes and Pictures

There are quite a few Marie Dressler pictures out there. These two are among my favorites because they show her sense of humor and silliness.

There are several movie clips of her on YouTube, including this one called "For I'm the Queen," which highlights her Vaudeville comic skills. It has a fat joke in it at the end so I won't reproduce it here, but it's still worth watching for her sheer presence and varied facial expressions.

She also seemed to be a thoughtful person, full of wisdom from a life of some very hard knocks. As I pass into perimenopause, I enjoy her musings on being middle-aged, a time when women are particularly devalued in our society:

“By the time we hit fifty, we have learned our hardest lessons. We have found out that only a few things are really important. We have learned to take life seriously, but never ourselves.
And of course, she had a lot of wisdom to offer for those of us born with less-than-traditional good looks, whatever those challenges may be.
“I contend that every woman has the right to feel beautiful, no indifferent her features.”
Amen to that.

And of course, my favorite quote of hers, which I used at the top of the post but which bears repeating:

"Fate cast me to play the role of an ugly duckling with no promise of swanning. I have played my life as a comedy rather than the tragedy many would have made of it."

Other Marie Dressler links:


wriggles said...

Yes I'd heard of MD, I especially remember her from that end scene of dinner for eight.

And yes she was as camp as a row of tents.

I had an affection for JH as well, although a lot didn't rate her as an actress.

It's funny speaking about 'ungly ducklings' have you seen this ?

Alison Blake said...

I wonder if you remember MADGE BLAKE, another "famous woman of size" and character actress from the 50s-60s. She was 70 when she passed away in 1969, after a highly visible acting career which began when she was 50. She was discovered by Fanny Brice while acting at the Glendale Center Theater playing "Mama" in "I Remember Mama". She played Spencer Tracy's mother in "Adam's Rib"and so many other roles, too many to note here (google!). Her last role was playing "Aunt Harriet" on Batman. Perhaps you can add a little bio on her, too?