Marie Dressler

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Marie Dressler
Marie Dressler - 1930.jpg
Dressler in 1930
Born Leila Marie Koerber
(1868-11-09)November 9, 1868
Cobourg, Ontario, Canada
Died July 28, 1934(1934-07-28) (aged 65)
Santa Barbara, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Cancer
Resting place
Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale
Citizenship Canadian
American[1]
Occupation Actress
Years active 1892–1934
Spouse(s) George Hoeppert (m. 1899–1906)
J. H. Dalton (m. 1908–21)

Marie Dressler (November 9, 1868 – July 28, 1934) was a Canadian–American stage and screen actress and early silent film and Depression-era film star.[2][3] She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930–31 for Min and Bill and played the titular role in the first full-length screen comedy, 1914's Tillie's Punctured Romance, opposite Charles Chaplin and Mabel Normand.

Early life and stage career[edit]

Dressler was born Leila Marie Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, to parents Alexander Rudolph Koerber, who was Austrian and a former officer in the Crimean War, and Anna Henderson, a musician.[4] Her father was a music teacher in Cobourg and the organist at St. Peter's Church, where as a child Marie would sing and assist in operating the organ.[5] Her first acting appearance was as Cupid at age five in a church theatrical performance in Lindsay, Ontario.[4] Dressler left home at fourteen to begin her acting career as a chorus girl with the Nevada Stock Company.[6] Her first job paid her $8 a week.[4] It was at this time that Dressler adopted the name of an aunt as her stage name.[4] Dressler's sister Bonita, five years older, left home at about the same time. Bonita also worked in the opera company.[7]

In 1892 she made her debut on Broadway. At first she hoped to make a career of singing light opera, but then gravitated to vaudeville. In vaudeville, she was known for her full-figured body—fashionable at the time—and had buxom contemporaries such as her friends Lillian Russell, Fay Templeton, May Irwin and Trixie Friganza. Dressler herself was 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m) tall and weighed 200 pounds (91 kg).[8] Dressler appeared in a play called Robber of the Rhine which was written by Maurice Barrymore. Barrymore gave Dressler some positive advice about furthering her career and she later acknowledged his help. Years later she would appear with his sons, Lionel and John, in motion pictures.

During the early 1900s, Dressler became a major vaudeville star, although she had appeared on stage in New York City earlier, for example, in 1492 Up To Date (1895). In 1902, she met fellow Canadian Mack Sennett and helped him get a job in the theater. For a time, Dressler had her own theatre troupe, which performed "Miss Prinnt" in cities of the American north-east.[9] Dressler performed in London, England from 1907 to 1909 before returning to New York. In addition to her stage work, Dressler recorded for Edison Records in 1909 and 1910.

Dressler continued to work in the theater during the 1910s, and toured the United States during World War I, selling Liberty Bonds[4] and entertaining the American Expeditionary Forces. American Doughboys in France named both a street and a cow after Dressler. The cow was killed, leading to "Marie Dressler: Killed in Line of Duty" headlines, about which Dressler quipped "I had a hard time convincing people that the report of my death had been greatly exaggerated."[10]

Film career[edit]

The Scrublady (1917)
Dressler in the magazine Photoplay in 1930

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."[11] The movie was based on Dressler's hit Tillie's Nightmare, a choice credited either to Dressler or to a Keystone studio employee.[12] Dressler herself claims to have cast Charlie Chaplin in the movie as her leading man, and was "proud to have had a part in giving him his first big chance."[11] 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. Dressler would later tour with her own company performing Tillie's Nightmare, the play upon which the movie was based.

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.[4]

In 1927, Frances Marion, a screenwriter for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio, 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.[10] 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.[10]

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.[13] It was not shown again, and the negative and prints may have been destroyed.[13] 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,[14] 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.[15]

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.[16]

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:[17]

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.

Personal life[edit]

Dressler in 1909

Dressler's first marriage was to American George Hoeppert. According to Dressler's testimony, she married Hoeppert in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1899, although biographer Matthew Kennedy puts the marriage date as May 6, 1894, and a divorce early in 1896.[18] Her marriage to Hoeppert gave Dressler American citizenship, which was useful later in life, when American immigration rules meant permits were needed to work in the United States, and Dressler had to appear before an immigration hearing.[1]

In 1907, Dressler met Maine business man James Henry Dalton, who would become her companion until his death in 1921. According to Dalton, the two were married in Europe in 1908.[19] However, Dressler later learned that the "minister" who married them in Monte Carlo was actually a local man paid by Dalton to stage a fake wedding.[20] Dalton's first wife Lizzie claimed that he had not consented to a divorce or been served divorce papers, while Dalton claimed to have divorced her in 1905.[21] By 1921, Dalton had become an invalid due to degenerated kidneys and would watch her from the wings in a wheel-chair.[22] After his death, Dressler was planning for Dalton to be buried as her husband, but Lizzie Dalton had Dalton's body returned to be buried in the Dalton family plot.[22]

Although atypical in size of a Hollywood star, Dressler was reported in 1931 to use the services of 'body sculptor to the stars' Sylvia of Hollywood to keep herself at a steady weight.[23]

Dressler's biographer Betty Lee has written of Dressler's fondness for socializing with gay men and women and has reported composer David Diamond's assertion that during the 1930s Dressler was an active lesbian who befriended other well known lesbian actresses such as Patsy Kelly and Thelma Todd.[24] Both Lee and biographer Matthew Kennedy document Dressler's long standing friendship with actress Claire DuBrey.[25]

Death[edit]

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.[26]

Dressler left an estate worth $310,000, the bulk left to her sister Bonita.[27] 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.[28] 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.[28]

Legacy[edit]

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.[29] Each year, the Marie Dressler Foundation Vintage Film Festival is held, with screenings in Cobourg and in Port Hope, Ontario.[30]

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.[31]

Canada Post, as part of its "Canada in Hollywood" series, issued a postage stamp on June 30, 2008 to honour Marie Dressler.[32]

Filmography[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1909 Marie Dressler Herself Short subject
1910 Actors' Fund Field Day Herself Short subject
1914 Tillie's Punctured Romance Tillie Banks, Country Girl
1915 Tillie's Tomato Surprise Tillie Banks
1917 Fired
Short subject
Writer and director
1917 The Scrub Lady Tillie
1917 Tillie Wakes Up Tillie Tinkelpaw
1918 Red Cross Nurse, TheThe Red Cross Nurse
1918 Agonies of Agnes, TheThe Agonies of Agnes
Producer and writer
1927 Breakfast at Sunrise Queen
1927 Joy Girl, TheThe Joy Girl Mrs. Heath
1927 The Callahans and the Murphys Mrs. Callahan
1928 Patsy, TheThe Patsy Ma Harrington
1928 Bringing Up Father Annie Moore
1929 Voice of Hollywood Herself Uncredited
1929 The Vagabond Lover Mrs. Ethel Bertha Whitehall
1929 Dangerous Females Sarah Bascom
1929 Hollywood Revue of 1929 Herself
1929 Divine Lady, TheThe Divine Lady Mrs. Hart
1930 Voice of Hollywood No. 14, TheThe Voice of Hollywood No. 14 Herself Uncredited
1930 Screen Snapshots Series 9, No. 14 Herself, at Premiere
1930 The March of Time Herself, "Old Timer" sequence Unfinished film, never released
1930 Anna Christie Marthy Owens
1930 Derelict
1930 Let Us Be Gay Mrs. 'Bouccy' Bouccicault
1930 Caught Short Marie Jones
1930 One Romantic Night Princess Beatrice
1930 Girl Said No, TheThe Girl Said No Hettie Brown
1930 Chasing Rainbows Bonnie
1930 Min and Bill Min Divot, Innkeeper Academy Award for Best Actress
1931 Jackie Cooper's Birthday Party Herself
1931 Politics Hattie Burns
1931 Reducing Marie Truffle
1932 Prosperity Maggie Warren
1932 Emma Emma Thatcher Smith Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1933 Going Hollywood Herself, Premiere Clip Uncredited
1933 Dinner at Eight Carlotta Vance
1933 Tugboat Annie Annie Brennan
1933 Christopher Bean Abby Final Film Before Her Death

Quotes[edit]

  • "If ants are such busy workers, how come they find time to go to all the picnics?"[33]
  • "You're only as good as your last picture"[33]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  • Kennedy, Matthew (2006). Marie Dressler: A Biography, With a Listing of Major Stage Performances, a Filmography And a Discography. McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-0520-1. 
  • Lee, Betty (1997). Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star. University of Kentucky Press. ISBN 0-8131-2036-5. 
  • Silverman, Steven M. (1999). Funny Ladies. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3337-3. 
Notes
  1. ^ a b "Actress Saw Two Marriages Fail in 14 years". Calgary Daily Herald. August 11, 1934. p. 5. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  2. ^ Obituary Variety, July 31, 1934, page 54.
  3. ^ Marie Dressler: North American Theatre Online
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Famous Star Is Dead at 62". Montreal Gazette. July 30, 1934. pp. 1, 9. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  5. ^ "Cobourg Mourning Marie Dressler". Montreal Gazette. July 31, 1934. p. 5. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  6. ^ Lee 1997, pp. 11–12.
  7. ^ Lee 1997, p. 13.
  8. ^ Kennedy 2006, p. 2.
  9. ^ ""MISS PRINNT" AT ALBANY.; Marie Dressler Scores a Success in G. V. Hobart's New Play.". New York Times. November 5, 1900. p. 5. 
  10. ^ a b c Silverman 1999, p. 23.
  11. ^ a b Lee 1997, p. 103.
  12. ^ Lee 1997, p. 105.
  13. ^ a b Lee 1997, p. 165.
  14. ^ Lee 1997, p. 166.
  15. ^ Lee 1997, p. 167.
  16. ^ Lee 1997, p. 173.
  17. ^ Silverman 1999, p. 24.
  18. ^ Kennedy 2006, pp. 27–29.
  19. ^ Lee 1997, p. 64.
  20. ^ Lee 1997, p. 65.
  21. ^ Lee 1997, p. 102.
  22. ^ a b Lee 1997, p. 148.
  23. ^ Coons, R. (September 2, 1931). "Marathons Common To Movies". The Olean Herald. 
  24. ^ Lee 1997, pp. 186-187.
  25. ^ Kennedy 2006, pp. 143-144.
  26. ^ "Marie Dressler Loses Long Battle For Life". The Portsmouth Times. July 29, 1934. p. 1. Retrieved February 6, 2013. 
  27. ^ "Marie Dressler's Will Is Probated". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Associated Press. August 15, 1934. p. 3. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  28. ^ a b "Marie Dressler's Old Servants Open Night Club for Negros With Money Actress Left Them". The Evening Independent. Associated Press. April 10, 1936. p. 5A. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  29. ^ "Marie Dressler House". Vintage Film Festival. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  30. ^ "About the Marie Dressler Foundation". Marie Dressler Foundation. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  31. ^ "Marie Dressler: Hollywood Walk of Fame". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  32. ^ "Westmount schoolgirl went on to win an Oscar". canada.com. April 7, 2008. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  33. ^ a b "Biography for Marie Dressler". IMDB. Retrieved September 15, 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Sturtevant, Victoria (2009). A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-07622-0. 

External links[edit]