Oscar Actors: Dressler, Marie (Min and Bill, Emma)

I doubt if Marie Dressler, one of Hollywood’s most popular stars in the early 1930s, could have achieved the same record in today’s industry, let alone win the Best Actress Oscar for Min and Bill (in 1931).

Born in 1868, the young Dressler began her acting career when she was 14. In 1892, she made her debut on Broadway. At first she hoped to make a career of singing opera, but then gravitated to vaudeville, where she became known for her full-figured body.

She appeared in Robber of the Rhine, which was written by Maurice Barrymore, who gave Dressler some advice about her career, which she later acknowledged. Years later, she would appear with his sons, Lionel and John, in pictures.

During the early 1900s, she became a major vaudeville star, although she had appeared on stage in New York, in 1492 Up To Date. In 1902, she met fellow Canadian Mack Sennett and helped him get a job in the theater. In addition to her stage work, Dressler recorded for Edison Records in 1909 and 1910.
Dressler’s first role in a film was in 1910, when she was 42. After Sennett became the owner of his namesake motion picture studio, he convinced Dressler to star in his highly successful 1914 silent film Tillie’s Punctured Romance, opposite Sennett’s newly discovered actor, Charlie Chaplin. Dressler appeared in two more “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.

In 1927, Dressler was blacklisted by the theater production companies due to her strong stance in a labor dispute. Frances Marion, an MGM screenwriter, came to the rescue. Dressler had shown great kindness to Marion during the filming of Tillie Wakes Up in 1917. 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. Dressler and Moran appeared together frequently from then on, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies during the early 1930s.

In 1929, Marie Dressler was out of work, so she joined Edward Everett Horton’s theater troupe in L.A. Soon after, Dressler once again was in demand due to the arrival of talkies and the need for stage-trained performers. Talkies were good for Dressler, whose rumbling voice could handle both sympathetic scenes and snappy lines. She played the wisecracking stage actress in Chasing Rainbows and the dubious matron in Rudy Vallee’s Vagabond Lover.

Frances Marion persuaded Thalberg to give Dressler the role of Marthy, the old harridan who welcomes 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 Dressler to a $500 per week contract.

A robust, full-bodied woman of plain features, Dressler went on to act in sappy comedies which were very popular with movie-goers. Although past 60, she 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 naturalistic delivery, Dressler demonstrated her talents in serious roles. For her starring portrayal in Min and Bill, co-starring Wallace Beery, she won the 1931 Best Actress Oscar. Dressler was nominated again for Best Actress for her 1932 starring role in Emma.
She demonstrated her generosity to friends by urging her studio bosses cast an unknown young actor, Richard Cromwell, in the lead opposite her, a break that helped launch his career.
Dressler followed these successes with more hits in 1933, including the comedy Dinner at Eight, directed by George Cukor, in which she played an aging but vivacious former stage actress. After the release of that film, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine, in its August 7, 1933, issue.
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 appeared in more than 40 films, achieving 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.

Dressler died at age 65 on July 28, 1934 in Santa Barbara, California.

Each year, the Marie Dressler Foundation Vintage Film Festival is held in her hometown of Cobourg, Ontario. Canada Post, as part of its “Canada in Hollywood” series, issued a postage stamp on June 30, 2008 to honor Marie Dressler