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In the 1920s and 30s, MGM was known for great romantic teams such as Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, and William Powell and Myrna Loy. But the studio's most unlikely romantic duo - and one of the most popular -- was a pair of aging, overweight comics, Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery. Their first teaming, in Min and Bill (1930), was not only hugely popular, it also won the 60-something Dressler an Oscar® as Best Actress.
A raffish tale of a crusty dame who runs a waterfront hotel and the old sea salt who is her best pal, Min and Bill was written by top scenarist Frances Marion, based on a novel by Lorna Moon. Marion, one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood, had written most of Mary Pickford's best films, and had been responsible for resurrecting Dressler's career a few years earlier.
Dressler had been in show business since the age of 14, and a vaudeville headliner since the 1890s. She made her film debut with Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), the first feature-length film comedy. But her career suffered when she supported chorus girls who went on strike in 1917. Even though the strike resulted in the formation of Actors' Equity, theatrical producers blacklisted Dressler. By the mid- 1920s, when she was in her late 50s, her film career also seemed to be over, and there were rumors that she was looking for work as a housekeeper. This wasn't the first time Frances Marion came to the rescue. Years earlier, Marion, then a San Francisco newspaper reporter, had interviewed Dressler and had been impressed by her warmth and charisma. Marion had written one film for Dressler, Tillie Wakes Up (1917). When she heard that Dressler was broke and forgotten, Marion, now a screenwriter at MGM, wrote a script called The Callahans and the Murphys (1927) and told MGM production head Irving Thalberg that it would be perfect for Dressler and contract comedienne Polly Moran. The two became a popular comedy team, and Dressler, now under contract at MGM, also appeared in other films in supporting roles.
Her stage training made Dressler even more valuable with the advent of talkies, and Marion again championed her, urging Thalberg to cast her in a dramatic role as Marthy opposite Greta Garbo in Anna Christie (1930). The role, finally, made Dressler a movie star, and Marion knew exactly what to do next for her friend: the starring role in Min and Bill. In accepting her Oscar® for Min and Bill, Dressler paid tribute to Marion, saying "You can be the best actress in the world and have the best producer, director, and cameraman, but it won't matter a bit if you don't have the story." From 1930 until her death in 1934, Dressler was number one at the box office, and one of MGM's best-paid stars, earning $5,000 a week.
Like Dressler, Wallace Beery had a background in theater. As a teenager, he ran away from home to join the circus, where worked as an elephant trainer for two years. Then he went to New York and worked as a chorus boy in musicals, and in touring shows, without much success. Stranded in Chicago, he found work at Essanay Pictures, eventually playing a Swedish housemaid, in drag, in the "Sweedie" series of shorts. After moving to Hollywood, Beery freelanced at several studios, mostly playing villains in films such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). With the advent of talking films, Beery signed with MGM, where he earned an Academy Award nomination in his first film at the studio, the prison drama The Big House (1930). Frances Marion would win an Oscar® for writing The Big House, becoming the first woman to earn an Academy Award for screenwriting. The following year, Beery would win his own Oscar® for The Champ (1931) - also written by Frances Marion.
Although Beery was cantankerously loveable onscreen, he was reputedly obnoxious off screen. Gloria Swanson, who married him when she was still a teenager, claimed he was a drunk and a wife beater. At least two young co-stars later recalled his surliness. Jackie Cooper says as soon as the director called "cut" on their tender father and son scenes in The Champ, Beery would push him away brusquely. Margaret O'Brien says Beery used to steal her lunch when they made Bad Bascomb (1946) together. According to film historians James Robert Parish and Ronald L. Bowers, "he upstaged all his co-workers and his manners were at best gauche.... Louis B. Mayer disapproved so much of his working habits that he paid him $150,000 a year to work only 12 weeks a year." The public, however, loved Beery, and the studio carefully protected his image as a likeable lout. Beery and Dressler would be teamed in only one more film, Tugboat Annie (1933) before Dressler's death, although they were both in the all-star Dinner at Eight (1933). Beery never again found such a compatible screen partner, although he was frequently paired with Marjorie Main in the 1940s. Beery died of a heart attack in 1949.
Director: George Hill
Producer: George Hill
Screenplay: Frances Marion, Marion Jackson, based on the novel Dark Star by Lorna Moon
Cinematography: Harold Wenstrom
Editor: Basil Wrangell
Costume Design: Rene Hubert
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Principal Cast: Marie Dressler (Min Divot), Wallace Beery (Bill), Dorothy Jordan (Nancy Smith), Marjorie Rambeau (Bella Pringle), Donald Dillaway (Dick Cameron), DeWitt Jennings (Groot), Russell Hopton (Alec Johnson), Frank McGlynn (Mr. Southard), Greta Gould (Mrs. Southard).
by Margarita Landazuri