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teaser Prosperity (1932)

Marie Dressler teamed for the last time with frequent co-star Polly Moran for Prosperity, a rambling 1932 comedy about dueling mothers-in-law caught up in the banking crisis of the great Depression. Amazingly for the ultra-conservative MGM, the film ended up being ahead of its time politically, beating Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal to the punch by mere months.

Dressler and Moran carved a niche for themselves as broad comediennes whose full figures and lived-in faces were perfectly suited for slapstick antics and over-the-top reactions. Both had developed their timing through years of stage work and separate periods as stars for film pioneer Mack Sennett. They initially teamed for Dressler's first MGM picture, The Callahans and the Murphys (1927), but their on-screen partnership didn't really take off until the sound era, when low-budget comedies such as Dangerous Females (1929), Reducing and Politics (both 1931), became big profit-makers for the studio.

Prosperity was the ninth film for the comic team (three time as many films as Dressler made with Wallace Beery, the co-star most often associated with her), but by 1932, Dressler's status at MGM had changed dramatically. With the surprise success of Min and Bill (1930), which brought her an Oscar® for Best Actress, Dressler had become the screen's top box-office star, a position she held until 1933. As a result, Prosperity was developed as a star vehicle for her. Although she and Moran shared several comic scenes to point up their characters' rivalry, Dressler also had more dramatic scenes as she tried to cope with the rigors of Depression life and her son's failure as president of the family bank.

The film received a great deal of attention from the MGM brass. It went into production in March 1932 with Leo McCarey directing from a script by Willard Mack and Zelda Sears, both of whom had worked on earlier Dressler and Moran films. Although McCarey was already a respected comedy director, having created the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy during his days with producer Hal Roach, production head Irving G. Thalberg wasn't happy with his work on Prosperity. The production head demanded retakes and brought in more writers, Frank Butler, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and his sister Sylvia. When that still didn't work for him, he scrapped the entire film and started over, this time with Sam Wood directing.

Perhaps the delays in production account for Prosperity's strange political content. The re-tooled comedy was filmed in October 1932 as the nation was preparing for a major political upheaval that would put Roosevelt into the White House. When the failure of the family bank forces Dressler to take a job as a sales clerk, she initiates a barter system so Depression-strapped families can still buy necessary goods. To save her bank, she gets a building project back on line by putting the unemployed to work, months before Roosevelt's WPA did exactly the same thing. When the film went into release shortly after the election, MGM even capitalized on the political atmosphere with the tagline "Give America Prosperity Mr. Roosevelt. Hooray for the new president!"

Prosperity marked the end of the line for another MGM star, Anita Page, cast as Dressler's daughter-in-law. Page had risen quickly at MGM after teaming with Joan Crawford for a trio of timely romantic comedies, Our Dancing Daughters (1928), Our Modern Maidens (1929) and Our Blushing Brides (1930). She also had starred in the first MGM musical, The Broadway Melody (1929). By 1930, she was the studio's second most popular leading lady, receiving more fan mail than anybody except Greta Garbo. Then her career fell apart. In later years, she would claim Thalberg and studio head Louis B. Mayer had sabotaged her career after she refused to have affairs with them. She moved into secondary roles, including one as Dressler's daughter in Reducing. After Prosperity, she finished the first stage of her career with poverty row features, then retired to Coronado, California. In 1996, at the age of 86, she went back to work with supporting roles in low-budget films. She also appeared at a Motion Picture Academy screening of The Broadway Melody and received a standing ovation.

With Dressler in the starring role, Prosperity couldn't fail at the box office. For the film's premiere run in New York, the Capitol opened its box office at 9:30 a.m. to accommodate her many fans. The move was wise, as screenings sold out quickly. Dressler's box-office reign would continue for only three more pictures. Before production started on her next film, Tugboat Annie (1933), she learned that she had cancer, which claimed her life later that year. Without her most potent co-star, Moran fell into secondary roles, coming back for an acclaimed bit in Adam's Rib (1949) a few years before her death in 1952.

Producer-Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay: Zelda Sears, Eve Greene
Based on a story by Sylvia Thalberg, Frank Butler
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Score: William Axt
Cast: Marie Dressler (Maggie Warren), Polly Moran (Lizzie Praskins), Anita Page (Helen Praskins), Norman Foster (John Warren), John Miljan (Holland), Henry Armetta (Henry, a Barber), Edward Brophy (Ice Cream Salesman), Billy Gilbert (Driver).

by Frank Miller

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