Marie Dressler Profile
* Films in Bold Type air on 8/4
Star Sign: Scorpio
Star Qualities: Complete naturalness, exquisite comic timing, Earth Mother humanity.
Star Definition: "As time went on she acquired a kind of peculiar distinction, a magnificence. She was a law unto herself." George Cukor
Galaxy of Characters: Marthy Owens in Anna Christie (1930), Min Divot in Min and Bill (1930), Carlotta Vance in Dinner at Eight (1933), Annie Brennan in Tugboat Annie (1933).
When she died in 1934, Marie Dressler had been the biggest moneymaker in Hollywood for three straight years. Her films brought in more at the box office than Clark Gable or Jean Harlow or Greta Garbo, and yet today her name is all but forgotten by the general public. Her success was not based on sex appeal or musical talent. By her own admission, she had "a face like a mud fence". She was heavy, homely and over sixty, but what Marie Dressler gave audiences in the throes of the Great Depression was hope.
According to her birth certificate, she was born Leila Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada on November 9th 1868 (although her birth year would be given at different times as 1869 and her gravestone reads 1871). She would later change her name to Marie Dressler. Her father, Alexander Rudolph Koerber was listed as "a professor of music" on her birth certificate. As Dressler would later tell it, he had been born in Austria, joined the German cavalry during the Crimean War, but then deserted to the British Army. Unable to return to his home country, he went to Canada where he married Anna Henderson. Little is known about her early life and schooling probably because the family moved around frequently. "I was always going somewhere. When I was a child, it was with the family, moving all over Canada and the State of Michigan - from Cobourg to Toronto, to Lindsay, to Saginaw to Bay City".
Dressler remembered her first foray into acting: playing Cupid in a play as a five year old. Because her mother had warned her not to get off the stool she was standing on, she remained standing while the curtain came down and knocked her off to laughter and applause from an audience. She later claimed, " this, I might add, marked the beginning of my long career as a past mistress of the gentle art of falling...I soon learned to be just as happy when folks said, "Isn't she funny!' as if they had ah-ed and oh-ed and exclaimed, 'Isn't she beautiful?'"
Her love of the theater - which included making up her own plays with her friends - made becoming an actress an easy decision for her. No one who knew her as a child thought she would be a success. A 1905 newspaper article quoted a neighbor as saying "She was about the dowdiest looking creature that ever walked our streets, so she was generally commented upon. She never seemed to mind how her clothes looked, but she had a genial whole-hearted way that made you forget her appearance when you knew her." Constant fights with her father gave Dressler the impetus to get out of the house (biographer Betty Lee raises the possibility of physical or sexual abuse at home). She boldly wrote a letter to Robert Wallace, who ran a theatrical stock company, claiming to be eighteen and having extensive theatrical experience (which was untrue apart from amateur theatricals). To her astonishment, Wallace hired her, so Dressler and her older sister Bonita left home, which was something unthinkable for middle-class women of the 1880s.
Fourteen years old, 5'7" with red hair and green eyes she was assigned the role of an exotic dancer in an Algerian cabaret for her premiere with the company. Small wonder she suffered from stage fright, which continued for the rest of her life. She described it as "so dreadful, so devastating that it often leaves me limp and nauseated. To this day, I can't walk on a set for a two-minute shot that my palms aren't cold and wet and my back crawling with terror. But once actually on the stage, I become a different person. I burn with a strange zest which the audience gives me, and which I want to give back to them, full measure and heaping over." Later in her life, she would write, "The type of theatrical company which would engage a fourteen year old girl for a leading lady seems to have vanished from the face of the earth. In those days, there were hundreds of companies composed of broken old professionals who had come down the ladder and eager amateurs on the way up. Nevada's collection ran the scale from has-beens to would-bes."
Dressler went from stock company to stock company yearning to be an opera star, although she was enough of a professional to accept that her voice, while good enough to carry a tune in operettas, was not suited to grand opera. Between jobs she would return to her parents' home (now in Saginaw, Michigan) but she was unable to stay long because of what she called her father's "tyranny". One home visit proved to be the catalyst for her big break. One morning while singing in church, she was discovered by George Baker a theatrical manager who would often use churches to scout for talent. He heard Marie and hired her for The Bennett and Moulton Opera Company. She later marveled "If I hadn't gone [to church that day] I probably would have missed a job that was to prove one of the most important of my life."
The actress stayed with the light opera company for nearly three years. This was to be the best education she could have. She learned everything about stagecraft, from costume and scenery design to acting a variety of roles she never would have been given the chance to try elsewhere. She also began to make a name for herself and in 1892, decided to take a chance on Broadway. Her debut, which occurred May 28, 1892, was in a comic role in Waldemar, the Robber of the Rhine, written by Maurice Barrymore (father of John, Ethel and Lionel). When she confessed her desire to be a serious actress or an opera star, Barrymore told her, "You were born to make people laugh, Marie. Don't try to fly in the face of fate!" Soon she found herself sharing the stage with the reigning beauty of the day, Lillian Russell in the play Princess Nicotine, which opened November 24, 1893. Despite the difference in their star status, the two became friends, even riding bicycles around New York to try to keep their weight down. The play lasted three months and later toured the United States. Dressler had made her mark. By 1895 she had become a genuine star in The Lady Slavey which showcased her comedic talents and ran for two years. She had a success in London but then two failures which she had financed out of her own pocket. It took her two years of working in vaudeville to finally get out of debt. Financial and career ups and downs would become a pattern over the next thirty years.
Details about her personal life were always shrouded in mystery, but it is known that she had a brief marriage and later newspaper articles claim she gave birth to a daughter who died in infancy. In 1934 while under attack for supposedly never becoming an American citizen, she revealed in an interview with the Associated Press, "Thirty-five years ago I married an American. His name was George Hoeppert and we were married at Elizabeth, New Jersey. These are matters of record. My marriage made me an American citizen and I've been one ever since." Admitting later that she married "for thrills" and that it didn't last, Dressler did find a measure of happiness with her manager James Dalton. Dalton's wife refused to divorce him but he and Dressler remained together until his death despite Dalton's many years of ill-health.
Dressler was back on top on Broadway in 1910 with Tillie's Nightmare (in which she played piano and sang "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl") which led to her first film role Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), co-starring Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand; it was produced by Mack Sennett who Dressler had helped get a job when he was a young actor in Canada.
Dressler remained a star on Broadway for another decade but by the time the First World War was over, so was her stage career. She had angered Broadway management in 1919 when she served as President of the Chorus division of Actor's Equity and was in effect blacklisted. For several years she was unable to get stage or film roles. Eventually she was forced to sell off her property and moved into a cheap room at the Ritz Hotel in New York where she served as hostess at the Ritz Supper Club.
By 1927 things were so bad that Dressler was considering moving to Paris and opening a hotel for Americans. As Time Magazine later reported, "her closest friend, a Manhattan astrologer named Nella Webb, persuaded her to wait, predicted that she would enjoy "seven fat years" beginning Jan. 17, 1927. On Jan. 17, director Allan Dwan telephoned Marie Dressler, offered her a role in a picture he was about to make in Florida. Reluctantly - because she suspected that the producers who remembered her would think she was superannuated - Marie Dressler took the job."
Dressler was put under contract to MGM, whose head of production, fellow Canadian Louis B. Mayer, had long been an admirer. Her first film turned out to be a disaster. At first The Callahans and the Murphys (1927) was a hit until it played to mostly Irish audiences who took offense and rioted in the theaters. The film was quickly pulled and no copies are known to exist. She had better luck in her subsequent films teamed with Polly Moran, Dangerous Females (1929) and Reducing (1931). The turning point for Marie Dressler was the English language version of Anna Christie (1930) starring Greta Garbo. Director Clarence Brown gave her the role because he remembered that Lon Chaney once told him she was the greatest character actress in America. Dressler's performance as drunken bag lady Marthy Owens created a sensation. When the role made her a star all over again, she said "They make you a star and then you starve. All I want is a small part to come in and upset the plot." MGM preferred to make her a leading lady and quickly put her into similar roles where she played a poor but feisty woman. Min and Bill (1930) opposite Wallace Beery earned her an Academy Award as Best Actress.
For three years Dressler was listed as the number one box office attraction by film exhibitors despite her age and her looks. The answer lay in her personality. In an article with Photoplay she said that personality was more important than looks. When she attended parties she would be surrounded by people while more attractive women stood on the sidelines because she took the time to be interesting and to be interested in other people. Mayer called her "the most adored person ever to set foot in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio", and Dressler was the confidante of many in Hollywood, including Jean Harlow. That warmth came through in her films.
The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression and audiences identified with the roles she played. Time wrote in its August 7, 1933 issue (which featured Dressler as the first woman to grace its front cover), "Cinemas in which Marie Dressler plays the lead have one quality in common - the heroine is a raffish, vigorous old woman whose generous heart thumps under sleazy clothes that do not fit her." The self-sacrificing nanny in Emma (1932), a former bank president who sells her possessions to help her depositors when her son ruins the bank in Prosperity (1932) and a loving mother (paired again with Wallace Beery) in Tugboat Annie (1933) were part of that assessment. Of the latter, she told a writer, "I love any role which shows that if you aren't afraid of life, life can't hurt you. That's what Tugboat Annie does. She licks fate because she can look it in the eye and not be afraid. I always love a role in which I can get that idea over to audiences because I think that's the kind of stimulant that we need in American life right now." Time's article noted that after having an "operation for a tumor last winter , Marie Dressler works less than she used to do-from ten to three every day. She likes to dine in bed, seldom shows herself at Hollywood festivities, gives few interviews, spends her weekends with socialite friends at Santa Barbara."
The role for which modern audiences know her is undoubtedly Dinner at Eight (1933). In it she plays Carlotta Vance, a former stage star now on hard times, who gives advice to a young woman in a tragic romance, and tosses off one-liners with Jean Harlow. This and her final film, The Late Christopher Bean (1933), brought Marie Dressler full circle because in both she worked with Lionel Barrymore, whose father Maurice had written the first Broadway play she appeared in as well as advised her to focus on comedy. By the time she completed the film her cancer had returned. Louis B. Mayer who adored Dressler second only to his own mother, learned from her doctor that the diagnosis was terminal and asked that she not be told. He kept up the pretense that all was well by ordering her to stay in California because he was preparing new roles, even though he knew they would never be filmed. Updates from studio employees on upcoming projects continued through the summer but Dressler's health took a turn for the worse and she died in Santa Barbara, California on July 28 1934. Her astrologer friend's prediction in 1927 of "seven fat years" had proved correct.
Nearly 75 years after her death, Marie Dressler is still being honored by her native Canada. Her birthplace in Cobourg, Ontario, has designated her home as a museum and on June 30, 2008 the Canada Post Corporation issued a stamp in her honor as part of the Canada in Hollywood series.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star by Betty Lee
The Internet Movie Database
Tugboat Annie, Time Magazine August 7, 1933