Based on the Saturday Evening Post stories about a female tugboat captain and her alcoholic but loveable husband, Tugboat Annie was more than a little reminiscent of Min and Bill, with its working class denizens of the waterfront. The plot has the couple's son (Robert Young) ashamed of his drunken father, and Annie trying to make a living and keep the family together.
A vaudeville headliner and movie star in the 'teens, Dressler's career was pretty much over a decade later, when her old friend, M-G-M screenwriter Frances Marion persuaded the studio's production head Irving Thalberg to cast Dressler in The Callahans and the Murphys (1927) with Polly Moran. The film was not a success, but Dressler plugged away in supporting roles. It wasn't until the advent of talkies that she became a star, thanks to her warmth and versatility; she was equally good in comic and dramatic roles. By the time she won an Academy Award for her performance in Min and Bill, she was M-G-M's highest-paid star and number one at the box office, according to an exhibitors' poll. She would hold that position for three consecutive years.
Like Dressler, her onscreen partner Wallace Beery had been working as a freelance character actor for more than a dozen years, playing mostly heavies, before he was signed by M-G-M and his fortunes changed. Beery won his own Oscar for The Champ (1931). Re-teaming him with Dressler was a logical move, and a film based on Norman Reilly Raine's colorful characters was ideal for them.
To direct Tugboat Annie, Thalberg borrowed Mervyn LeRoy from Warner Bros, where he had made hits such as Little Caesar (1931) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). When production began on Tugboat Annie, Dressler was already seriously ill with the cancer that would take her life the following year. LeRoy was aware of her illness and accommodated the schedule so she could work only three hours a day. On one occasion, according to LeRoy, Beery grew impatient waiting for Dressler to arrive, grumbling, "Get the old bag in here. I'll be in my dressing room." LeRoy scolded him, and Beery apologized. From then on, Beery was kind and considerate to his co-star.
Tugboat Annie was one of the top moneymakers of 1933, beloved by public and critics alike. Mordaunt Hall wrote in the New York Times, "That grand actress, Marie Dressler, delivers an even more effective characterization than usual.... Not only is Miss Dressler's part more satisfactory than those she had in her previous pictorial ventures, but the story, with all its rambunctious mirth and its spells of sentiment, is superior to other vehicles." Variety raved, "One of those rare naturals in the picture business - a flicker that sells itself immediately the stars' names go into the lights. Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery are both soft and sweet for business, and when there's a picture to back them up, as in this instance, there is no question at all about the results."
There was talk of a sequel, but Dressler was too sick. Time magazine, in a laudatory cover story on Dressler (it called her "indisputably the most valuable performer in Hollywood") shortly after the film's premiere, mentions that she had an operation for a tumor the previous winter, and "works less than she used to do." Tugboat Annie was one of her final movies. She died the following year.
After Dressler's death, Beery was frequently teamed with Marjorie Main in a vain attempt to recapture the chemistry he'd had with Dressler. The character of Tugboat Annie lived on in two films, Tugboat Annie Sails Again (1940), with Marjorie Rambeau and Alan Hale, and Captain Tugboat Annie (1945) with Jane Darwell and Edgar Kennedy. A Canadian-produced TV series, The Adventures of Tugboat Annie (1957-61), featured Minerva Urecal in the title role. And Norman Reilly Raine's Tugboat Annie stories continued in the Saturday Evening Post until Raine's death in 1971. None of these incarnations, however, could rival the indelible impression left by Dressler in one of her best roles.
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Zelda Sears, Eve Greene (both adaptation); Norman Reilly Raine (additional dialogue and stories)
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Art Direction: Merrill Pye
Music: Paul Marquardt (uncredited)
Film Editing: Blanche Sewell
Cast: Marie Dressler (Annie Brennan), Wallace Beery (Terry Brennan), Robert Young (Alexander 'Alec' Brennan), Maureen O'Sullivan (Patricia 'Pat' Severn), Willard Robertson (Red Severn), Tammany Young (Shif'less), Frankie Darro (Alec as a child), Jack Pennick (Pete), Paul Hurst (Sam).
BW-85m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri