A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler

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Overview

In this study of Marie Dressler, MGM's most profitable movie star in the early 1930s, Victoria Sturtevant analyzes Dressler's use of her body to challenge Hollywood's standards for leading ladies. At five feet seven inches tall and two hundred pounds, Dressler often played ugly ducklings, old maids, doting mothers, and imperious dowagers. However, her body, her fearless physicality, and her athletic slapstick routines commanded the screen. Sturtevant interprets the meanings of Dressler's body by looking at her ...

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A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler

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Overview

In this study of Marie Dressler, MGM's most profitable movie star in the early 1930s, Victoria Sturtevant analyzes Dressler's use of her body to challenge Hollywood's standards for leading ladies. At five feet seven inches tall and two hundred pounds, Dressler often played ugly ducklings, old maids, doting mothers, and imperious dowagers. However, her body, her fearless physicality, and her athletic slapstick routines commanded the screen. Sturtevant interprets the meanings of Dressler's body by looking at her vaudeville career, her transgressive representation of an "unruly" yet sexual body in Emma and Christopher Bean, ideas of the body politic in the films Politics and Prosperity, and Dressler as a mythic body in Min and Bill and Tugboat Annie.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252034282
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 5/8/2009
  • Series: Women & Film History International Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Victoria Sturtevant is an associate professor of film and video studies at the University of Oklahoma.

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Read an Excerpt

A Great Big Girl Like Me

The Films of Marie Dressler
By Victoria Sturtevant

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2009 Victoria Sturtevant
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07622-0


Chapter One

Tillie's Punctured Romance

Genre and the Body

    A great big girl like very truly yours
    Has very little cause for glee.
    They always make a pet
    Of some stingy-faced soubrette;
    Not a great big girl like me.
—"A Great Big Girl Like Me," sung by Marie Dressler in Higgledy-Piggledy, 1904

Marie Dressler was never a delicate beauty. In her earliest films, she played ugly ducklings and old maids, and in her later career she played doting mothers and imperious dowagers. Though this sounds like the career trajectory of a supporting actress, Dressler was definitely a star, the central protagonist of most of her films, and the woman you can't take your eyes off, even in the films that tried in vain to push her to the background (figure 1). Many of her extraordinary early sound pictures, such as Min and Bill (MGM,1930), Politics (MGM, 1931), Emma (MGM, 1932), and Tugboat Annie and Christopher Bean (both MGM, 1933), stand up with the best work that the studio system produced, and Dressler herself was one of the most important studio-era movie stars. Yet only now is her work receiving serious attention from scholars of film comedy and the history of the star system in Hollywood.

Dressler achieved film stardom in the heart of the Great Depression, when film comedies spoke to an audience looking for escape, for an intensive experience of comfort and fantasy. But her films are not palliatives; her expressive performances explode the business-as-usual rules of classical Hollywood film genre. Business was indeed not operating as usual in the early 1930s, when talkies were new, the economy was in the basement, and Hollywood was grasping for stable narrative formulas to build from the hodgepodge of vaudeville, radio, and theatrical traditions they now borrowed. Marie Dressler's body, hijacking the camera's gaze from her costars, refocuses the generic frame of her films. The shallow problems of the young and beautiful and rich and healthy are sidelined. Her films instead dignify the marginalized: older folks, women, and the poor. They build Depression-era fantasies not from an excess of material goods, or sexual license, but from the exuberance of Marie Dressler's own body.

At five foot seven and around two hundred pounds, Dressler's body is the site of considerable emphasis in her films. Her trademark slapstick comedy is based on an athletic and fearless physicality that foregrounds her size and flouts rules of feminine comportment, emphasizing pratfalls on the rear end, hair caught in the machinery, celery stuck in the cleavage, a skirt blown up by a gust of wind. In scenes where she is not called upon to perform physical comedy, Dressler is still in constant motion, using her expressive face, her fidgety hands and feet, and nearly constant physical contact with other performers to hold the camera's gaze. This insistent movement centralizes Dressler and invests her characters with a subjectivity and an agency that often exceeds the written boundaries of the narrative. As her star rose and roles were developed specifically for her, Dressler's film vehicles necessarily and increasingly combined, transformed, and simply broke generic molds in order to create coherent frames for Dressler's insistent presence. Because she was too famous for supporting roles, too maternal for slapstick comedy, too funny for maternal melodrama, and too old for sentimental romance, Dressler's films are often hybrids of all these genres, making broad and sudden shifts in tone, situation, and theme from one moment to the next. A close analysis of those films provides a new perspective on the social, generic, and industrial contexts that permitted Marie Dressler's rapid and explosive rise to stardom in the early 1930s.

Dressler's robust performances tended to exert a kind of gravity on the narrative around her, breaking the rules of genre and reshaping the film's social world in ways that insist on her subjectivity, agency, and sexuality. An analysis of her career requires, among other adjustments, a singular rethinking of the workings of spectatorial fantasy in American commercial film of the early sound era. She is, for instance, probably the least effective representative of commercial desire ever to appear in American film. Her hairstyles, makeup, clothes, and hats are nondescript at best, in many cases crossing the boundary to the outlandishly unfashionable. And yet, it is unquestionable that Marie Dressler's films occupied a prominent place in the collective fantasy life of a Depression-era public, a fact verified by her spectacular popularity. She was bigger than Mae West, bigger than the Marx Brothers, bigger, for a while, than Chaplin.

Dressler's stardom must be understood instead in terms of a maternal fantasy, one that centralizes the excessive body as a sign of plenty, amplitude, and generosity, framed against a Depression-era landscape of encroaching want. It is a maternal fantasy that also figures the mother as a child, falling on her bum and tripping over her clothes, in slapstick style. This rich combination of maternal and infantile characteristics creates a space for the spectator to regress to a more childlike relation to the screen—Dressler's maternal persona acts as a comfort to the regressive spectator, while her childlike antics validate infantile responses and defy the seriousness of poverty and despair. The films of her later career constantly vacillate between maternal melodrama and anarchic slapstick in ways that provide rich challenges to our understanding of the logic of film genre. Her performances tend to reject the ethereal light-and-shadow femininity of the conventional star, insisting instead on the mass, the texture, the volume, the velocity, and the dignity of her body. She occupies the space of both mother and child, authority and transgressor, sentimental fantasy and chaotic destroyer. Marie Dressler's film performances, then, alter the ideological and generic frameworks of many of her film vehicles by centralizing a physicalized, insistent female subjectivity that slips the bonds of conventional categories.

This book is an examination of the extraordinary films that emerged.

Biography

Any time Marie Dressler will stand in front of the camera and make faces I'll go to see her. And if she does any more than that—well, a team of army mules couldn't keep me out of the theater.

—Dan Thomas, Los Angeles Post-Record, 1933

Born in Cobourg, Ontario, in 1868, Marie Dressler left home at the tender age of fourteen to join a small-time road company. She became a Broadway star by the turn of the twentieth century, starring in her first hit, The Lady Slavey, in 1896. She eventually became known for her work in raucous musical comedies from the noted theatrical producers Joe Weber and Lew Fields, who specialized in nearly plotless romps with doggerel titles like Higgledy-Piggledy and Topsy-Turvy. These shows were characterized by a loosely causal narrative structure punctuated with vaudeville-like episodes of comic performance in the form of songs, dances, acrobatic routines, and bantering dialogue.

Dressler's greatest success on Broadway was a 1910 musical takeoff on Cinderella called Tillie's Nightmare, in which she played Tillie Blobbs, the overworked daughter of a boardinghouse matron (figure 2). Tillie is left home to clean while her mother and her pretty sister have an evening out. She falls asleep, and the show segues into a bizarre dream about her marrying a millionaire, moving to Paris, riding in an airship, and other fantasies. The dream sequence was a vehicle for the loose narrative structure of the Weber and Fields comedy. The play transformed the lightness and whimsy of broad comedy into a working girl's fantasy of freedom, punctuating Tillie's life of drudgery with dreams of escape.

In this way, despite the loosey-goosey narrative, Tillie's Nightmare was a fantasy of liberation for the socially marginalized. The most popular song in the show, and Dressler's calling card for years afterward, was "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl," which championed New York's most vulnerable workers:

    A village maid was leaving home, with tears her eyes was set,
    Her mother dear was standing near the spot;
    She says to her: Neuralgia Dear, I hope you won't forget
    That I'm the only mother you have got.

    The city is a wicked place, as anyone can see,
    And cruel dangers round your path may hurl;
    So ev'ry week you'd better send your wages back to me,
    For Heaven will protect the working girl.

One of the city's "cruel dangers" turns out to be a suave gentleman whose advances Tillie valiantly refuses: "You may tempt the upper classes / With your villainous demi-tasses / But Heaven will protect the working girl." The joke is predicated on the girl's naïveté; lacking the sophistication to know what a demitasse might be, she suspects her suitor of illicit intent. But the song's blithe humor displaces the real threats to working women in the cities of 1910s America—poor factory conditions, low wages, crime, sexual harassment, and prostitution—with the absurdly exaggerated figure of the villainous suitor. The fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911, the year after Tillie's Nightmare opened, claimed 148 lives and brought into relief how very vulnerable the working girl could be.

Quickly and permanently, this tune became linked with Dressler, and her comedy always held this populist note and associated her with the working classes, the marginalized people of the city. Dressler personally led Broadway's chorus girls in an Actors' Equity strike of 1919, becoming the first president of the Chorus Equity Association, which demanded that Broadway's lowest-ranked women performers should share in the benefits of unionization. Offstage, she did what she could to protect the working girl.

During her stage years, Dressler married twice, the first time very briefly and the second time to the man who became her manager, "Sunny" Jim Dalton. Dalton was something of a shady dealer, and his business practices helped alienate Dressler from many theatrical producers. So when the film producer Mack Sennett approached her in 1914 to star in Tillie's Punctured Romance (Keystone), the American cinema's first feature-length comedy, she accepted the job in part because she needed the shot of publicity. Based on the Tillie persona from Dressler's stage success, but bearing an entirely different narrative about a wealthy country girl, Tillie Banks, duped by a slick city boy (Charles Chaplin), the comedy was an enormous hit. But Dressler had no more luck with film producers than she did with theater producers. Following a legal dispute with Sennett, Dressler tried her hand in a few more "Tillie" films with lesser production teams at the Lubin Film Company and the World Film Corporation, none of which achieved the same popularity as her first. She then produced four shorts under the Marie Dressler Motion Picture Company, but she was unable to make the venture a success.

Professionally ostracized because of her manager husband, her litigious tendencies, and her union activities, Dressler struggled to remain in show business. Still a star of the first magnitude, she threw her energy into the World War I Liberty Bond drives, working with Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks on nationwide tours to sell the bonds. Following the bond drives, a brief stint on vaudeville, and the death of Jim Dalton in 1921, Dressler was unable to restart her career on stage or screen. She was embarrassed by newspaper coverage of Dalton's death, which revealed he had never ended his first marriage, despite being known as Dressler's husband for many years. Saddled with debts and lacking a recent success, Dressler spent the 1920s largely unemployed, a has-been in a world of flaming youth, prosperity and consumerism, and changing comic sensibilities.

She returned to the spotlight in 1927, at the age of sixty, when her friend Frances Marion, an MGM screenwriter, convinced the producer Irving Thalberg to help bring her out of obscurity to star opposite Polly Moran in The Callahans and the Murphys (MGM). Dressler and Marion had become friends years before, when Marion, then a cub reporter for a Hearst paper, had been sent on a fool's errand to interview the Broadway star at a time when Dressler was involved in a very public feud with William Randolph Hearst. Dressler felt sorry for the young journalist and granted her an exclusive interview. The two women had stayed friends through the years, and in 1927, hearing that Dressler was in financial and emotional trouble, Marion returned the favor by creating the Callahans screenplay for her and convincing her boss, Irving Thalberg, to put Dressler under contract for the role. Famously, this film was pulled from release under pressure from Catholic organizations, which opposed MGM's stereotyped characterization of the Irish. Passing her sixtieth birthday, Dressler toughed out this setback, stayed in Hollywood, and distinguished herself in a series of small supporting parts and two-reel comedies with Polly Moran.

After the Callahans debacle, Dressler's emergence on American screens was a gradual one. She was first cast in the sorts of supporting roles that were the bread and butter of older Hollywood actresses—queens, society ladies, mothers, and grand old broads. In supporting roles, Dressler nearly always used old vaudeville tricks to steal scenes from the younger stars she supported. Twitching, striding, mugging, and fussing through other actors' lines, Dressler resisted the invisibility endured by other actresses her age. Rather than be put out to pasture, she subtly centered herself in the image, claiming her right to be seen and heard. In the chaotic industrial environment of the first talkies, Dressler's vivid performances attracted positive attention from reviewers and audiences, which eventually placed her in a position to anchor narratives herself, no longer in support of younger stars. Though her reemergence as a star was partly a result of Frances Marion's writing vehicles that showcased Dressler's talents, Dressler claimed the privilege through her three years of riveting supporting work at MGM.

In 1930, Marion helped Dressler land the role of Marthy, the old wharf drunk in Greta Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie (MGM), based on the Eugene O'Neill play of the same title. Dressler's excellent performance in a dramatic role surprised nearly everyone, and she received considerable publicity, bringing the comedienne more prominently into the public eye. Anna Christie was followed by her first feature-length costarring vehicle with Polly Moran since the Callahans fiasco, Caught Short (MGM, 1930)—a financial success, despite the critics' lack of enthusiasm for the film's lowbrow humor. The two sides of Dressler's Depression-era persona—affecting character actress and raucous comic harridan—were established in these two 1930 releases. Her tremendous success in the next four years would result from the imaginative combination of these two sides of her character.

The first film to combine these two elements of Dressler's persona into a compelling, powerful character was MGM's runaway 1930 hit Min and Bill, based on another Frances Marion script. Teaming her with Wallace Beery as Bill, the film won Dressler an Academy Award for her role as the owner of a wharfside boardinghouse who commits murder to protect her surrogate daughter. The popular comedy/melodrama hybrid was the model for a new sentimental era in Dressler comedy. It cast her as an earthy, funny, protective, motherly woman, combining physical comedy and wisecracks with sentimental narrative forms. As this new star persona caught on, Dressler spent the next three years enjoying a string of successes, including three more immensely popular films with Polly Moran, the legendary Tugboat Annie (figure 3), and perhaps her best-remembered film, the prestigious Dinner at Eight (MGM, 1933), which teamed her with Jean Harlow and two Barrymores.

Between 1930 and her death in 1934, Dressler won an Academy Award, was nominated for another, topped the exhibitors' charts two years in a row, was the first actor to appear on the cover of Time magazine, counted President Roosevelt as a close friend, and enjoyed uninterrupted adoration from the press. She was beatified in both fan magazines and mainstream publications as a woman of boundless generosity, humor, and wisdom. One interviewer describes the star weeping over a desk full of fan mail because so many Depression-stricken families had written to ask her for money that she couldn't fulfill all their needs. Another journalist emphasizes her folksy humor in an anecdote about Vice President Charles Curtis's visit to Hollywood. The politician reputedly gushed to the star, "I admire you so greatly, Miss Dressler, do you mind if I call you Marie?" The unflappable Dressler is said to have replied, "Charlie, you can call me anything you like." Dressler's homespun advice to parents and her philosophies on life appeared in Photoplay with striking regularity, offering high-flown optimistic perspectives on the country's ability to survive the Depression. Behind the giddy press reports, Dressler maintained a quiet but unapologetic domestic partnership with another actress, Claire DuBrey, in the 1930s and was an important part of the support network of gay performers in 1930s Hollywood.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from A Great Big Girl Like Me by Victoria Sturtevant Copyright © 2009 by Victoria Sturtevant. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Acknowledgments....................ix
1. Tillie's Punctured Romance: Genre and the Body....................1
2. Breaking Boundaries: The Unruly Body....................30
3. Politics and Prosperity: The Body Politic....................60
4. Min and Bill and Tugboat Annie: The Mythic Body....................93
5. Emma and Christopher Bean: The Sexual Body....................126
Conclusion Dinner at Eight: The Unclosed Body....................161
Notes....................173
Filmography: Dressler's Feature Films....................185
Index....................187
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