Marie Dressler – Biography
by Ralph Lucas – Publisher
In an industry that is often considered larger than life, a number of actors have fit that description in a physical sense. “Fattie” Arbuckle surely lived up to his nickname – his real first name being Roscoe. Oliver Hardy was another heavyweight of the silent and post-silent eras. In more modern times, we have enjoyed actors like Jackie Gleason and the late John Candy. In case you haven’t noticed, they’re all male actors. Large women actors run against the norm and only a handful come to mind, Roseanne Barr being just one who succeeded despite being totally outside the mold dictated by current trends in health and fashion.
Another large actress, from a much earlier time, was Marie Dressler. In her life she always wondered about her popularity and considered herself to be, in her own words, “an ugly duckling.” Nonetheless, Dressler parlayed her success on the stage into a film acting career that began in the silent era with Charlie Chaplin as her co-star and ended just 20 years later with one Academy Award nomination, and an Academy Award for Best Actress.
There is some dispute as to the actual birth date of Leila Marie Koerber. In fact, there is some dispute about her birth name with some sources saying her last name was, properly, von Koerber. Most existing profiles of Dressler show her birth date as November 9, 1869. However, at least one online genealogist checking into his own background discovered and claims, “Dressler’s baptismal records show her birth date as November 9, 1863.” Leading to even more confusion, on her crypt in the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery her birth year is given as 1871, yet an historical plaque outside her home in Cobourg, Ontario states her birth year as 1868.Being a large kid, Dressler spent a lot of time developing the defensive mechanisms. She was able to hone her talents to make other people laugh to such a degree that by time she was 14-years-old she was ready for the stage. A natural comedienne, she hooked up with a stock company, against her father’s wishes, and changed her name to that of a dead relative. Within six short years, Leila Koerber turned Marie Dressler into a seasoned comedienne on the legitimate stage. Although she loved to sing, and even trained in the grand opera, Dressler found her niche performing raucous ditties on the vaudeville circuit. By 1892 she had found her way to Broadway, and from accounts from that period, she had taken the town “by storm” and was one of the greatest lights along the Great White Way right through to the turn of the century and well into its first decade.
In 1909 she was introduced to a character in a play that would make her famous and rich. The play was titled Tillie’s Nightmare, and Dressler would play a “homely, boardinghouse drudge” named Tillie Blobb. She didn’t just play Tillie, she became Tillie. In 1910, she had her first chance to appear on the screen in something titled The Actor’s Fund Field Day, which was produced by Vitagraph. It was a benefit concert featuring major Broadway stars that was captured on the new medium of film. Just four years later, Dressler would make history when she would star in the first feature-length comedy ever made. It was produced and directed by fellow Canadian, Mack Sennett, who had had a chance meeting with her several years earlier.
Sennett’s parents had moved to Connecticut when he was 17-years-old and in 1902, when he was working as a common laborer, he met Dressler, who was at the height of her powers on Broadway. Sennett wanted to get into show business, and Dressler kindly provided a letter of introduction to the famous New York producer David Belasco. Although the meeting led nowhere, he decided to stay in New York and eventually he drifted into acting, appearing in his first film in 1908 at the Biograph Studio. Sennett started to direct, and in 1912 he co-founded the Keystone Film Company in Los Angeles. Sennett was never a slouch when it came to spotting a great idea, and he knew instinctively that the Tillie character would be great on film. He approached Dressler now as an equal and told her of his plans.
The film would be called Tillie’s Punctured Romance, and Tillie Blobb would become Tillie Banks.
Sennett cast top Keystone stars Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand in leading roles, but there is no doubt the film was created especially for Dressler, and that she would be the star. Although a bit of a gamble as a full-length feature in 1914, Tillie`s Punctured Romance was a gigantic hit, helping to establish the careers of everyone who was involved with it, particularly Dressler.
Interestingly, she would play Tillie on film only twice more, and neither of them for Sennett. Tillie’s Tomato Surprise was made for Lubin-Christie in 1915, in which Tillie Banks had now become Tillie Todd. Two years later she played Tillie Tinklepaw in Tillie Wakes Up, which was also released as Tillie’s Night Out. This time the production company was Peerless Productions.
Dressler was a fast learner, and seeing what other major stars were doing, notably her friend Mary Pickford, who had co-founded United Artists, she decided to form own production company in 1917. She asked for and was given help by Sam Goldwyn, who would act as her distributor. Her initial plan was to produce eight more Tillie movies. The first effort was almost entirely the work of Dressler. She had finished a script titled Tillie, the Scrub Lady and was well into production when, for reasons unknown, one of the most identifiable characters of the silver screen was retired. Tillie the Scrub Lady was released simply as The Scrub Lady. Following its successful release, Goldwyn asked her to go to Hollywood where her production company made Fired. In a classic “truth is often stranger than fiction” tale, Fired would be the last Dressler/Goldwyn picture.
Dressler was more than just “a star.” Her background had made it difficult for her to live with the injustices she had seen while rising in the world of theatre. If you have already read her filmography, you may have noticed there is a considerable gap in her career. In 1917, she decided to take the side of the so-called “chorines” – the chorus girls – when they went on strike against Broadway theatre owners and producers. While ultimately victorious – the result was the formation of the Actor`s Equity Union – Dressler was blacklisted both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Her career languished, and she often fought with bouts of depression as the years rolled by and no one wanted to work with her. It was during this time she wrote her first memoir, The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling, which was published in 1924. Dressler was 55-years-old and for all intents and purposes her career was over, so a memoir seemed appropriate.
Her banishment lasted 10 years. She did not work again until 1927 when Canadian-born director Allan Dwan brought her back from near obscurity. Dwan was working for the Fox Film Corporation and thought he would ask if she would like a small part in his next film, The Joy Girl. She jumped at the chance because she would be working again. But more importantly the barrier against using her had been broken. Dressler was 58-years-old and some of her best work was still ahead of her. In fact, her very next film was one of her best. Top screenwriter Frances Marion had written a part just for Dressler in a film that was to be called The Callahans and the Murphys. They had met more than 10 years earlier when Marion had been engaged to write the script for Tillie Wakes Up.
Pictured are actors Frank Currier and Marie Dressler with George Hill on the left at the MGM studios demonstrating to the young director how the two talented performers used to work together when they recorded routines for release on records, or gramophones as the April 11, 1927 note attached to the photo states. The note ends with the words that the picture was taken “on the occasion of their reunion at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, where Miss Dressler is to appear in “The Callahans and the Murphys.”
The Callahans and the Murphys portrayed the trials and tribulations of life in a New York tenement seen through the eyes of two feuding Irish families. The critics loved it. The July 13, 1927, issue of Variety said, in part: “A medley of hoke and slapstick raised to the level of brilliant character comedy by legitimate acting by Marie Dressler and Polly Moran.”
It was an interesting pairing, and now that Dressler had signed with MGM, studio executives were fairly quick to use the two stars again, creating, more-or-less, a comedy team when they worked together. But it would take a major technological change to make this team concept work, and the dawning of the age of the “talkies” was what really made Dressler a star. With her operatic training, her voice suited her appearance and so paired once more with Polly Moran, who had a rather high-pitched yet gravelly voice, they made their first talkie together, 1929’s Dangerous Females. They would go on to co-star in eight more films.
Although the comedy team idea was a good one, Dressler was also starring in other films during this time. In fact, now that people could hear and see their favorite stars, her popularity had never been higher. The coming of sound allowed her to display all of her talent. As a result, she became the most beloved character actress in the public eye and, more importantly, with her peers in the entertainment industry. Louis B. Mayer hailed her as his favorite actress and there was a constant demand for her from producers, directors and, of course, the public. This new era allowed her to make a stunning career move for a strict comedienne when she began to play tragicomic characters.
It was her friend Frances Marion who once again wrote the script for what is often considered Dressler’s greatest role in the 1930 MGM classic, Anna Christie (pictured above). The film starred Greta Garbo (“Garbo Talks!”), and Dressler played a character named Marthy. Marthy was a waterfront drudge in all her earthy, broken-down glory. It was the role of a lifetime, but for Dressler it was only the beginning. Later that same year, with Marion again writing the script, she was cast opposite Wallace Beery in Min and Bill. It was the story of a tough-talking, waterfront hotel proprietress married to a down-and-out stevedore, played by Beery. Depending on which birth date you believe, Dressler was somewhere near 60 when she was honoured with the Academy Award as best actress for her work in Min and Bill. MGM began to bill her proudly as “the world’s greatest actress.” Not bad for an old actress who was blackballed and all but washed-up for nearly 10 years.
Marion wrote one last film for her good friend, which almost topped her portrayal of Min. It was the lead in Emma, the story of a housekeeper who marries her employer and is rejected by his children. Emma brought Dressler an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. Later in 1932 she was cast in the role of Carlotta Vance in Dinner at Eight. In this film she played a role that could have almost been taken from parts of her own life. Carlotta is a veteran actress down on her luck, but with an innate dignity that prevents her from ever wearing her heart on her sleeve. Dressler headed an all-star MGM cast including John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Hersholt, Jean Harlow, Billie Burke, Karen Morley, Edmund Lowe, Lee Tracy, Grant Mitchell and May Robson.
In 1933, Dressler was teamed with Beery again when she played one of her most enduring characters, Tugboat Annie, pictured on the right in an image scanned from an original still in The Northernstars Collection. Based on a real-life tugboat skipper who lived in Tacoma, Washington, this film achieved such popularity that it, and the original stories by author Norman Reilly Raine, were used as the basis for a television series 24 years later. Made in 1957, the series was a co-production between Canada, the United States and England, and saw American actress Minerva Urecal recreating the role of “Tugboat” Annie Brennan. An interesting note for trivia fans, the fictional West Coast town of Secoma was actually filmed in Toronto, Ontario.
Dressler’s last film, made in 1934, was taken from a story ironically called “The Late Christopher Bean.” Retitled as Her Sweetheart (Christopher Bean), it starred Dressler and Lionel Barrymore and was released just six months before she would die after a long battle with cancer. It is a well documented fact that she had suffered and fought the disease for several years. On far too many occasions, Dressler worked while in great pain, sometimes performing her characteristic boisterous physical comedy, but never letting her personal problems get in the way of another great performance. The image is a scan of an original theatrical glass slide, now in the Northernstars Collection.
Dressler had been working on her second memoir for some time and was not able to complete the book she had titled My Own Story. It was finished by New York journalist Mildred Harrington who had interviewed Dressler on a number of occasions, and was released a few months after she had passed away.
Although Dressler always considered herself to be an ugly duckling, as the title of her first memoir clearly shows, she probably never realized how beautiful she was to her large and loyal audience. She universally played a woman of inner-beauty, inner-strength, and inner-determination. A role model for women of all ages and of all sizes. For this, and for her innate ability to carry a story, Marie Dressler and her films will always be remembered.
All of the images on this page were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection.