Marie Dressler is included in this year's schedule this coming Monday, August 4, 2008. Though I missed it, I hear the closing night film at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival—The Patsy—brought down the Castro Theatre when a piece of flying celery landed in Dressler's ample bosom.
Film historian and author Matthew Kennedy and I recently spoke about his biography Marie Dressler (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999; paperback 2006); but, I invited him back to discuss the 15 Dressler films TCM is screening this year as part of their "Summer Under the Stars" series and to recommend the five that must not be missed!
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Michael Guillén: Marie Dressler had an accomplished stage career, which you've outlined in your biography; but, I'm going to set that aside to focus on her film career. In a nutshell, at the height of her popular success in film, what was it that Marie Dressler offered the moviegoing public?
Matthew Kennedy: That's a very good question. Her film career started with the birth of feature films in 1914 with Tillie's Punctured Romance, which is considered the first feature length comedy; but, her enduring influence or legacy is in the early talkies, which was also at the end of her life. Between The Hollywood Revue (1929) and her last film Christopher Bean (1933), she made several films, almost all at MGM. As glamour—or as you mentioned earlier "luminosity"—was being defined in the early talkies and the studio system, she epitomized the reverse of that, the anti-glamour, the face of your maiden aunt or grandmother. The hard times that had befallen her in her life seemed to inform her performances and so you have this fantastic confluence of a star with enormous charisma, training, discipline and the ability to give these indelible performances with this haggard, matronly face that's very lived-in. She was not the typical movie star beauty by a long shot. She was older and her audiences were fairly acquainted with the hard times she'd had in her own life with economic reversals, problems with men and the law and so forth. She put this all together and became a towering symbol of Depression-era survival and fortitude. This was all brought out very shrewdly by her handlers at MGM—Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer and screenwriter Frances Marion—who concocted for her these fantastic little movies that capitalized on these qualities.
Guillén: I have some objection to your characterizing her as "anti-glamour", though I certainly understand what you're saying. For me she represents a different style of luminosity.
Kennedy: Yes! I love the way you use the word luminosity and I would not begrudge Dressler one lumen of luminosity.
Guillén: Dressler's sense of humor is a form of luminosity, of star power, that her audiences related to.
Kennedy: Absolutely. When I use the word "glamour", I'm using it in the context of the typical, traditional approach of, "You're young, you're beautiful, we're going to make you perfect."
Guillén: Which is precisely why the scene between Dressler and Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933) is so iconic. It's two different types of star power in repartee.
Kennedy: Right. With this extraordinary sense of balance of luminosities, of charisma, of that innate "something" that makes somebody a star; but, for two radically different reasons. Yet they become this perfect yin and yang. Which was actually addressed in the scenes that Dressler shared with Greta Garbo in Anna Christie (1930). In fact, one reviewer wrote quite shrewdly—and I'm paraphrasing—"perfect beauty meets perfect humanity."
Guillén: In the introduction to your biography you write: "Comediennes and farceurs such as Beatrice Lillie, Hermione Gingold, Fanny Brice, Imogene Coca, Kaye Ballard, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Moms Mabley, and Totie Fields are indebted to Dressler because she was the first woman to make movie audiences laugh for more than 20 minutes. Without an obvious lineage, she remains distinct…." (1999:2).
Kennedy: I don't know if that legacy can be easily traced. I don't think Dressler is that well-known today. I don't know how many comics today would say, "Oh, I take my inspiration from Marie Dressler"; but, there's some kind of vaguely-defined legacy, although she was one of the kind and—when she died—they broke the mold. You had Margaret Dumont somewhat taking over that role—though not as well—in the Marx Brothers movies. You had the matronly types that were such wonderful characters in the comedies of the '30s and '40s. Marie died in 1934. She's right there at the beginning and didn't live to see that kind of direct legacy. I wonder if I shouldn't retract some of what I've said in that regard because I feel as though—even people today who are in the position to occupy something similar in popular entertainment to what Marie did—are choosing not to. Even people who are not conventionally beautiful still go for the glamour routine today in ways that deny them their chance to be another Marie Dressler, to be the epitomization of humanity rather than the epitomization of a current notion of beauty.
Guillén: Horror stories to that effect would include Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, who both purposely started out making fun of their looks and then succumbed to the allure of the blade.
Kennedy: Now they're both making jokes about plastic surgery instead of making jokes about, "This is the face God gave me; the body God gave me."
Guillén: Exactly. All that being said, I want to stress Marie Dressler's unique luminosity, that she is a star in the firmament, and appropriately included in TCM's "Summer Under the Stars", with Monday night's upcoming selection of films. In case viewers don't have time to watch all the films and have to make a choice, I've asked you to take a look at that selection and, first of all, cull out those projects, which—though we're glad they're being included—aren't definitive vehicles for Marie Dressler.
Kennedy: There are four that I've isolated in the schedule where Marie's presence is literally 5-10 minutes. Now, of course, what she does with those 5-10 minutes is greater than what most actors do with two hours; but, they are not really showcases for her. She makes a maximum impact but has very little screen time. Those four are: The Hollywood Revue (1929)—where she has this fantastic production number called "I am the Queen", which is a travesty of regal pomposity and her first actual footage in sound—but, that's a two-hour variety movie and she's on very briefly. The other is The Divine Lady (1929), which is a silent film and a vehicle for Corrine Griffith, where she plays Lady Hamilton and Marie plays her mother in a minor, passing role. The Girl Said No (1930) is a Leila Hyams/William Haines college comedy and Marie has one hysterically funny scene in which she gets very very drunk very quickly. In terms of the build-up or technique, it comes on rather suddenly; but, she's hysterical. But again, it's a brief role. The last is That's Entertainment! III (1994), which is the third compilation of movies that MGM put out. I don't even remember what clip of her's is in there. It's probably the last moments of Dinner At Eight; but, that's literally what you're going to see of her; a clip of something that's going to be on earlier that day. You don't really watch That's Entertainment! III to see Marie Dressler.
Guillén: Ignoring That's Entertainment! III, then, and focusing on those three earlier films, can you speak to how they reflect efforts on the part of her friends to lure Marie to Hollywood after she was nearly undone by the failure of her stage career, bad marriage, economic hardship, and suicidal ideation? Despite her having only bit parts in these films, aren't they in fact testimonials to the efforts of her friends to keep her going and help her regain her footing?
Kennedy: It's a testament of her friends and their loyalty as well as Marie's qualities as a loyal and generous friend. It speaks very well to all of them and the affection they had for each other. Marie was so well-tended. You're right. The extraordinary success she had in the latter part of her career in the early '30s was, no doubt, because of her talent and her timing and so forth, but also because of the careful ministration of friends in the right places.
Guillén: Which film was the turning point in Marie Dressler's film career?
Kennedy: In the talkies, it was Anna Christie. She had had a number of small roles from 1927 to 1930 when she shot Anna Christie, and she was revitalizing her reputation as a reliable, funny character actress; but, it wasn't until Anna Christie that audiences went, "Holy mackerel! We have, in our midst, this force of nature—if you will—this cinematic redwood. She should be honored with roles that do her justice." More importantly, that fact fell upon Mayer and Thalberg and they began fashioning vehicles for her exclusively. Anna Christie, of course, was a Garbo vehicle; but, Marie—in her few minutes on screen—manages to very efficiently walk away with the film.
Guillén: This leads to the five you recommend should not be missed in the TCM line-up.
Kennedy: And I would like to state for the record, that it was very difficult to choose five. Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) I chose not because it's among her five best movies—because I'm not sure that it is—but, it's such an irresistible piece of history. You have the one and only time that Marie appeared on screen with Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand in a Mack Sennett comedy. For anybody who cares a lick about film history, this silent movie is not to be missed. It's widely considered to be the first feature-length comedy ever made. What I pointed out in my book, and what I had such a fun time researching, was the uncertainty the Sennett Company had in a single narrative that lasted barely over an hour. They worried whether audiences would stay in their seats that long, whether or not comedy could be maintained that long, the uncertainty of something we take so much for granted now where you have comedies that are two hours long and are not thought of twice. Certain fundamental approaches were being experimented with. It was a huge risk because it was very expensive. Marie was a huge vaudeville star at the time. To get her cost a great deal of money. It was completely speculative. Comedies had only been one or two reelers before then. Dressler and Chaplin make a fantastic pair. As types they're polar opposites. Chaplin was this rather slight, svelte, nimble man and she's this big lumbering thing and they play off those physical differences very well.
Guillén: Have you any insight into how Chaplin considered Dressler's later success?
Kennedy: I looked high and low for some quotes from Chaplin on his thoughts of working with Marie and only came across one brief mention in his autobiography in which he said that he basically had a good time working with her; but, there was no elaboration unfortunately. Tillie's Punctured Romance is not a great movie. The comedy towards the end gets a little forced, it's very primitive, but there's an undeniable pleasure seeing those two together and Mabel Normand is delightful, of course.
Guillén: Specifically, as a piece of film history it's indispensable?
Kennedy: Yes. The second film I would highly recommend is Prosperity (1932). It was the last movie that Marie made with fellow comedienne Polly Moran. The two of them made several movies together at MGM. They were matched as these two matronly types that played off each other very well. Thalberg and company believed that they were a peerless comedy team. There were a lot of male comedy teams at the time; but, Thalberg wanted to promote a female comedy team. They were put through fairly low budget crank-them-out-fast comedies, of which Prosperity is the best one. The three that are being highlighted on Monday—Reducing (1931), Politics (1931) and Prosperity—are being shown back to back and I like them all for different reasons; but, they're modest films. If you take them at that level, they can be enjoyable. The reason I would give the slight edge to Prosperity is because it's topical. It deals with bank runs and the Depression. Marie—and I mention this in my book—almost feels like the mouthpiece of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in which she's talking about ingenious ways to survive this hard time. "If we don't have any cash, we'll just trade services. You mow my lawn and I'll cut your hair." That kind of thing. But it's all done with a great deal of humor. There's some drama in it but it ultimately has a comedic happy ending and showcases her and the chemistry she had with Polly Moran.
Dinner At Eight (1933) is Dressler 101. It's studio filmmaking at its best 101. It's George Cukor 101. It's Jean Harlow 101. It's the basic movie that shows MGM at its best and a type of movie at which MGM was starting to excel. One year before Dinner At Eight you had Grand Hotel (1932), which was this amazing experiment where MGM decided to bring together five of its top stars for an ensemble.
Guillén: Which you detail masterfully in Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory.
Kennedy: Thank you. That was a fun chapter to research and write. Grand Hotel was a grand experiment and was considered inefficient because—with all these high-paid stars—why would you put five of them in one movie? As opposed to the conventional pairing of one male star, one female star, which was the formula for casting big stars in the early studio age? But Thalberg got this great idea to do an ensemble and Grand Hotel was an off-the-charts hit. Dinner At Eight was basically their follow-up to that concept, that structure. They assembled more of the great stars at MGM, including Dressler, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, John and Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, all of these top-of-the-line stars. But, ultimately, I think Dinner At Eight is better than Grand Hotel as surviving entertainment. It's extraordinarily witty in terms of the mores, customs and culture of the New York upper crust during the Depression. In fact, the upper crust was feeling the Depression in the movie and the plot developments pertain to losing fortunes.
Guillén: And I will always be beholden to Dinner At Eight because it is my understanding that, upon his third viewing when he caught it at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento, it inspired a certain young man to write his first book on Marie Dressler.
Kennedy: It's true! I love that movie. Thank you, Michael. Aw shucks. I've told you this: we left the theater gaga over this magnificent tower of stardom Marie Dressler bemoaning the fact that we haven't seen anything the likes of her since; but, what was she? Who was she? That started this idea that I wanted to write her biography. She plays this stage star who's long retired but whose fortunes are ebbing. She has so much wisdom in her performance. There's so much winking humor about, "I know what love's about. I know about good times and bum times." Actually, she was born too soon. She could have done Sondheim's Follies.
Guillén: And actually, for me, the film harkens back to an era of sociality. These days, I hardly know anyone who gives dinner parties.
Kennedy: Formal dinner parties where the guest list and where they sat was absolutely critically important, yeah.
Guillén: Exactly. I love it for that.
Kennedy: I do too, actually. It's a lesson, perhaps, in bygone customs but still very witty and still relevant, because it's about social climbing and prestige. Those themes are ageless. Jean Harlow says, "I'm going to be a lady if it kills me." That line is so fabulously incongruent. The last lines of that movie—the dialogue between Dressler and Harlow—are among the most famous in film history. I see clips of that scene all the time.
Guillén: Astronomically, their exchange would be a perfect example of a binary star system.
Kennedy: Exactly. Thank you. That's why it works. There's an equal amount of wattage going on….
Guillén: …And a distinct gravitational field going on.
Kennedy: …with these two women who, on the surface, could not appear to be more dissimilar and that's part of the success of that moment.
Kennedy: We next have Min and Bill (1930), which is perhaps Marie's second most famous movie after Dinner At Eight. It won her the Academy Award. It was the fourth Best Actress award ever given and it was a vehicle specifically fashioned for her by her dear friend Frances Marion. It's a short comedy drama about a woman who lives on the wharf who has informally adopted a young girl and is protecting her from her returning wicked mother. It was also—nominally at least—considered a movie that was part of the famous Marie Dressler-Wallace Beery screen team. Bill was played by Wallace Beery. But if you look at the movie in that perspective, you realize that it's really her movie; Beery's performance is very much supportive. But when they are on together, you see similarly a great chemistry there as these two grizzled wharf rats in this long term relationship. They're not married but we can assume they are boyfriend and girlfriend—a pre-Code element going on there—but, they have this wonderful chemistry; a knowing, long-term, comfortable relationship—"I can say anything to you and you can say anything to me"—although they also have a brawl in this movie where Marie decks Beery and throws him across the room in a fit of pique that's pretty amazing. You see this and think, "I wouldn't want to be on her wrong side." When she was angry, the earth shook.
Min and Bill is also stylistically a movie we're not used to today. It freely plays with comedy and drama in a way I don't think you see today. Certainly there are comedy dramas today.
Guillén: How do you mean? Is it the pacing? The rhythm?
Kennedy: There's some fairly quick lurching between what appears to be slapstick to what appears to be heavy drama involving harsh violence and death, accomplished in a muted way.
Guillén: Were those conscious transitions on the part of the filmmakers or something we're perceiving in retrospect?
Kennedy: It's conscious; but, what I think I'm trying to say is it's not as explicit as what you'd see today. We have dark comedies or dramedies today but they're a little bit more self-conscious in how that comedy and drama is being interplayed. Here, it almost feels like a potluck. "We're going to have some slapstick, but in five minutes the gun is going to fire and somebody's going to be dead." In that way, I'm not sure it's entirely successful because it doesn't always feel like there's a maximum emotional potential that's being reached here, in terms of the effect. That's somewhat true of Dinner At Eight, which is remembered as a sparkling social comedy, but there's some dark undertones involving disease and death. The dramatic elements are so tamped down for fear of—I don't know—offending people? In a more modern treatment the dramatic elements would be thrust forward alongside the comedy. It's an interesting relationship between the drama and the comedy. You just have to see it. The formula has changed. The equilibrium has changed.
Guillén: As if the masks are half-on, half-off, with not as distinct a transition between the two?
Kennedy. Yes. But Marie's performance has that tough and tender quality. I can see why she won the Academy Award. I'm not sure it would be my choice in her career as is often the case with the Academy Awards.
Emma (1932) is my last recommendation. A lot of people I've read or talked to who have a peripheral interest in Marie or are interested in some other aspect of this movie beside Marie—Frances Marion or the fact that Myrna Loy's in it or that it's an MGM picture—a lot of people speak disparagingly of this movie as being overly sentimental and a little bit unbelievable. Certainly it's unbelievable. But I disagree with their disparagement. It is absolutely a sentimental wallow. It is also a 70-minute celebration of Marie Dressler. You've never seen a movie that is so clearly a thorough vehicle for somebody and it was written with great love and care by Frances Marion with the idea that it would exploit as much of Marie's humanistic qualities as possible. She's given drama, she's given comedy, and they're more artfully integrated, perhaps, than they are in Min and Bill, which was also written by Frances Marion by the way. But Emma is her's alone. There's no Wallace Beery. Everybody else in the movie is there to be a support to her. She plays a housekeeper who's been in this home for a long time, the kids have grown, and there's not a lot of need for her in the home as there used to be but she enters into a romantic relationship with her employer, played by Jean Hersholt. There are some sweet scenes between the two of them as senior citizens finding love with each other.
As I mentioned, Myrna Loy has a role as one of the children. It's interesting to see her before she was really Myrna Loy, y'know? Straddling the exotic era of her career and her great success with The Thin Man era, which would come up in a few years.
Guillén: Before we leave your recommended five—which are not necessarily your favorite five—can you speak a bit about the relationship between Frances Marion and Marie Dressler? Clearly, there's a substance to that friendship that determined so much of Dressler's filmic success.
Kennedy: Let me say that the story of friendship between Marie Dressler and Frances Marion would make a great screenplay—"Call me!" [laughs]—but the two of them met way back in 1911 when Frances Marion was a cub reporter for The San Francisco Examiner. She was a native San Franciscan and was asked to interview Dressler as she came through San Francisco with her very successful vaudeville show Tillie's Nightmare, which of course was the source for Tillie's Punctured Romance. It's very well-remembered in Frances Marion's memoirs and Marie's, and I've incorporated that into the biography, but they moreorless hit it off immediately. They stayed in and out of touch through the subsequent years. They met up again in the 1920s when Marie was quite destitute. Keep in mind also that Frances Marion was much younger, about 30 years younger, and Marie at one point said she started to see Frances as the daughter she never had because of her love-ability and the maternal instincts Marie could usher upon her because she was much more experienced in the ways of show business. Frances Marion had several different types of writing careers. She went from being a newspaper reporter to being a screenwriter and was extraordinary writing screenplays for Mary Pickford and a host of other stars. Her story alone is fascinating. But the two of them as friends really benefited Marie in the late '20s when Frances Marion noted that her friend was quite destitute. She had lost all her money caring for her invalid husband—who actually wasn't her husband—and so on and so forth. What Frances Marion did as a screenwriter at a very young MGM was to approach Thalberg and said, "I'd like to do a movie with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran"—this was still in the silent era—and Thalberg said, "Marie Dressler is a has-been, she's washed up, why would you want to do this?" But basically he was eventually persuaded and they did a movie called The Callahans and The Murphys (1927), which is a fascinating story in itself because the movie is no longer available; Mayer had it destroyed. No copies have ever surfaced. If it ever did, it would be a glorious day in film history.
Guillén: But there's enough published Irish dissent to the movie that we basically have a sense of what it was about?
Kennedy: Right. The Irish were mightily offended and used the Church to pressure MGM to basically withdraw all copies and then I guess it was Mayer who ordered them incinerated. No copies have been seen since. There's another fascinating subplot in this whole thing. Frances was heartsick that this comeback vehicle she'd written for Marie was aborted and could only make good on that offer three years later when Anna Christie was being adapted for the screen. At that point Frances lobbied that Marie would be perfect for the role of Marthy, the sodden denizen of the bar that's run by Anna's father.
So the friendship between Marie Dressler and Frances Marion intersected in their lives in critical ways throughout the years, from 1911 to Marie's death in 1934. There are ways in which Marie benefited Frances a great deal, in terms of taking her in and being present when her husband was sick and dying, and protecting Frances early in her career from William Randolph Hearst, among others. This friendship is just extraordinary.
Guillén: I admire how you highlight their friendship in your biography of Dressler because it's a reminder of the enduring value of friendship at any time in any career.
Kennedy: Their friendship is the emotional through line for at least half of the book. It's tremendously moving. Emma was written by Frances Marion. Min and Bill was written by Frances Marion. Dinner At Eight was adapted by Frances Marion. Of the five I'm recommending, three of them have Marion's name on them.
Guillén: The final thing I'd like to point out is that at least four of the films you've recommended—Prosperity, Dinner At Eight, Min and Bill, and Emma—have been scheduled back-to-back by TCM so they're all easily captured if you're popping a 6-hour video cassette into the VCR. Thank you, Matthew.
Kennedy: Thank you, Michael. A pleasure as always.
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TCM's "Summer Under the Stars" schedule for Marie Dressler on Monday, August 4, runs as follows (PST):
3:00AM The Hollywood Revue (1929)
5:00AM Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)
6:30AM The Divine Lady (1929)
8:15AM The Vagabond Lover (1929)
9:30AM The Girl Said No (1930)
11:15AM Let Us Be Gay (1930)
12:45PM Reducing (1931)
2:15PM Politics (1931)
3:30PM Prosperity (1932)
5:00PM Dinner at Eight (1933)
7:00PM Min and Bill (1930)
8:15PM Emma (1932)
9:30PM Anna Christie (1930)
11:15PM Tugboat Annie (1933)
12:45AM That's Entertainment! III (1994)