She was in the first full-length film comedy in 1914 and later won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1931 for her role in Min and Bill
Tillie’s Punctured Romance
Tillie’s Tomato Surprise
The Scrub Lady
Tillie Wakes Up
The Red Cross Nurse
The Joy Girl
The Callahans and the Murphys
Breakfast at Sunrise
Bringing Up Father
Voice of Hollywood
The Vagabond Lover
Hollywood Revue of 1929
The Voice of Hollywood No. 14
Screen Snapshots Series 9, No. 14
The March of Time
Let Us Be Gay
One Romantic Night
The Girl Said No
Jackie Cooper’s Birthday Party
By the time we hit fifty, we have learned our hardest lessons. We have found out that only a few things are really important. We have learned to take life seriously, but never ourselves. ~Marie Dressler
Marie Dressler was born Leila Marie Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, one of two daughters born to Anna (née Henderson), a musician, and Alexander Rudolph Koerber.
Her father was a music teacher in Cobourg and the organist at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, where as a child Marie would sing and assist in operating the organ. According to Dressler, the family regularly moved from community to community during her childhood.
The Koerber family eventually moved to the United States, where Alexander Koerber is known to have worked as a piano teacher in the late 1870s and early 1880s in Bay City and Saginaw (both in Michigan) as well as Findlay, Ohio. Her first known acting appearance was as Cupid at age five in a church theatrical performance in Lindsay, Ontario. Residents of the towns where the Koerbers lived recalled Dressler acting in many amateur productions, and Leila often aggravated her parents with those performances.
Dressler left home at 14 to begin her acting career with the Nevada Stock Company, telling the company she was actually 18. The pay was $6 per week, and she sent half to her mother. At this time, Dressler adopted the name of an aunt as her stage name. According to Dressler, her father objected to her using the name of Koerber. The identity of the aunt was never confirmed, although Dressler denied that she adopted the name from a store awning.
The Nevada Stock Company was a traveling company that played mostly in the American Midwest. Dressler described the troupe as a “wonderful school in many ways. Often a bill was changed on an hour’s notice or less. Every member of the cast had to be a quick study”. Dressler made her professional debut as a chorus girl named Cigarette in the play Under Two Flags, a dramatization of life in the Foreign Legion.
Dressler remained with the troupe for three years, while her sister left to marry playwright Richard Ganthony. The company eventually ended up in a small Michigan town without money or a booking. Dressler joined the Robert Grau Opera Company, which toured the Midwest, and she received an improvement in pay to $8 per week, although Dressler claimed she never received any wages.
She ended up in Philadelphia, where she joined the Starr Opera Company as a member of the chorus. She left the Starr company to return home to her parents in Saginaw. According to Dressler, when the Bennett and Moulton Opera Company came to town, she was chosen from the church choir by the company’s manager and asked to join the company. She remained with the company for three years, again on the road, playing roles of light opera.
She remained with the company until 1891, gradually increasing in popularity. She moved to Chicago and was cast in productions of Little Robinson Crusoe and The Tar and the Tartar. After the touring production of The Tar and the Tartar came to a close, she moved to New York City.
In 1892, Dressler made her debut on Broadway at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. She now made $50 per week, with which she supported her parents.
In 1896, Dressler landed her first starring role as Flo in George Lederer’s production of The Lady Slavey at the Casino Theatre on Broadway, co-starring British dancer Dan Daly. It was a great success, playing for two years at the Casino. She became known for her hilarious facial expressions, seriocomic reactions, and double takes. With her large, strong body, Dressler could improvise routines where she would carry Daly to the delight of the audience.
In 1900, Dressler formed her own theatre troupe, which performed Miss Prinnt in cities of the northeastern U.S. The production of Miss Prinnt was a failure, and Dressler was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Dressler had appeared in two shorts as herself, but her first role in a feature film came in 1914 at the age of 44. In 1902, she had met fellow Canadian Mack Sennett and helped him get a job in the theater. After Sennett became the owner of his namesake motion picture studio, he convinced Dressler to star in his 1914 silent film Tillie’s Punctured Romance. The film was to be the first full-length, six-reel motion picture comedy. According to Sennett, a prospective budget of $200,000 meant that he needed “a star whose name and face meant something to every possible theatre-goer in the United States and the British Empire.”
The movie was based on Dressler’s hit Tillie’s Nightmare. She claimed to have cast Charlie Chaplin in the movie as her leading man, and was “proud to have had a part in giving him his first big chance.” Instead of his recently invented Tramp character, Chaplin played a villainous rogue. Silent film comedian Mabel Normand also starred in the movie. Tillie’s Punctured Romance was a hit with audiences, and Dressler appeared in two Tillie sequels and other comedies until 1918, when she returned to vaudeville.
Dressler toured the United States during World War I, selling Liberty Bonds and entertaining the American Expeditionary Forces. American dough-boys in France named both a street and a cow after Dressler. The cow was killed, leading to “Marie Dressler: Killed in Line of Duty” headlines, about which Dressler (paraphrasing Mark Twain) quipped, “I had a hard time convincing people that the report of my death had been greatly exaggerated.”
In 1922, after her husband’s death, Dressler and writers Helena Dayton and Louise Barrett tried to sell a script to the Hollywood studios, but were turned down. The one studio to hold a meeting with the group rejected the script, saying all the audiences wanted is “young love.” The proposed co-star of Lionel Barrymore or George Arliss were rejected as “old fossils”. In 1925, Dressler filmed a pair of two-reel short movies in Europe for producer Harry Reichenbach. The movies, titled the Travelaffs were not released, considered a failure by both Dressler and Reichenbach. Dressler announced her retirement from show business.
After failing to sell a film script, Dressler took an extended trip to Europe in Fall 1922. After she returned, Dressler found it difficult to find work, considering America to be “youth-mad” and “flapper-crazy”. She busied herself with visits to veteran hospitals. To save money, Dressler moved into the Ritz Hotel, arranging for a small room at a discount. In 1923, she received a small part in a revue at the Winter Garden Theatre, called The Dancing Girl, but she was not offered any work after the show closed. In 1925, she was able to perform as part of the cast of a vaudeville show which went on a five-week tour, but still could not find any work back in New York City. In 1926, Dressler made a final appearance on Broadway as part of an Old Timers’ bill at the Palace Theatre.
In early 1927, Dressler received a lifeline from director Allan Dwan. Although versions differ as to how Dressler and Dwan met, including that Dressler was contemplating suicide, Dwan offered her a part in a film he was planning to make in Florida. The film, The Joy Girl, an early color production, only provided a small part as her scenes were finished in two days, but Dressler returned to New York upbeat after her experience with the production.
Later that year, Frances Marion, a screenwriter for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio, came to Dressler’s rescue. Marion had seen Dressler in the 1925 vaudeville tour and witnessed Dressler at her professional low-point. Dressler had shown great kindness to Marion during the filming of Tillie Wakes Up in 1917, and in return, Marion used her influence with MGM’s production chief Irving Thalberg to return Dressler to the screen. Her first MGM feature was The Callahans and the Murphys (1927), a rowdy silent comedy co-starring Dressler (as Ma Callahan) with another former Mack Sennett comedian, Polly Moran, written by Marion.
The film was initially a success, but the portrayal of Irish characters caused a protest in the Irish World newspaper, protests by the American Irish Vigilance Committee, and pickets outside the film’s New York theatre. The film was first cut by MGM in an attempt to appease the Irish community, then eventually pulled from release after Cardinal Dougherty of the diocese of Philadelphia called MGM president Nicholas Schenck. It was not shown again, and the negative and prints may have been destroyed. While the film brought Dressler to Hollywood, it did not re-establish her career. Her next appearance was a minor part in the First National film Breakfast at Sunrise. She appeared again with Moran in Bringing Up Father, another film written by Marion. Dressler returned to MGM in 1928’s The Patsy as the mother of the characters played by stars Marion Davies and Jane Winton.
Hollywood was converting from silent films, but “talkies” presented no problems for Dressler, whose rumbling voice could handle both sympathetic scenes and snappy comebacks (the wisecracking stage actress in Chasing Rainbows and the dubious matron in Rudy Vallée’s Vagabond Lover). Frances Marion persuaded Thalberg to give Dressler the role of Marthy in the 1930 film Anna Christie. Garbo and the critics were impressed by Dressler’s acting ability, and so was MGM, which quickly signed her to a $500-per-week contract. Dressler went on to act in comedic films which were popular with movie-goers and a lucrative investment for MGM. She became Hollywood’s number-one box-office attraction, and stayed on top until her death in 1934.
She also took on serious roles. For Min and Bill, with Wallace Beery, she won the 1930–31 Academy Award for Best Actress (the eligibility years were staggered at that time). She was nominated again for Best Actress for her 1932 starring role in Emma, but lost to Helen Hayes. Dressler followed these successes with more hits in 1933, including the comedy Dinner at Eight, in which she played an aging but vivacious former stage actress. Dressler had a memorable bit with Jean Harlow in the film:
Harlow: I was reading a book the other day.
Dressler: Reading a book?
Harlow: Yes, it’s all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Dressler: Oh my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.
Following the release of that film, Dressler appeared on the cover of Time, in its August 7, 1933 issue. MGM held a huge birthday party for Dressler in 1933, broadcast live via radio. Her newly regenerated career came to an abrupt end when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1934. MGM head Louis B. Mayer learned of Dressler’s illness from her doctor and reportedly asked that she not be told. To keep her home, he ordered her not to travel on her vacation because he wanted to put her in a new film. Dressler was furious but complied.
On Saturday, July 28, 1934, Dressler died of cancer, aged 65, in Santa Barbara, California. After a private funeral held at The Wee Kirk o’ the Heather chapel, Dressler was interred in a crypt in the Great Mausoleum in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.
She appeared in more than 40 films, and achieved her greatest successes in talking pictures made during the last years of her life. The first of her two autobiographies, The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling, was published in 1924; a second book, My Own Story, “as told to Mildred Harrington,” appeared a few months after her death.