The Magazine

'Laugh Yourself Fat'

Rediscovering the comic superstar of the Depression.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By HELEN RITTELMEYER
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A Great Big Girl Like Me

The Films of Marie Dressler

by Victoria Sturtevant

Illinois, 200 pp., $20

She was the first actress to appear on the cover of Time. She was Franklin Roosevelt's favorite comedian. In Dinner at Eight, she was given billing above not one, but two Barrymores. And today no one under the age of 60 remembers who she is.

Marie Dressler's obscurity is easy to understand. In her own day it was said that her talent allowed her to "dictate to directors, buy herself diamond bracelets, and let herself get fat--which is one more right than any other screen star can exercise." History has been less kind to this portly, cow-faced actress. In 1930, critics all agreed that she walked away with Greta Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie. Seventy years later, one of Garbo's cigarette butts went for $352 at auction, and Marie Dressler is only just famous enough to appear on a Canadian postage stamp.

But between 1930 and 1933 Marie Dressler was bigger than Chaplin. Her first attempt to make the leap from vaudeville to Hollywood was undermined by bad management and a reputation for left-wing troublemaking, but after her big break in 1930 with Anna Christie, she became one of MGM's most reliable box-office draws, especially in films that cast her as a tottering drunk or a comic old dowager. Her winning streak ended with her death in 1934.

She came closest to cementing a permanent legacy with the ensemble comedy Dinner at Eight, which ends with Dressler's famous exchange with Jean Harlow. Harlow, playing the crass gold-digger Kitty Packard, mentions to Dressler that she was reading a book the other day. Dressler's exaggerated double-take is straight out of vaudeville. "Yeah, all about civilization or something," Harlow continues. "Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?"

Dressler sizes up the younger woman in a glance and answers, "Oh, my dear, that's something you never need worry about."

An earlier biographer, Matthew Kennedy, summed up Dressler's special appeal: "Her secret was simple but effective--inject some humility into regal characters and some majesty into the downtrodden." Her maternal warmth and knack for physical comedy were perfectly suited to the tastes of an America scraping its way through the Great Depression.

Forget the hemline index; in times of economic trouble, a woman with an ample figure is comforting, especially if she is also a master of vaudevillian slapstick. (The tagline of her film Reducing: "You'll Laugh Yourself Fat!") That is what makes Dressler a more interesting subject than any studio-era soubrette; her superstardom says as much about America during the Depression as it does about her.

If A Great Big Girl Like Me has a weakness, that's it: Victoria Sturtevant is so quick to attribute Dressler's success to personal genius that she overlooks the historical factors that allowed a homely sexagenarian to eclipse MGM's prettier properties. One generally has to grant first-time authors special dispensation to be in love with their subjects; but in Sturtevant's case, her obvious fascination with Dressler's talent leaves her blind to other, more interesting, reasons for Dressler's success.

Consider her chapter on motherhood. Dressler was a rare exception to Mack Sennett's iron rule that "no joke about a mother ever gets a laugh," and Sturtevant does an excellent job of illustrating just how seriously this rule was taken in Hollywood. Studios expected screen mothers to be sentimental pillars of stability, which left very little room for chaotic slapstick or screwball banter.

The hundred insufferable copycats that followed Al Jolson's "Mammy" are mostly forgotten today, but in the first five years of talkies, hymns to maternal self-sacrifice were ubiquitous. Sturtevant quotes Anita Loos's But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1928): "Dorothy says that if we could only manage to get all the song writers in the world to meet Henry's mother, it would be the quickest way to free the world of Mother songs."