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."

Sturtevant writes that Marie Dressler sidestepped this convention by playing mothers as tricksters whose tricks were all "tricks of self-sacrifice." But the question is not how Dressler was able to combine the archetypes of trickster and mother, but how she managed to get away with it. After all, there was a time when she didn't: The Callahans and the Murphys (1927), which was supposed to be Dressler's comeback film, was pulled by MGM precisely because of the uproar over its depiction of Irish motherhood. One telegram referred to a scene of Dressler, as Mrs. Callahan, drunk at a St. Patrick's Day picnic: "[T]his entire sequence has been the butt of most of the Irish societies' complaints because it shows Irish mothers drunk." One man walked out of a showing in New York: "My mother never acted like that!"

It was only later, in films like Min & Bill and Tugboat Annie, that Dressler's slapstick version of motherhood became popular. What made the difference between 1927 and 1930? There are interesting cases to be made for the importance of the Depression's effect on gender roles--the way women were pushed to the center of the family and thereby made fit subjects for comedy--or for the idea that, when Americans are confronted by real national tragedy, they are less interested in cinematic melodrama.

If you ask Sturtevant, however, Dressler's success was simply the alchemy of genius.

This being an academic study, there is a chapter on Dressler's ambiguous sexuality, a subject on which Sturtevant does have quite a bit to say. The facts of Dressler's love life are unclear: She had an early marriage that failed, followed by a common law marriage to her business manager, who never successfully divorced his first wife. During her final years in Hollywood Dressler was friendly with several confirmed lesbians and shared a house with the actress Claire DuBrey in what looked to outsiders like a domestic partnership.

Given that the defining characteristic of lesbian culture in 1930s Hollywood was invisibility, these few details gave Sturtevant plenty to work with--especially since two of Dressler's movies, both of which Sturtevant discusses at length, have plots that revolve around the difficulty of imagining Dressler as a sexual being.

In Emma an aging inventor marries his housekeeper (Dressler) shortly before he dies and his children dispute the inventor's will: Marrying his housekeeper and leaving his estate to her, they argue, must surely have been signs of senility. In Christopher Bean Dressler plays another housekeeper with a controversial husband, in this case a dead painter whose work has finally come into fashion. Art collectors arrive at the household where Dressler serves in order to find lost masterpieces, but it takes them awhile to think to ask Dressler if she knows where any might be hidden. (In fact, her marriage to the painter, Christopher Bean, had been secret.)

In this second film Dressler's sexual invisibility is something of a blessing. After her secret is revealed, she has to contend with unscrupulous art dealers trying to buy her cherished portraits; things were much easier for her when she was being underestimated. As Sturtevant points out, this is not so different from the situation of a lesbian during the Depression. When the general population preferred to think that the cohabitation of two women was most likely innocent, the women in question had a certain amount of freedom. It is not entirely clear that Dressler belonged to the '30s lesbian subculture, but Sturtevant makes good use out of adopting her as "queer."

Sturtevant also observes about Dressler's political melodramas that, while they revolve around liberal arguments about plutocratic greed, the solutions they prescribe are personal, not political. Dressler saves the day by behaving like a good mother, not by staging a revolution. In a way, A Great Big Girl Like Me has the same weakness. Sturtevant seeks to revive Dressler's reputation for personal reasons, not historical ones: "I like Dressler's work" not "Her work is an important part of Hollywood history." Still, Marie Dressler is enough of an anomaly to be of inherent interest, and Victoria Sturtevant has taken the first step in the worthy cause of her rehabilitation.

Helen Rittelmeyer is a writer in Washington.