Articles

MARIE DRESSLER QUEEN OF THE MOVIE QUEENS

James Dugan March 15 1952
Articles

MARIE DRESSLER QUEEN OF THE MOVIE QUEENS

James Dugan March 15 1952

MARIE DRESSLER QUEEN OF THE MOVIE QUEENS

James Dugan

Articles

TEN THOUSAND tourists a year go to a small brick bungalow at 212 King Street West, Cobourg, Ont., to visit the birthplace of a movie star who had the shortest of Hollywood careers — four years — has been dead seventeen years, and lived in the house only a short time as an infant eighty years ago. But to the pilgrims Marie Dressier is a lasting memory as she is to millions of others. The ponderous, moonfaced, growling woman in her sixties was the queen of the movies in the depression years. She sat higher in che box-office pantheon than Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow or Mickey Mouse. Her impression is so deep that people start when reminded that she died in 1934, when Churchill was a screen writer, Roosevelt was a novelty and Hitler was a pup.

She made twenty-five hundred dollars a week. She was the Actress of the Year for 1932. Twelve thousand theatre owners voted her more profitable than any other star in Hollywood. She lived in a sixteen-room house and when she went on locat ion her grateful employer bought her a vine-covered cottage and had it moved overland to serve as a temporary dressing room.

Will Rogers said, “Marie Dressier is the real queen of our movies”; beautiful young stars chomped their bleached teeth and knew it to be true. When Marie went to Washington to offer Roosevelt help in licking the depression there were spontaneous street demonstrations. She was the life raft of a movie industry wallowing in economic storm; she helped out by making the unprecedented number of twenty-four hit movies in four years.

Marie’s life was all noise and bravura, tremendous flops and howling successes, scandals and virtue, barrels of money and empty cupboards. She had three distinct starring careers broken by long intermissions of failure and unemployment. In the early Nineties she was a top stage comedienne and was blacklisted from the theatre for five years around the turn of the century for defying Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, the despots of the business. Marie came back to bigger heights only to crash under triple misfortune: bankruptcy, an

almost fatal illness and the death of her mother. In the Twenties while almost everyone else was enjoying the boom Marie was broke and jobless. Then when everybody else went for the dive in the early Thirties Marie swaggered into phenomenal fame and fortune.

Marie Dressler’s last career in the films began when she appeared as Marthy Owen, a boozy waterfront derelict, in Greta Garbo’s first talking picture, Anna Christie, in 1930. A big advance advertising campaign boomed, “Garbo Talks!” Before audiences glimpsed the brooding Swede or heard her first electronic utterance they were confronted with a surprise. The film opens on Marie dozing drunkenly in a rocking chair on a coal barge. Her face is averted. Her director, Clarence Brown, lets her get hold of the crowd before he turns her face to the camera and fans out her virtuoso’s range of facial expressions, which could shutterclick from drunken collapsed vacancy to a beaming smile as confident as Roosevelt’s. Marie belches. She rises. Then she talks. By the time Garbo comes on and says, “I know you. You’re me forty years later,” she is too far behind Marie to catch up. And Garbo’s performance is her best.

The critics joined t he t icket buyers in discovering the great new actress. One reviewer wrote a paean to tire battered hat Marie wore in the film. Marie snorted, “My own hat. It was perfectly good for years!”

Marie’s new era was bigger than the palmy days in gaslit New York. The cabinet ministers of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer looked at the first returns on Anna Christie, fired up big heaters in their kissers, and mooted how much money could be taken with Dressier and how quick. It turned out to be fifty million dollars in four years from twenty-four pictures. Other stars helped draw the money but Marie was the collateral on the ventures. Marie never had a contract with MGM. She was satisfied with a verbal agreement of twenty-five hundred dollars a week and when they threw in a dress, a brooch, or a five-hundred-pound birthday

cake, it was the sort of offhand token she had been accustomed to since the days when society leader Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish removed a diamond bangle and tossed it to her.

Most of Marie’s twenty-four films were standard Hollywood pulp: Reducing, Politics, The Patsy,

Breakfast at Sunrise, Divine Lady, Joy Girl, Vagabond Lover, Singer of Seville, Bringing Up Father, and One Romantic Night were a few specimens. They paid off because she was in them.

The Dressier bonanza assayed so rich that MGM’s claim was tunneled on all sides by rival prospectors. She appeared also in RKO, Universal and 20th Century-Fox pictures. A producer stuck with that week’s masterpiece would borrow Marie for a quick sequence and light up his marquee

with MARIE DRESSEER in DANGEROUS FEMALES.

Her best-remembered vehicles, Min & Bill and Tugboat Annie, were lovingly custom-built by screen writer Frances Marion. The former won Marie the 1931 Academy Award. The prize dinner was a tearful service of high hearts and deep

devotion. When Norma Shearer, the deposed titleholder, handed Marie the curious sculpture, those present were moved to the depths of their double-entry bookkeeping. Marie kept The Industry afloat in the depression. The exhibitor who didn’t have a Dressier might be forced into the kitchenware business to keep his store front lit.

When Lawrence Tibbett came out to make a film he was warned, “Look out for Marie, she’s always stealing pictures.” The singer shrewdly remarked, “I wish she’d steal one of mine.”

Everyone liked Marie, including Lockhart’s Elephants, an act with which she had once been booked in vaudeville. The discerning elephants got a crush on Marie and fondled her as a pet. Once Marie went on in Lockhart’s stead and put the elated beasts through their tricks. Seasons later Marie dropped in on the act in New England. The pachyderms, who were idly counting the house, spied Marie. They arose and trumpeted to her. Years passed. Marie was watching the opening of the Ringling Circus in Chicago.

A queue of twenty

The outsize actress from Cobourg, Ont., crowded three whizzbang careers, spaced by two equally large flops, into a tempestuous life that ended on a rising note of triumph

Continued on page 52

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elephants, linked trunk to tail, was plodding around the tanbark when two mammoths broke out, ran over to Marie and shrilled tender greetings. They were two of Lockhart’s artists who had been sold down to Ringling’s after his death.

Marie Dressier’s stormy passage began in Cobourg, Ont., on Nov. 9,

1869, when she was born to Alexander Koerber, the melancholy organist of nearby St. Peter’s Anglican Church, and his Trish-Canadian wife Anne, the daughter of a shipowner in the Maritimes. The baby was baptized Leila Koerber. (She adopted an aunt’s name for the stage.) The father was an Austrian who had served in both the German and British armies. In Canada he became an itinerant church organist and music teacher, moving from town to town. “Never shall I forget those naked clean-swept little Canadian towns,” Marie recalled. “Be-

fore I was twelve 1 must have lived in fifty of them.” She was ill-favored and lusty and shot up in tomboy style. At seventeen she ran away with a provincial opera troupe to support the family. She aped and cartwheeled her way up through provincial opera troupes to become a Broadway star in the Nineties.

Along the way Marie virtually lived in the theatre, watching, memorizing and analyzing. The first time she saw an acrobat do a backbend and lift a handkerchief with his teeth she battered the boardinghouse furniture mas-

tering the trick. She learned how to improvise gags, do comedy falls, dance like a prairie cyclone and sing like a Neapolitan crazed on grappo. She got her first notices at twenty-three in New York, when she played in The Robbers of the Rhine, the first play-writing venture of the matinee idol Maurice Barrymore, whose children — Lionel, fourteen, Ethel, thirteen, and John, ten—had not yet confined his fame to fatherhood. On opening night Marie stood in the wings as the principals went on stage and blew Barrymore’s lines into the flies. Amnesia reigned. Then the lost actors heard the powerful j sibilants of Big Marie feeding them all [ the parts. She had memorized the I whole show.

In 1893 Marie moved up to support the famous beauty, Lillian Russell, who became her good friend. In the i mornings Marie and Lillian in bloomers j would cycle around the Central Park reservoir as La Russell’s wolfpack lined the cinder path muttering, “Beauty and the Beastie.” Marie bought her parents a house near New York City. On her way home on the Midnight Owl she did free shows for the train crew.

I She once said, “I was born chairman of the entertainment committee.”

She was taken up by high society. Marie arrived at a plush town-house affair and was directed up three flights of spiral bronze staircase by a frigid butler. At the top she got astride the rail and went down like a depth bomb. She landed on the butler and they snowballed across the foyer. The I functionary restored Marie to her pins ! and muttered, “I’ve always wanted to do that meself.”

Marie’s loudest note on the social register was struck one night at Proctor’s vaudeville house in New York where she was doing a burlesque on the Cherry Sisters. Down front sat a party of nobs commanded by Mrs. Stuvvesant Fish. Marie bounded on with a basket of leeks which she impulsively hurled into the audience. One of the vegetables smote Mrs. Fish on the noggin and tilted her tiara. The gallery deafeningly saluted the bull’seye. Mrs. Fish swept backstage and asked which was Marie’s dressing room. While the manager sweated at the keyhole Mrs. Fish begged Marie to come to her house and throw things at the Four Hundred.

In 1907 Marie hit London for six I in a variety triumph no American entertainer matched until Danny Kaye did it forty years later. The music halls paid her twelve hundred and fifty dollars a week, five times her top Broadway pay. Marie’s best friend, Nella Webb, went to her opening at the elite Palace Theatre, somewhat afraid of the impact of her pal’s i scenery-smashing art on the London carriage trade. “Marie came out_in a proper evening gown,” Nella recalls. “She looked gigantic: she was five feet ten and weighed over two hundred. With dignity she went over to the grand piano and gave if a mighty shove with one hand. The crowd roared. She did some comedy songs with hammy operatic effects. They screamed. For her curtain she had the nerve to do a straight rendition of Little Boy Blue. They broke down and bawled in their seats.”

Then Marie met disaster. She financed a show in London which flopped with a twenty-thousand-dollar debt. Her solicitors put her into bankruptcy but Marie insisted on paving off every copper. (Twenty-five years later, when she hit the Hollywood jackpot, she redeemed the IOUs.) She retreated to New York, was stricken with typhoid and her beloved mother died while Marie was helpless in bed. It looked like her closing notice. Her

fellow artists threw a benefit show to finance a decent retirement for her at forty.

Several months later Marie was the talk of the land in her greatest stage vehicle, Tillie’s Nightmare, singing her memorable song:

Then to him the brave girl these words did say:

Stand back there, villain, go your way

Here I will no longer stay:

Although you were a marquis or an earl.

You may tempt the upper classes

With your villainous demitasses

But Heaven will protect the working girl!

Marie went to Los Angeles in 1914 to sun herself and ran into Canadianborn Mack Sennett. He said, “Ever see my Keystone comedies?”

She exclaimed, “Your custard-pie work is marvelous, darling.”

Mack expanded in the praise of an expert and asked Marie, “Hovv’d you like to do a Tillie picture for me for two thousand a week?”

Marie said, “Sit down, darling. My feet are killing me.”

While D. W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation, Sennett made Tillie’s Bunctured Romance, the first U. S.

1 feature-length film.

On the Keystone lot Marie did a double-take at a small youth with a Cockney accent whom she had seen in the English music halls. She hauled him off to Sennett. “Mack, darling, of course we’re going to have my friend Charlie Chaplin in the picture?”

Tillie’s Bunctured Romance opened before Griffith’s masterpiece and it is still running in scratchy versions with

canned music. It stars Marie, supported by Chaplin and Mabel Normand. In her familiar farm-girl role Marie wears clown - white make - up, heavy inverted-V eyebrows and kohl rings around her beautiful pale eyes. Her eyes and her nimble fingers were her only aesthetic points. Chaplin had not yet adopted his tramp turnout. He plays a city slicker who induces Marie to steal her father’s money and run off with him. The big scene is a burlesque costume ball which ends with Marie shying pies like a clay-pigeon trap.

It was Marie’s first film. She did not sense what Chaplin already knew: that one must act precisely and delicately into the lens, which was closer than the front row of the theatre and yet could make a nostril bigger than Marie Dressier broad-jumping into the orchestra pit. She learned the secret years later and came perilously near matching Charlie’s genius at moving worlds with a finger and writing epics with an eyebrow.

In 1916 Marie signed with Florenz Ziegfeld for The Century Girl on Broadway. When she started super-

vising rehearsals the cold Ziegfeld announced to the papers, “In order to shorten an overlong performance Miss Marie Dressier has retired from the cast.” Marie gave Ziegfeld a merry ha-ha and sailed for Europe. Except for widely separated and short reprises she was to be unemployed for fourteen years.

Marie returned and blew her savings on a war-bond tour with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. She became friendly with the assistant secretary of the navy. Later in the White House, after both had

taken heavy blows, Marie felt in her marrow the sight of Franklin D. Roosevelt striving to his feet on his fleshless legs. She was personally acquainted with courage.

When she was thirty-eight Marie met the love of her life, James H. Dalton. He was a picaresque red-haired promoter who busily constructed schemes I around Marie and did not earn a living. One project was a one-hundredthousand - dollar movie company financed equally by ten of Marie’s friends. The company vanished and nobody knew where the money went. In 1920 Dalton was invalided by dropsy in a midtown New York house Marie owned. The couple’s only income came from renting the top floors of the house.

Marie secluded herself to nurse him. Nella Webb remembers, “I was shocked by her appearance. She had let herself run down careless dresses, slatternly shoes. Yet she thought she was a fashion designer. When she got the ! Academy Award in 1931 the studio fitted her with a five-hundred-dollar Adrian gown to wear to the dinner. Marie ripped it up and made it over.”

In 1921 Dalton died in Chicago, as “the husband of Marie Dressier.” Then Marie’s secret life exploded in the Press. “Information from Boston tonight revealed that Mrs. L. A. Dalton, of Brighton Avenue, Allston, a suburb of that city, claimed Dalton as her husband, and said he left her twelve I years ago,” said the New York Times. “Miss Dressier, through a representative, said tonight, ‘I met Mr. Dalton in 1907. At that time he was in financial straits, and I took him with me to manage my affairs. We grew in a few years to care a great deal for each other, and decided we would like to be married. Then Mr. Dalton told me of his wife, for I did not know until then that he was married.

“ ‘We went to this woman and with Mr. Dalton’s brother, begged her to divorce him. They had never been able to get along and there was every reason why she should divorce him. She laughed at us and refused. Since that time Mr. Dalton has always been my manager.’ ”

Fountains and a Gigolo

The life insurance company to which Marie had paid Dalton’s regular installments refused to recognize her as the beneficiary. The bitter revelation sent Marie retreating to Europe as the paid companion of a wealthy woman. When she returned it was the same as before: her retirement was an accepted fact. Marie launched rumors that she might entertain a comeback offer. 11 was too late. The jazz age was camel walking past with saxophones, hip hootch and moron dramas about flappers and sheiks. Marie was more than fifty. She didn’t fit the picture.

She put on her best front and noisily moved into the Ritz-Carlton, the cor rect address for a star of her magnitude. Albert Keller, the manager, was an old friend. He gave Marie his tiniest room and put her on the cuff at the Ritz Supper Club. There, in the delirious days of the big boom, you might don your paper hat, pour out your popskull and soda and sit next to an old dame that looked familiar. The MC would beg this old party to do a number and, by gad, she was terrific. Wealthy retired actress, Marie Dressier.

In 1925 Marie met Harry Reichenbach, king of press agents, with whom she dreamed up a series of film shorts -—Travelaughs—in which Marie would play an American Mrs. Malaprop, visiting famous places around the world. Nella Webb, who was a head shorter than Marie, would play her companion. The trio sailed for France where Marie

bought a motorcycle with a sideeai for Nella. They started shooting at Versailles and the gendarmes stopped them: a permit was required. Marie

applied for the paper but French cabinets were changing like vaudeville acts and nobody stayed in office long enough to channel the permit. Marie laid an ambush for the newest prime minister, Raymond Poincaré, as he arrived to take office. She shouldered through the Garde Républicaine, shoved the permit at Poincaré and shouted, “Ecriwz-vous, Monsieur!" The premier graciously gave his autograph to the American tourist.

The script called for Marie to walk among the Versailles fountains with a gigolo with whom she exchanged a nudge, then a shove and, inevitably, a fall into a fountain. When she climbed out no dry clothes had been provided. “Marie had to walk a half mile to the palace to change in the public lavatory,” said Nella, “and every step she got madder and madder. She hustled me into the sidecar and we roared back to the hotel. Marie booked the first boat for New York. They sent the unfinished films over but Marie refused to pay the duty and they were never released.”

The Big Star of Roly-Poly

Marie’s unemployment was lightened by the financier Jules Bache, who earmarked part of a stock-market wager for her and presented her with a cheque for eleven thousand dollars. She worked without pay to help Anne Morgan, sister of J. P. Morgan, raise two millions for a colossal clubhouse for professional actresses. The fund fell short. Miss Morgan had to fall back on Rockefeller. She poured a cosy tea for John D. Jr. and his advisory corps. She had them over the barrel when Marie bounded in, took charge and cracked a joke which depended on a vulgar anatomical term. The marks got up, closed their portfolios, and filed out. Marie made up for her protocol lapse by winnowing nineteen lesser rich fellows for the deficit. The clubhouse is now the Henry Hudson Hotel.

Up came something that looked like a break—a wire from director Allan Dwan offering Marie a one-hundred and-twenty-five-dollar bit part in a film in Florida. “It’s your comeback, Marie!” her friends cried. Marie amended her Who’s Who autobiography to read, “Returned to films 1926,” and went to Florida.

She got one day’s work.

Stranded in the sun she ran into Addison Mizner, the high-flying architect who built Palm Beach. He introduced Marie to the state’s principal industry, which consisted of people milling around selling submarine real estate plots to each other. Marie grabbed the phone and unloaded some choice reefs and shoals on her friends. She found out later it was a sucker game. Her friends forgave it.

At fifty-eight she had been out of her profession for eleven years. She moved in with Nella Webb, who had put out her astrologist’s place card on Marie’s advice: “Give up the

theatre, darling. You can be as old as God and still do horoscopes, but

nobody wants anybody in the theatre that is over seventeen.” Marie decided to be a cook and talked of going to Paris to open a restaurant and outdo Escofher. Some friends took her to Atlantic City for Christmas of 1926.

While Marie was in Atlantic City the Hollywood scenarist, Frances Marion, turned from her typewriter to ruffle a movie magazine and was arrested by a review of an Allan Dwan picture which praised a bit player named Marie Dressier. Frances Marion’s memory flashed back a quarter century to a dressing room in San Francisco, where the big star of Weber & Field’s hit Roly-Poly was being interviewed by a seventeen-year-old cub reporter. The actress was kind. She said to young Frances Marion, “Light out of here, darling. Go where you can do something with your talent.”

A .Summons from the Stars

Marion had taken Marie’s advice and was now the most famous of screen playwrights. Warmed by Marie’s memory, Frances Marion turned back to her script for The Callahans and the Murphys and wrote Marie’s prodigal personality into Mrs. Callahan. Marion’s weight at the MGM factory was enough to induce Irving Thalberg, the incumbent genius, to the preposterous idea of hiring a has-been named Dressier as the star of a big-budget production.

Nella says the Hollywood summons came on a day she had predicted by the stars, Jan. 17, 1927. Marie forgot the Paris restaurant and took off to destroy Hollywood. The shooting of the film went like a day in the fun house. The word went out that Thalberg had had his finest hour; he had pulled Marie Dressier out of his Homburg. Preview audiences left with, “Who was that wonderful dame that played Mrs. Cal-

lahan?” They were snickering over Marie’s picnic scene with Polly Moran: two heat-exhausted matrons collapsed against a tree, grabbed bottles of beer (it was still Prohibition), drew the brew lovingly toward them and sluiced the contents into their bodices, wriggling with pleasure.

Two weeks after the film opened it was withdrawn. The Irish Catholic AÍ Smith was running for president on a wet ticket and his cynical opponents charged that Al and the Pope of Rome were boring a tunnel into the White House to bring beer and such abandoned scenes as Marie and Polly under the tree.

The Silent Sheiks Had Gone

Marie got no more work. She played solitaire and waited for an offer. She had no actor’s agent to tout her wares.

Frances Marion was almost the only Hollywood figure who cared. Two years later Frances Marion was assigned to adapt Eugene O’Neill’s drama, Anna Christie, for Greta Garbo. The writer saw Marie as Marthy Owen, the old frump who befriends tragic Anna. Again Marion convinced Thalberg to use Marie. History itself was catching up with the old trouper. The flapper drama was as busted as the banks. Talking pictures had wiped out the silent sheiks and stood ready to throw Marie Dressler’s growls into peanut heaven. The picture made her a

tremendous box-office attraction overnight.

Marie’s last golden reign had to be crowded into a busy schedule. In 1931 she had a “tumor” operation. The movie manufacturers knew it was cancer. The bankers who were moving into control of the movies wanted no time wasted on the floor when Dressler’s pictures were rolling. Nella Webb visited Marie in the brick coionial pile her friend had bought from Adela Rogers St. John, the author. Instead of a motorcycle sidecar Marie toted her friend around in a black town car with a speaking tube and cut glass vases in the tonneau.

In 1933 Marie refused a ten-thousand-dollar-a-week radio offer. Her strength was going. When she finished the hard work on Tugboat Annie in the spring of 1934 the studio agreed she needed a rest. She had made three or four times more films in a year than other top stars. Marie was taken to a guest cottage on a rich man’s estate in Montecito, Calif. In June the world read a medical bulletin that Marie was in a coma and “death is only a question of time.”

“The bed on which the actress awaits the end has been so arranged that she can look over a pond of graceful waterlilies to the hazy blue of the Pacific,” said the New York Times, using the hokum lighting with which Hollywood flooded the old trouper. Marie’s last part was not of her choice and the play was directed by a heavy hand, but she gave it her best. She played on incredibly, against heart disease, cancer, kidney disease and uremic poisoning. Every day for a month the deathbed scene was repeated in the world Press. Marie’s last stand came on July 28, 1934.

The Industry staged an Emotional

Farewell at the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather and put her body next to that of Florenz Ziegfeld who had sacked her out of the theatre in 1916 The estate was probated at two hundred and eighty thousand dollars. Nella Webb received five thousand dollars and a charming figurine of Marie as Tillie Blobbs. The Negro servants, Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Cox, received fifty thousand dollars, her two cars and the household silver to remind them of Marie on their silver wedding anniversary. Other old friends received twenty-five thousand. Marie’s only sister, Mrs. Richard Ganthony, then a seventy-year-old widow in Britain, was willed the balance.

Made Out of Concrete

Three years after Hollywood’s glycerine grief, Marie’s footprints and autograph were obliterated from the local reliquary, the concrete in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, by means of relocating the box office on top of them. Nella Webb heard about it and yelled across the country. The cash register was lifted off. Today Marie's footprints hold an uneasy place in the cement but her home in the heart of a generation is secure.

Indeed, there are portents that Marie may make another comeback. Recently, at a historical screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an audience which may not have averaged seven years of age when Marie died, gathered to take notes on Greta Garbo and “The Rist; of the Swedish Film.” What they saw was Anna Christie twenty-one years after. They watched Marie’s astonishing talkie debut and, when she made her exit, they interrupted their Garbo devotions to applaud the unknown character actress. *