A Master of Reinvention
It's difficult to imagine how a Canadian girl in the mid-1880s found the strength and determination to leave home at 14 to make a career in the theatre. but this is exactly what Leila Marie Koerber did. Perhaps having a miserable, abusive martinet of a father helped, but still; time, place, and gender usually trump. Using the stage name Marie Dressler (borrowed from an aunt), young Leila and her older sister Bonita left their domineering father to make a life on the stage.
Marie's first paying job was as a chorus girl in a Nevada theatre company. Her expressiveness and comic timing led to meatier roles in increasingly more prestigious venues, eventually landing her on Broadway as a light opera star and headlining vaudevillian. Dressler was a major sensation throughout the 1890s and early 1900s and, when the first round of motion pictures came around, she was able to put one of her most popular stage characters on the big screen.
This was, of course, "Tillie Banks" in the famous (and hilarious) Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) with Charlie Chaplin and the great Mabel Normand. It was Dressler's first film as well as the first feature-length comedy ever. She made several Tillie spinoffs, but did not enjoy the same level of success in early pictures as she did on stage, so she went back to New York. In 1917, she had the star power to pull in huge crowds to sell bonds during the Great War, but her active involvement with the Actor's Strike of 1919 got her in serious hot water. Having been an overworked and poorly-paid chorine in her early career, Dressler organized and led the chorus girls' strike and was immediately blacklisted by theater management.
Now in her early fifties, with no work in the offing from the stage and having to care for an invalid spouse, Dressler ran through her savings. By the time her husband died in 1921, she was practically destitute. Turns out the guy wasn't really her husband, as he had lied about being divorced from his first wife and staged his marriage to Dressler with the help of an actor friend. Just the kind of thing you want to find out when your whole life is in the crapper. The next several years were lean.
By the late 1920s, Dressler's friend, the MGM screenwriter Frances Marion had been talking her up to studio head Irving Thalberg, who had her team up with former Mack Sennett regular, Polly Moran, in a series of comedies about drunken Irish slum-dwellers. The hilarity was somewhat lost on America's Irish population, however, and an anti-defamation protest was launched (rightly) against such pictures. This time with management behind her -- particularly in the powerful form of Louis B. Mayer, who loved her -- Dressler would begin the most successful phase of her professional life.
Between 1927 and 1933, she would make 22 pictures, playing everything from slovens to society matrons. Her physique and her age made her uniquely suited to such roles and her stage training made her particularly valuable to a film industry transitioning from silent to talking pictures. In this six year period, she dominated the screen in such classics as:
Marie Dressler was 60 years old when she became a popular movie actress and 63 when she won the Academy Award for best actress in Min and Bill. By 1933, she was one of the top box office draws in the country and became the first woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine (August 7, 1933).
For a woman who was never particular pretty or slender or young or any of the usual qualities that typified Hollywood leading ladies, Marie Dressler killed. The last seven years of her work in film were her last years on earth. She died of cancer after the filming of Christopher Bean at the age of 65, very much loved, very much admired, and very much appreciated.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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