She had a face like a bulldog, if someone had been cruel enough to stamp on that bulldog with the heel of his boot—lantern jaw, bulbous nose, heavy bags under deep-set eyes. Her pear-shaped body sagged, her voice growled and the characters she played often wore their clothes as if a field of potatoes had crawled into a burlap sack and been too tired to crawl out again. But she was a gifted actress—Buster Keaton often called her "the greatest character comedienne I ever saw"—and for a brief time, from 1931 until her death in 1934, Marie Dressler was the most popular actress in America.
It was Dressler's supporting performance in this adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's stage play that, at the unlikely age of 62, set her on the path to stardom.
Anna Christie is the story of an immigrant's daughter, Anna (played by Greta Garbo), who returns to her father for the first time in fifteen years. Each has idealized memories of and hopes for the other only to discover that time hasn't been kind to either of them. It's best known now as Greta Garbo's sound debut—"Give me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don't be stingy, baby"—but it also launched Marie Dressler's comeback and made her the biggest box office draw of the Early Sound Era.
Dressler plays an aging, alcoholic "tramp" named Marthy who's shacking up with the father who suddenly finds her presence embarrassing when he gets news that the daughter he long ago sent to Minnesota to live with relatives is coming to visit.
By chance, the two women meet over a drink and it doesn't take Marthy long to size up Anna as a younger version of herself. They meet again later, in a scene screenwriter Frances Marion invented especially for Dressler, after Anna has met yet another man who has an idealized view of her and Marthy reminds her that life is too short to spend it apologizing for who you are and pretending to be something else, a brief but important scene that illuminates Anna's subsequent actions.
In their scenes together, Dressler eats the more-celebrated Garbo alive. To be sure Dressler possessed a theatrical talent that straddled the divide between the silent and modern eras, but I distinguish in my mind between an actor who chews scenery (Garbo, still relying on exaggerated, silent film techniques) and a character who chews scenery (Dressler's self-described "wharf rat" who hides her pain beneath a swaggering pose of indifference).
Garbo eventually shed the exaggerated techniques that had served her well during the silent era and mastered the subtleties of the new sound medium. But not before Dressler had bested her in their one head-to-head outing.
Long before Anna Christie, Dressler had starred in the Mack Sennett comedy classic Tillie's Punctured Romance, which also featured Charlie Chaplin in one of his earliest roles. By the end of World War I, though, Dressler had pretty much disappeared from the movies. Reduced to working as a maid, Dressler later admitted she found the fall from stardom so devastating, she had seriously considered suicide.
But back when she was still a star, Dressler had befriended a young, struggling writer from San Francisco named Frances Marion, and when their roles were reversed and Marion was the top writer in Hollywood and Dressler was out of pictures altogether, Marion remembered her old friend and began including parts for her in various comedies. Later, when Marion was adapting Eugene O'Neill's play as the vehicle for Greta Garbo's sound debut, she expanded the part of Marthy specifically with Dressler in mind.
It was a pivotal opportunity for Dressler and proved to be her comeback role.
She starred in a dozen movies over the next three years, including Min and Bill (another Frances Marion screenplay) which won Dressler an Oscar, Emma which secured her a second Oscar nomination, Tugboat Annie with Wallace Beery, and possibly her best role, that of aging stage actress Carlotta Vance in the classic dramedy, Dinner at Eight. Even people who don't know Dressler's name remember the last scene she does with up-and-coming Jean Harlow.
"I was reading a book the other day," says Harlow as the unforgettable social-climbing vamp, Kitty Packard.
"Reading a book?" says Dressler's Vance after the greatest double take in movie history.
"Yes. It's all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?"
Dressler looks Harlow up and down and then says, "Oh, my dear, that's something you need never worry about."
A year later, Dressler was dead of cancer. She was 66.
Note: There were a lot of good choices for supporting actress this year, far too many to write about at any length. In addition to nominees Nina Mae McKinney and Seena Owen (both of whom I will write about in later postings), and, of course, winner Marie Dressler, I also considered the underappreciated Margaret Dumont for her role as Groucho's comic foil in the Marx Brothers' debut film, The Cocoanuts; personal favorite Anita Page as a naive virgin who falls for smoothie Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in Our Modern Maidens; Lilyan Tashman as a criminal mastermind in Bulldog Drummond; Leila Hyams as the sister of a prison inmate in The Big House; and Alice Roberts as possibly the movie's first onscreen lesbian in Pandora's Box.
Any one of them might be your choice for best supporting actress of the year. You won't get any kick from me.