The Dressler Story
To Dream, to Dare, to Persist, to Win
by Barbara Garrick
A Biography - © 1997
Marie Dressler is considered one of the greatest comediennes of her generation and one of Hollywood's best loved stars. She was, at one time, the highest paid star in the movie industry, earning more than Greta Garbo or Mickey Mouse. In 1930, at sixty years of age, she won the coveted Oscar for Best Actress. In the early 1930s, Dressler was North America's top box office draw, earning $4,000 a week, and in August 1933, she was the first woman to grace the cover of Time magazine.
While these accolades tell of her phenomenal success in the movie world, they only relate to the later years of Dressler's career. A discussion of her early life, stage career, and her transition to silent and talking pictures will show that Dressler was a youngster who had a dream of being on the stage; that she dared to follow that dream, and persisted in the development of her craft, through times of success and failure. At an age when most stars are long forgotten by Hollywood producers, Dressler reached the pinnacle of her career. Dressler's life story is worth recounting, not only for her triumphs, but also for her determination to be successful in show business, and for the immeasurable persistence she demonstrated in following her dream to its fulfilment. Congratulations, Marie, you had the fortitude to be a winner!
Dressler was a mover in more ways than one! She was born Leila Koerber, November 9, 1869 in Cobourg, Ontario of Alexander Rudolph Koerber and Annie Henderson of Port Hope. Her Austrian-born father was an excellent musician who had taught music by his own method at Princeton University. However, due to his fits of temper, the family was always on the move. During their stay in Cobourg, they lived at 212 King Street West, a house which they rented from the Field family. Koerber was a music teacher and the organist at St. Peter's Anglican Church. Dressler describes this itinerant way of life when she writes:
I was always going somewhere. When I was a child, it was with the family, moving all over Canada and the State of Michigan - from Cobourg to Toronto, to Lindsay, to Saginaw to Bay City. And then, when I started touring with the show companies, wherever I hung my hat became home.
Leila's mother often presented short dramas for community audiences. On one occasion, five-year old Leila, dressed as a cherub, was placed on a pedestal on the stage. She was warned not to move. The child did not move. However, the curtain did, and it swept the cherub off the pedestal and into the lap of Lindsay's greatest "ladies' man." The audience saw this as hilarious and gales of laughter followed. Leila seems to have assumed that she was funny, and that people would laugh at her antics. Dressler remembers this incident as one of the influences that led to her playing the clown in her early years.
As the Koerbers travelled from town to town, Leila always had to make new friends. Knowing that she was good at play-acting, Leila often turned to this activity as a way of being accepted among her peers. Roberta Ann Raider(footnote 1), who chose to write her PhD dissertation on the acting skills of Dressler, suggests that such acting games strengthened the girl's desire to be a professional actor. Another woman who knew Leila as a playmate says:
Leila was always the ringleader. She usually wrote, directed and starred in the productions and because she was so much fun, we were always glad to let her. However, her mischievous nature sometimes led our parents to question the desirability of her influence.
Another Saginaw, Michigan neighbour recalls that the father disapproved of his daughter's productions, and that Leila often irritated him by threatening to go over to Boardwell's Opera House and dance on a barrel. Finally, when Leila was fourteen, she wrote to the Nevada Travelling Stock Company requesting a job. She informed the company that she was eighteen years old, and that she was an accomplished actress. Without an audition, she was hired.
What kind of company would engage an actress sight unseen? Dressler later called it "a cheap dramatic company of eleven" but "a wonderful school." She evaluates the Nevada Company this way:
The type of theatrical company which would engage a fourteen year old girl for a leading lady seems to have vanished from the face of the earth. In those days, there were hundreds of companies composed of broken old professionals who had come down the ladder and eager amateurs on the way up. Nevada's collection ran the scale from has-beens to would-bes.
To save the family from embarrassment, Leila now called herself Marie Dressler after an aunt. As Marie Dressler, her first role with the Nevada Company was as a cigarette girl in "Under Two Flags." She recalls that the actors had little time to learn parts, and were often judged on their skill in ad libbing. Dressler, in summarizing the way plays were produced at that time, notes that "If they [actors] had a sketchy outline of the plot and a rough idea of the characterization, a troupe of old hands could almost create a play as they went along."
Then suddenly, the Nevada Company was stranded in Michigan without funds. Our would-be star, without money or a job, had little choice but to walk the railroad ties from Edmore to Saginaw to rejoin her family. What a disappointment for a youngster with a dream of a future on the stage! Yet there had been value in the experience of performing with professional actors. She had learned how much work and dedication would be necessary if she were to
Dressler was not about to abandon her dream. She then joined the Robert Grau Opera Company as a chorus member earning eight dollars a week. When the leading lady, Agnes Halleck, broke her ankle, Dressler was asked to take the role of Katisha in "The Mikado." This comedic role was a very desirable one which Dressler enjoyed playing with great success. It is interesting to note that the actress played this famous role seventy-six times in her stage career.
Dressler's road to success was not to be an easy one. She always insisted on being paid regularly. Finally Grau became annoyed at her pestering and sent her to Philadelphia where he said there was a job for her. There was no job in Philadelphia. Dressler had been tricked. Determinedly she consulted a newspaper, and found that the Starr Opera Company was in town. She begged for a job, and with the help of two actresses who had known her on the road, the manager, Mr. Deshon, outraged at the way she had been treated, gave her an audition, and a job.
With the Starr Opera Company, Dressler played several comic operas including "Chimes of Normandy," "The Mikado," "The Baron," and "The Three Cloaks." The youngster must have done well for her salary was raised from eight to eighteen dollars a week. The company played long runs in Philadelphia and Detroit. The actress saw that these audiences were more sophisticated, and expected a higher quality of performance. In this way, she was challenged to improve her acting skills.
Dressler next performed with the Bennet-Moulton Opera Company with George A. Baker, manager and director. This company played week-long stands in towns and small cities. During this period, Dressler played thirty-eight roles from prima donnas to old women, and even royalty. Dressler explains why she was often the queen, and sometimes, even the king:
Because our ermine robes were designed for a giantess and because I was the tallest woman in the company, I often played royalty. As a general thing I played the queen. But if the king had spent too much time propped against a local bar, I was given his beard and his lines.
While Dressler was beginning to get wide experiences on the stage, it was as "Barbara", in "The Black Hussars," that she received the first chance to gain rapport with the audience. While other royal roles had been ones of distance and reserve, it was with the character, Barbara!; that she began to perfect her natural flair for the comedic stage business. Once she knocked a baseball into the audience, which to her surprise, brought a great response.
In her next role as the lead in "La Perichole," the actress had the opportunity to play a young girl who was given too much wine by a gentleman with ulterior motives. Her character became a little bit tight, a little bit tough, a little saucy, but still very fetching. Thus under the tutelage of the demanding George Baker, Dressler learned how to create appealing characterizations. I suggest that Dressler's ability to play characters which were comical and yet human enough to gain one's sympathy was the key element to her success on stage and in the movies.
Having watched Eddie Foy, a top comedian of that day, perform in Chicago, Dressler decided that as Foy had continual trouble looking for his props, she would never use a property of any sort. Once she had made this decision, Dressler could develop routines that left her free to move about on stage and to improvise. Pieces of her costume became her trademark in comedy. Since the comedienne designed and made all her own costumes, she could use the latest fad in fashion to create an outrageous dress. On one occasion she learned that twirling her hat gave the audience a laugh. She comments, "Audiences don't laugh because they want to, but because they can't help it. It takes years of study and thought to learn how to demand that laugh."
Following her meeting with Eddie Foy, Dressler went on the road in "The Tar and The Tartar," and luckily she was hired as a replacement for the lead role after the show had gone into production. This show took her to New York. She had been on the road for nine years, and now in 1892, she had finally reached the "Great White Way."
Reaching Broadway is one accomplishment; becoming a star on the legitimate stage is quite another. The actress was young, with great aspirations, and with the health and energy required to struggle for success. When she did not have a stage role, she appeared at the Old Atlantic Garden in the Bowery, and at Koster and Bial's on Twenty-third Street where she sang two songs a night for the much-needed ten dollars. Around her was a maze of activity. At this time Broadway fare consisted of musical comedy, serious drama, vaudeville and burlesque thus giving her a choice of the entertainment media in which to perform. Dressler's own words reveal the quandary she felt she was in: "I longed to make good, but I was handicapped in spite of a lovely voice. I knew that I belonged in the theatre but I didn't know where. I was too homely for a prima donna and too big for a soubrette."
Maurice Barrymore, playwright and director, had an answer. He saw a comedy future for Dressler and cast her as "Cunigone" in his production of "The Robber of the Rhine." Consequently, on May 28, 1892, Dressler appeared in her first Broadway role, but alas, the show was unsuccessful and soon closed. All was not lost for she had been seen by George Lederer, a leading Broadway producer, who recognized her talents and asked her to play as a supporting actress to the famed Lillian Russell. This was Dressler's big break. On November 24, 1893, she opened with Russell at the Casino Theatre in "Princess Nicotine." After a long successful run on Broadway, this show toured the country making Dressler well-known across America.
What was the nature of Dressler's acting style which allowed her such success? The actress had built her craft day-by-day, and her great asset became the ability to use her very mobile face. She could show expressions of outrage, boredom, or other assorted means of dissent whenever her fellow actors got pretentious or stupid. Whenever there was a gap or whenever an actor was weak, Dressler could steal the show by ad libbing, or by performing a gag she had learned on the road. She also learned to reach across the footlights and talk to the audience.
Dressler had been told earlier by Barrymore that her face was her fortune. Keeping this suggestion in mind, the performer moved ahead playing such comedic roles as Aurora in "Girofle-Girofla" and Mrs. Malaprop in "The Rivals," both important roles for an actress wishing to be a comedienne. Some time between 1894 and 1900 she married George Hoppert, a theatre employee. One news source maintains that Dressler gave birth to a baby girl who died in infancy. Dressler never talked about this part of her life. I do not know if she divorced Hoppert, or if he died.
Four years after she reached Broadway, Dressler experienced a real triumph in that she was identified by both the critics and the public for her performance as Flo Honeydew in the Lady Slavey. " This comedy played for two years and then went on tour. Dressler took ill and returned to New York. Her manager, A.E. Erlanger, accused her of shamming, and had her blacklisted on the New York stage. Dressler had to take to the road again, this time with the Rich and Harris Touring Company in which she played Dottie Dimple in "Courted Into Court." She sang Negro songs, danced the ' cakewalk' and continued to experiment with facial expression. According to a comment written during that period by Peter Robinson of the San Francisco Chronicle:
She is a genuine woman comedienne, as distinguished from a soubrette (a lady's maid who gives saucy one-liners.) She acts with intelligence and with clear insight into comic propositions. She contorts her face until it looks like the wattles of a turkey gobbler in a rage...She is not afraid to look unattractive; that makes her the comedienne unusual.
Back in New York, Dressler continued in musical comedy and in vaudeville. Then daring and adventurous, as always, she decided to play the Palace Theatre in London, England. There her show ran for thirty weeks, drawing an overwhelmingly favourable response from the British. Buoyed by her success, she risked investing her own funds in two more London shows which failed abjectly. Dressler fell into such debt that she had to work two years on vaudeville circuits to become financially solvent.
Despite her great debt, and the hardships of the vaudeville circuit, Dressler achieved some personal happiness, for she met James Dalton who became her 'husband' and manager. Back on Broadway Dressler enjoyed her greatest success in the comedy "Tillie's Nightmare." In this she is Tillie Blobbs, a poor drudge who works in her mother's boarding house. She sits at the piano and sings "Heaven Will Protect The Working Girl." This song is followed by a grandiose dream sequence in which Dressler gives imitations of Sarah Bernhardt (shown at right) and plays the prima donna of a comic opera. Her style is "about as subtle as a billboard," and a little risque, but the audiences did not seem to mind. Rather, they found her quite amusing.
There was more to Dressler's portrayal of Tillie Blobbs than funny business. She was able to compel hearty sympathy for the character, thus achieving a balance of comedy and pathos. Dressler believed that "affectation killed comedy, and so she tried to create a sincerity and genuineness of character that reminded the audience of fact not fiction." As audiences sympathized with Tillie Blobbs and took her to heart, so they related to Dressler, making her name an admired household word; in other words, a star. "Tillie's Nightmare" was the play which would later give her a toe-hold in silent movies, as well as giving her real celebrity status.
After the success of "Tillie's Nightmare," life was not so easy for the actress. In the meantime, World War I had begun and Dressler worked tirelessly selling Liberty Bonds. When the war ended, so did Dressler's Broadway career. By this time she was nearly fifty years old. She had to care for James Dalton, an invalid, until his death. No acting offers came her way. Producers and managers were embarrassed when they met her. Her funds ran out. She had to sell a little farm in New Hampshire that she had bought for her retirement. In spite of her adversities, Dressler's daring spirit prevailed. She moved to the Ritz Hotel in New York where an old friend, Albert Keller, the manager, let her a room at a very low rate. Later she accepted the position as hostess for the Ritz Supper Club.
For seven years Dressler lived at the Ritz showing a smiling face to the world, but lamenting privately the lack of career opportunities. If she had reflected upon her life, she would have found much of which to be proud. Not only had she been daring enough to choose a stage career, but also had been successful enough to have earned a thousand dollars a week on the vaudeville stage. Besides becoming a well-paid performer, she had been acclaimed by those of high social standing including Mrs. Styvesant Fish of New York's elite "400," King George the Fifth, and American president, F.D. Roosevelt. Despite this adulation, Dressler was not satisfied to end her life in show business, nor did she have the funds to retire. She longed to get back on the stage where she had entertained thousands with her broad and robust comedy. One would have some difficulty imagining that this trouper would resurface in the entertainment world, and that millions of fans would follow her career in the newest direction - talking pictures.
Dressler's film career began as a result of the success of the play, "Tillie's Nightmare." Mack Sennet, another Canadian, and the creator of the Keystone Kops, had seen the comedy and decided to make a movie from the story. The film, "Tillie's Punctured Romance," caught the public's fancy and paid off the producers very well. Dressler, however, shows badly in the film. Three more films followed but none platforms from which Dressler could spring into feature films. From 1918 until 1927 she did not make any films.
Dressler was at a loss, and began to talk about opening a restaurant in Paris for American guests. A friend, who was also a Manhattan astrologist, advised her to stay in America. The seer, Nella Webb, predicted that Dressler would have "seven fat years" which would begin on January 17, 1927. And sure enough, on January 17, 1927 - as the August 1933 issue of Time reports - movie director, Allan Dwan, telephoned to offer a film role.
Dressler was once again on the silver screen. At this time she came under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. A recent biography of Louis B. Mayer(footnote2)- tells how this very powerful movie magnate felt about Dressler:
Mayer adored Dressler: of all the stars at the studio, he liked her the best...(for) her great feistiness, good humour and charm...He was determined to build her as a motion picture star, seeing the warmth and strength within her that he believed the public would respond to. He was convinced that sexual attractiveness and physical beauty were not essential to stardom...Miss Dressler became one of his very few actor friends, and he learned from her earthy but morally elevated wisdom. He always gave her top billing; towards the end of her life, he would refer to her as "the equal of my own mother" the ultimate compliment.
Despite Mayer's efforts on Dressler's behalf, a most disappointing situation developed. Dressler was under contract to play with comedienne Polly Moran in "The Callahans and the Murphys," a tale of feuding, Irish families in the New York slums. The public loved the outrageous antics of Dressler and Moran. However, when the movie opened at the Lexington Theatre in Manhattan, "the largely Hibernian audience screamed with rage and beat and tore at the screen with their bare hands. Police were called in, aiming hoses at the crowd and ruining many of the seats." M.G.M. was forced to withdraw the movie. Whether the film was destroyed or not I do not know. It is possible that someday someone will find a copy of "The Calahans and The Murphys," and Dressler fans will be able to see for themselves what the fuss was all about. In 1927 this occurrence certainly stymied Dressler.
Friends of Dressler's wrote a script for a "talkie" entitled "Dangerous Females." This two-reel comedy is still considered by many to be hilariously funny. Certainly the popularity of this short film brought Dressler the chance to play in five more films in 1928-29. Her value as box-office draw was on the rise. Her chance to show her versatility came in "The Vagabond Lover" which was meant to showcase bandleader, Rudy Vallee. Vallee was weak and Dressler, who was playing a society lady with a broad sense of humour "sparked the otherwise dull movie," showing that she could still keep the patrons laughing.
When Dressler had been a great stage star, other forces were at work on her behalf. On one occasion she had granted an interview to a cub reporter, Frances Marion, of the Hearst newspapers, thus giving Marion a career boost. Now Marion was one of the scenarists with M.G.M. who also wished to help the aging star. Marion knew that the sensational Greta Garbo was going to speak for the first time in the film, "Anna Christie." Marion expanded Dressler's role as the waterfront hag, Marthy, in this Eugene O'Neil play. Dressler practically ran away with the show in spite of Garbo's playing the title role. This was a pivotal situation. Dressler's career took fire. In 1930 she made six more pictures, one of which would bring her the Best Actress award for that year. Between 1927 and 1933, she appeared in twenty-two films. In 1933 Dressler starred in "Dinner at Eight," still considered a classic today along with "Christopher Bean" and "Tugboat Annie."
Many of you may have seen "Tugboat Annie" and laughed at Dressler's antics as Annie Brennon, the captain of the Narcissus. However, the reality of Dressler's life was far from a laughing matter as Mayer's biographer reveals:
Mayer's fondness for Marie Dressler continued during that exhausting spring. She was on her way to shooting "Tugboat Annie" in Seattle...when she spotted from the window of her chauffeur-driven limousine a small, pretty cottage, saying to Howard Strickling who accompanied her that she would like to own it. Mayer immediately offered its owners twice as much as it was worth to vacate, and they did so: he had it moved to Santa Barbara for her to live in. He knew that she had only a short time to live; her suffering from cancer was agonizing for him, and he wanted her to be as happy as possible. She gave one of her finest performances in the picture [Tugboat Annie], which became one of M.G.M.'s greatest successes to date.
Yes, Dressler finally reached stardom! As Min in "Min and Bill" she portrays a very timely role of a boarding house keeper who sacrifices her scant savings to send the girl she is raising to a private school in the hope that the youngster will have a better life. When the young woman marries someone of wealth and status, Min deprives herself of the opportunity to enjoy the girl's wedding. It is with the solemn face of a loving parent watching from the crowd that Dressler, as Min, walks into lasting fame of the movie world. This was the Great Depression, and Dressler represented all the parents who were sacrificing so that their sons and daughters would have a better tomorrow.
Although Dressler died on July 28, 1934, her image lives on in her many films. This year  two biographies are to be published. Dressler fans can even hope that a movie of her life might follow. But who would play the lead? As Frank Capra, one very successful Hollywood director, perceptively comments, "There is only one Marie Dressler."
1 Raider. Roberta Ann. A descriptive Study of the Acting of Marie Dressler. University of Michigan PhD Thesis. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms. 1970. (back)
2 Higham, Charles. M. G.M., Louis B. Mayer and the Secret Hollywood. New York: Dell Publishing. 1994 (back)