Marie Dressler, self-styled “ugly ducking” of Hollywood’s golden years, brought her own distinctive beauty to the world for the joy and laughter she radiated with her artistry.
She was one of filmdom’s all-time great comediennes. Born Leila Koerber, November 9, 1869 in Cobourg, Ontario, the daughter of Rudolph and Annie Koerber, she attended school in Toronto until her parents moved to Saginaw where her father was a music teacher. The family lived on Saginaw’s west side. Saginaw claims her as one of its own famous daughters, although she lived here only a scant three years from 1883 to 1886. Marie Dressler probably made her Saginaw stage debut in a supporting role in a play called “The Color Guard.” The play, produced by the National Guard, was a benefit performance to raise funds for the construction of a new Saginaw National Guard Armory. When her father opposed a career in the theater, she laughingly threatened to “go down to Bordwell’s Opera house and dance on a barrel.” Later she left home, changed her name and went on to lasting fame on the stage, in vaudeville, and in motion pictures.
After she left Saginaw and gained some recognition in the theater, she came back and played several times on the stage of the old Academy of Music which was on the northeast corner of Janes and Washington from 1884 until 1917, when it was destroyed by fire. When Marie Dressler started her career on the stage, her entry was gained because of her fine singing voice. Notices in the Saginaw newspapers regularly commented on her voice in most flattering terms. Among her early ventures in the theater was a tour with the Bennett and Moulton Opera Company. She began to hit it big when she had a supporting role in “My Lady Nicotine” which starred the beauteous Lillian Russell.
She had begun to establish herself as an outstanding comedienne. In 1906, she starred in “Tillie’s Nightmare” on the stage. In 1916 she played the same role on the screen in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” opposite another budding comedy star, Charles Spencer Chaplin. “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” was a farce, one of the initial efforts of the master of comedy, Mack Sennett. In this play, the plot was almost non-existent and what there was served only to string an assortment of gags together. Marie Dressler was the farm girl who fell victim to the false advances of a city slicker, played by Charles Chaplin.
By now she was a famous vaudeville star. But after her Liberty Bond sales service during World War I, Marie learned the stage was not so receptive to a woman approaching middle age.
So she despairingly returned to Hollywood almost as a last resort. In the part of Marty in the movie “Anna Christie,” a role she got with the help of a friend, Marie Dressler came into her own.
The success of this gifted, comical woman brought a new trend in the movies—the featuring and starring of the old trouper sort of players. She started out in the theater working for as little as $8 a week. Hollywood boosted this to a lavish $2,500 a week and considered her worth it.
Miss Dressler and Wallace Beery became one of the most beloved comedy teams in motion picture history. Their “Min and Bill” and “Tugboat Annie” movies delighted audiences across the country. In 1931 she won an Academy Award as best actress of the year for her portrayal of Min in “Min and Bill” with Beery. She also starred with Polly Moran in other comedy hits. In 1932 she was nominated for a second Oscar when she starred in “Emma.” In 1933’s “Dinner at Eight” she more than held her own in an all-star cast that included Billie Burke, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow and Lionel and John Barrymore. After the release of that film she appeared on the cover of Time magazine, August 7, 1933. Success came rather late in life for Miss Dressler. She liked to say that life began at 50.
Once she mused, “I’ve worked all my life. I believe in people and I’ve got more enthusiasm than I know what to do with. I’m not in love with anybody. What can stop me?” She described middle age as the best part of life, and expressed pity for the “middle-aged woman who feels that life is over for her and looks and acts accordingly.” Miss Dressler’s parties, her humor, and her jovial youthfulness were the toast of Hollywood.
Two years before her death in 1934, at 65, she learned she had cancer and that the illness was terminal. However, she took a course of treatment that enabled her to make two more motion pictures. She is interred in a crypt in the famous Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
Her death was universally mourned but Saginaw felt its own twinge of regret.