A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler, by Victoria Sturtevant. Carbondale, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Trade paperback, $24.00. 208pp. ISBN: 0-252-07622-2.
To this flurry we gleefully add an eminently good read: A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler by University of Oklahoma film studies associate professor Victoria Sturtevant. As this is the first book of the Women and Film History International series from the University of Illinois Press, is “Queen Marie of Hollywood” finally getting her due? An academic examination of her oeuvre isn’t likely to dislodge Eat, Pray, Love from the bestseller lists any time soon, but we Dresslerphiles are a delusionally optimistic lot.
What made Dressler so special? When she reached her greatest fame in the early 1930s, she was well past sixty, pigeon breasted, jowly, carrying 200 pounds on a 5’7″ frame, and fully weathered from a lifetime of pain and pleasure. She was also the most popular star of the time, her films a guarantee of big profits during the grimmest years of the Depression. To millions she represented survival, resourcefulness, and a rugged Americanism. In her comedies for MGM, she was usually fixing the lives of young people, and in doing so, she epitomized an urgently needed reparative spirit. But as Sturtevant notes, Dressler wasn’t merely a symbol. She was a rare artist – an adventurous, riveting actress in absolute command of her effect on an audience. As so many have said, once you see Marie Dressler on the screen, you don’t forget her.
Dressler’s thievery never came off as ego gratification. More often than not her vanity was sacrificed, and her rubbery face and fleshy body ridiculed. What shone through always was a mighty desire to connect with her audiences and give them their money’s worth. She used simple oppositions to great effect, giving her downcast roles dignity and her society matrons humility. They all fought stifling norms, usually by Dressler’s deployment of hand-wringing, face contorting, and bouncy or lurching movements. “Her body, her ample, flexible and mobile body, causes chaos in the controlled systems of social propriety,” notes Sturtevant.
Dressler was absolutely perfect as the wily, boastful Tugboat Annie, a mythic creature born from a Saturday Evening Post serial as a new media manufactured folk hero to put alongside Zorro, Tarzan, and Buck Rogers. Alas, she is a rare female totem now largely forgotten. MGM misconceived the movie, saddling her with the distracting chores of faithful wife to infantile drunk Wallace Beery and loving mother to bland Robert Young. In keeping with Louis B. Mayer’s obsession with mothers, Annie’s strength had to be funneled through the conventions of domesticity. But separate Dressler from the surrounding flotsam, and her Annie is a portrayal for the ages.
In her analysis of Emma and Christopher Bean, Sturtevant visits the sexual, suggesting that the erotic lives of Dressler’s characters were “hiding in plain sight.” Her Emma is an intensely tactile woman, but when she marries her employer, his priggish children can’t imagine anything other than gold digging. In Christopher Bean, her widowed marriage to the title character is the dramatic center of the film, with Marie drawing upon her skills at nostalgia to give her audience glimpses of a great lost love. Sturtevant neatly parallels this with Marie’s own presumed “hiding in plain sight” bisexuality, as she married twice, then lived with a younger actress while maintaining close friendships with several well-known lesbians. And though Sturtevant doesn’t stress the point, all of Dressler’s movies were Pre-Code. It takes no effort to see the commodification of sex through Norma Shearer or Barbara Stanwyck. What Sturtevant does here is more adroit. She not only locates the undercurrents of sexuality in an anti-sex symbol, she also unearths a kind of queerness that films and society impose on the physical pleasures of the aged.