Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: A Great Big Girl Like Me, by Victoria Sturtevant

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.

When Canadian writer Betty Lee and I published biographies of Marie Dressler in the late 1990s, it was too much to hope for renewed interest in this stupendously original actress whose career spanned Gilded Age comic opera, vaudeville, burlesque, early Broadway and feature films, the coming of sound, and the Mayer-Thalberg reign at MGM. Only now is she enjoying some fortuitous, if minor, astrological confluence. Dressler is featured in the new documentary Three Vaudeville Women, and her life is the subject of a new work from the 4th Line Theatre in Ontario. Turner Classic Movies hosted a Marie Dressler Day last year, and more than a few bloggers were stunned that such a vision ever stood before a moving camera, much less obtained major stardom. Warner Bros. recently made available a number of rare titles on DVD, including her Emma (1932) and Tugboat Annie (1933). (Memo to Warners: Isn’t 2009 the right time to also release Dressler’s modestly delightful team comedies with fellow funny woman Polly Moran? Their titles alone bespeak a relevance to our age: Caught Short, Politics, Reducing, and Prosperity.)

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.

Sturtevant is interested in Dressler’s body as an instrument of subversion, as her presence in any movie systematically thwarted the expectations of genre. In 1914, she starred in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the first feature length comedy, and even then she was rewriting the rules. No one elevated hammery to such pure art as Dressler. Her “virtuoso clumsiness,” her “energetic incompetence,” her “carnivalesque excess” became a mocking antidote to the tremulous, petite, hyper-feminine sylph. Not even children or dogs could upstage Marie Dressler, and you could imagine widespread resentment. But she enjoyed a degree of goodwill from audiences and fellow actors that was frankly adorational.

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.

A Great Big Girl Like Me is structured around Dressler’s physicality as it varyingly served the political, maternal, or sensual subtexts of her films. When Dressler gets drunk in The Girl Said No or (we can only suppose) in the lost film The Callahans and the Murphys, she exposes the naughty vixen within, her earthly desires and uncorseted inhibitions overruling all decorum. In Politics, Dressler blasts the “so nice to come home to” stereotype to smithereens by infusing public affairs with maternal instincts and rendering corrupt men ineffectual. In Prosperity (above), a fascinating entry with its convoluted merging of comedy, adventure, and pathos, Dressler becomes a mouthpiece for the New Deal. In Min and Bill, she’s positioned as trickster, Earth Mother, and sacrificing saint, using every device available to protect her surrogate daughter from harm and insure her future happiness.

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.

Sturtevant closes with Dinner at Eight, wherein Dressler plays florid theatrical relic Carlotta Vance, happily liberated from maternal duties. When she comforts a lovesick Madge Evans, she is a decidedly non-monogamous old sage taking inventory of the jewels she amassed from so many conquests. And when Dressler famously tells Jean Harlow that she need not fear being replaced by machinery, she joins the immortals of film. With persuasive eloquence, Sturtevant reminds us that Dressler didn’t destroy the narrow expectations of movie stardom. Instead, she took a vacation from them, and some of us are happy to join her.