MARIE DRESSLER : Scrublady to Dowager

She will forever be remembered for her exchange with Jean Harlow in DINNER AT EIGHT. ( more of that later).

MARIE DRESSLER (1869-1934) became an unlikely star and Oscar winner in her sixties ,  but sadly she died just  4 years after winning her Oscar  for MIN AND BILL in 1930.

With  Charlie Chaplin in TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE in 1914, her film debut ,based on her Broadway success of the ‘Tillie’ character and made by  Mack Sennett.


Marie (born Leila Marie Koerber) was in show business from a young age, she sang in light opera, she wrote and performed her own material in vaudeville.and even became a producer.

In one sketch on stage, the curtain goes up and Marie is standing on her head. After a while she drops down and stretches, saying, “Best rest I’ve had in weeks.”

The stage  was her home for most of her life.

Merry Marie! “Herself, not pictures!”


Marie was a champion of women’s suffrage. In 1919 she took part in the stage actors strike, along with Ethel Barrymore.


Marie was with the elite of Hollywood, doing bond selling tours during the First World War.  She is seen kneeling next to Charlie Chaplin, with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford behind her – and Franklin Roosevelt on the left!



Despite making several shorts, Marie’s film career didn’t take off and she wasn’t on screen again till a writer friend Frances Marion wrote THE CALLAHANS AND THE MURPHYS for her in 1927. Marie was out of work at the time.

Marie adapted well to talkies and made 19 films between 1929 and 1934. Audiences loved her down to earth,honest characters, though she was equally at home playing dowagers.

She could chew the scenery if not held back, but her stage and vaudeville experience gave her a powerful presence on screen.


I love Marie’s rendition of “For I’m the Queen’ in HOLLYWOOD REVUE. And in that wonderful finale, when all the stars line up and warble ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, Marie pops up a tiny umbrella as she smiles at the camera.

Sorry, poor screen grab.



With Garbo In ANNA CHRISTIE(1930), Marie only had a few scenes but was totally convincing as the waterfront drunk ,’Marthy’, who shares Garbo’s first talkie conversation.


Anna Christie.



As Marion Davies’ mother in THE PATSY.


Marie and fellow comedian Polly Moran made a series of films , only   one of which I have seen – POLITICS. They usually argued -loudly- with one another and I  cant say their broad comedy appealed.

With Polly Moran



The cast of TUGBOAT ANNIE with Wallace Beery and Mervyn LeRoy on either side of Marie. Cinematographer Gregg Toland is behind Marie and writer Norman Reilly Raine is next to Mervyn LeRoy.


Love this shot of Marie with Mervyn LeRoy and Wallace  Beery between takes of “Tugboat Annie”. Putting their feet  up!


With Wallace Beery and Robert Young (playing her son) in “Tugboat Annie).

The tugboat used in the film is preserved in Seattle where many scenes were filmed.


Marie had another Oscar nomination for her role as a housekeeper who marries her employer in  EMMA which also starred Myrna Loy.

“Emma” is one of several Dressler films I would  love to see – ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT (1930) in which she plays a princess and Lillian Gish’s mother!   – CHASING RAINBOWS (1930) in which she sings ‘Pure  but Honest’ – THE LATE CHRISTOPHER BEAN ( her last film ).



On the cover of Time magazine in 1933.


Marie’s is a Cinderella story, working and struggling all her life , experiencing both success and failure, only to find fame in her 60s and winning an Oscar. She had known early success but had a long period out of the limelight. By some  twist of fate, her talent became recognised as talkies took the place of silent films  and the public adored her.


With Wallace Beery in MIN AND BILL.

Despite being a heavy built lady, Marie always exuded energy on screen. In ”MIn And Bill”, she and Wallace Beery have a knock-down, no holds barred fight  which is very funny.


A rare shot of a serious Marie at the end of “Min And Bill”, reminiscent of “Stella Dallas” when she sees , for the last time, the girl she has raised as a daughter go off to a better life.


Some quotes from Marie:

”Fate cast me to play the role of an ugly duckling with no promise of swanning.”

On success at the age of 60:

”At sixty, nobody envies you. Instead everybody rejoices generously in your good fortune.”



The famous exchange at the end of DINNER AT EIGHT.

Marie, as faded stage star Carlotta Vance is walking alongside Kitty (Jean Harlow) into the dining room of their hosts, Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke.

This is how the conversation goes:

Kitty: “I was reading a book the other day.”

Carlotta stops in her tracks: “Reading a book?”

(Marie does the perfect double take!)

Kitty: “Yes, it’s all about civilisation or something. A nutty kind of book. Do you know that the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of Every profession?”


That’s when Marie , with perfect timing, delivers the  iconic line after looking Kitty up and down:

“Oh my dear, THAT’S something you need never worry about!”

Dinner At Eight was a 1932 Broadway play by George Kaufman and Edna Ferber, but they didn’t have this scene in the play.

The film’s script was by France Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, so one of them must take the credit for that dialogue.

(Constance Collier played Carlotta in the stage production.’)



With Lionel Barrymore who won for A FREE SOUL.

Amazingly Marie was the third  Canadian in a row to win the Best Actress Oscar –  Mary Pickford had won for COQUETTE and Norma Shearer for THE DIVORCEE.


With Wallace Beery  making their mark at Graumans Chinese Theatre in 1931.




With  Clark Gable.

MGM gave a lavish birthday party for Marie in 1933.




Nice to know that Marie is remembered in her hometown of Cobourg, Ontario.

In 1992  a vintage film festival was started there to showcase Marie’s films and those of her contemporaries.

The 2018 festival  celebrated the 150th anniversary of Marie’s birth and featured ANNA CHRISTIE, POLITICS, THE PATSY.

More details at



Amazingly, Marie’s 1924 memoir has been reprinted and is an interesting read, concentrating on her career up to that date.There have been two biographies which I hope  to read soon.

Little did she know what the future held for her.



4 responses »

  1. In the biography of director Allan Dwan he recalls seeing Marie in the dining room of The Ritz Hotel, New York in 1927. He was casting for a film called The Joy Girl and sent over a note asking if she would be interested. At this point Marie’s career was in a bad slump and she told Dwan ‘youve saved my life son’ as she was seriously considering suicide. Dwan notes that even then she had cancer. This started off Marie’s film career and meant that her last year’s were productive and rewarding.

    • I decided not to repeat that story about Marie contemplating suicide. She seems to have been a very resilient person. Her comeback had already started with The Callahans and the Murphys thanks to Frances Marion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s