Marie Dressler

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Marie Dressler

Portrait of Dressler in 1909
BornLeila Marie Koerber
(1868-11-09)November 9, 1868
Cobourg Ontario, Canada
DiedJuly 28, 1934(1934-07-28) (aged 65)
Santa Barbara, California
Years active1892–1934

George Hoeppert (m. 1899–1906) «start: (1899)–end+1: (1907)»"Marriage: George Hoeppert to Marie Dressler" Location: (linkback://

J. H. Dalton (m. 1908–1921) «start: (1908)–end+1: (1922)»"Marriage: J. H. Dalton to Marie Dressler" Location: (linkback://
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Marie Dressler

Portrait of Dressler in 1909
BornLeila Marie Koerber
(1868-11-09)November 9, 1868
Cobourg Ontario, Canada
DiedJuly 28, 1934(1934-07-28) (aged 65)
Santa Barbara, California
Years active1892–1934

George Hoeppert (m. 1899–1906) «start: (1899)–end+1: (1907)»"Marriage: George Hoeppert to Marie Dressler" Location: (linkback://

J. H. Dalton (m. 1908–1921) «start: (1908)–end+1: (1922)»"Marriage: J. H. Dalton to Marie Dressler" Location: (linkback://

Marie Dressler (November 9, 1868 – July 28, 1934) was a Canadian-American actress and Depression-era film star.[1] She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930-31 in Min and Bill.


Early life and stage career

Dressler was born Leila Marie Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, to parents Alexander Rudolph Koerber, who was Austrian and a former officer in the Crimean War, and Anna Henderson, a musician.[2] Her father was a music teacher in Cobourg and the organist at St. Peter's Church, where as a child, Marie would sing and assist in operating the organ.[3] Her first acting appearance was as Cupid at age five in a church theatrical performance in Lindsay, Ontario.[2] Dressler left home at fourteen and began her acting career as a chorus girl with the Nevada Stock Company when she was fourteen.[4] Her first job paid her $8 a week.[2] It was at this time that Dressler adopted the name of an aunt as her stage name.[2] Dressler's sister Bonita, five years older, left home at about the same time. Bonita also worked in the opera company.[5]

In 1892 she made her debut on Broadway. At first she hoped to make a career of singing light opera, but then gravitated to vaudeville. In vaudeville she was known for her full-figured body—fashionable at the time—and had buxom contemporaries such as her friends Lillian Russell, Fay Templeton, May Irwin and Trixie Friganza. She used the services of 'body sculptor to the stars' Sylvia of Hollywood to keep herself at a steady weight.[6] Dressler appeared in a play called Robber of the Rhine which was written by Maurice Barrymore. Barrymore gave Dressler some positive advice about furthering her career and she later acknowledged his help. Years later she would appear with his sons, Lionel and John, in motion pictures.

Dressler's first marriage was to American George Hoeppert. According to Dressler's testimony, she married Hoeppert in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1899, although Kennedy puts the marriage date as May 6, 1894, and a divorce early in 1896.[7] In 1907, Dressler met Maine business man James Henry Dalton, who would become her companion until his death in 1921. According to Dalton, the two were married in Europe in 1908.[8] However, Dressler later learned that the "minister" who married them in Monte Carlo was actually a local man paid by Dalton to stage a fake wedding.[9] Dalton's first wife Lizzie claimed that he had not consented to a divorce or been served divorce papers, while Dalton claimed to have divorced her in 1905.[10] By 1921, Dalton had became an invalid due to degenerated kidneys and would watch her from the wings in a wheel-chair.[11] After his death, Dressler was planning for Dalton to be buried as her husband, but Lizzie Dalton had Dalton's body returned to be buried in the Dalton family plot.[11] Her first marriage to Hoeppert gave Dressler American citizenship, which was useful later in life, when American immigration rules meant permits were needed to work in the United States, and Dressler had to appear before an immigration hearing.[12]

During the early 1900s, Dressler became a major vaudeville star, although she had appeared on stage in New York City earlier, for example, in 1492 Up To Date (1895). In 1902, she met fellow Canadian Mack Sennett and helped him get a job in the theater. For a time, Dressler had her own theatre troupe, which performed "Miss Prinnt" in cities of the American north-east.[13] Dressler performed in London, England from 1907 to 1909 before returning to New York. In addition to her stage work, Dressler recorded for Edison Records in 1909 and 1910.

Dressler continued to work in the theater during the 1910s, and toured the United States during World War I, selling Liberty Bonds[2] and entertaining the American Expeditionary Forces. American GIs in France named both a street and a cow after Dressler. The cow was killed, leading to "Marie Dressler: Killed In Line of Duty" headlines, to which Dressler quipped "I had a hard time convincing people that the report of my death had been greatly exaggerated."[14]

Film career

Dressler in the magazine Photoplay in 1930

Dressler had appeared in two shorts as herself, but her first role in a film came in 1914, at the age of 44. After Mack Sennett became the owner of his namesake motion picture studio, he convinced Dressler to star in his highly successful 1914 silent film Tillie's Punctured Romance. The film was to be the first full-length, six-reel motion picture comedy. According to Sennett, a prospective budget of $200,000 meant that he needed "a star whose name and face meant something to every possible theatre-goer in the United States and the British Empire."[15] The movie was based on Dressler's hit Tillie's Nightmare, a choice credited either to Dressler or to a Keystone studio employee.[16] Dressler herself claims to have cast Charles Chaplin in the movie as her leading man, and was "proud to have had a part in giving him his first big chance."[15] Instead of his recently invented Tramp character, Chaplin played a villainous rogue, and beautiful top screen comedienne Mabel Normand also starred in the movie, billed under Dressler. Dressler appeared in two more "Tillie" sequels and other comedies until 1918, when she returned to vaudeville.

In 1919, during the Actors' Equity strike in New York City, the Chorus Equity Association was formed and voted Dressler its first president. Dressler was blacklisted by the theater production companies due to her strong stance. Dressler found it difficult to find work during the 1920s. She left New York for Hollywood in search of work in films.[2]

In 1927, Frances Marion, an MGM screenwriter, came to Dressler's rescue. Dressler had shown great kindness to Marion during the filming of Tillie Wakes Up in 1917, and in return, Marion used her influence with MGM's production chief Irving Thalberg to return Dressler to the screen.[14] Her first MGM feature was The Callahans and the Murphys (1927), a rowdy silent comedy co-starring Dressler (as Ma Callahan) with another former Mack Sennett comedienne, Polly Moran, written by Marion.[14]

The film was initially a success, but the portrayal of Irish characters caused a protest in the Irish World newspaper, protests by the American Irish Vigilance Committee, and pickets outside the film's New York theatre. The film was first cut by MGM in an attempt to appease the Irish community, then eventually pulled from release after Cardinal Dougherty of the diocese of Philadelphia called MGM president Nicholas Schenck.[17] It was not shown again, and the negative and prints may have been destroyed.[17]

From Min and Bill trailer

The film, while it brought her to Hollywood, did not establish Dressler. Her next appearance was a minor part in the First National film Breakfast at Sunrise. She appeared again with Moran in Bringing Up Father, another film written by Marion.[18] She appeared in an early color film, The Joy Girl. Dressler returned to MGM in 1928's The Patsy in a winning portrayal playing the fluttery mother to star Marion Davies and Jane Winton.[19]

Hollywood was converting from silent films, but "talkies" presented no problems for Dressler, whose rumbling voice could handle both sympathetic scenes and snappy comebacks (she's the wisecracking stage actress in Chasing Rainbows and the dubious matron in Rudy Vallee's Vagabond Lover). Early in 1930, Dressler joined Edward Everett Horton's theater troupe in L.A. to play a princess in Ferenc Molnár's The Swan. But after one week, she quit the troupe. She proceeded to leave Horton flat, much to his indignation.[20]

Frances Marion persuaded Thalberg to give Dressler the role of Marthy, the old harridan who welcomes Greta Garbo home after the search for her father, in the 1930 film Anna Christie. Garbo and the critics were impressed by Dressler's acting ability, and so was MGM, which quickly signed Dressler to a $500-per-week contract.

From Min and Bill trailer

A robust, full-bodied woman of very plain features, Dressler went on to act in comic films which were very popular with the movie-going public and an equally lucrative investment for MGM. Although past sixty years of age, she quickly became Hollywood’s number one box-office attraction, and stayed on top until her death at age 65. In addition to her comedic genius and her natural elegance, Dressler demonstrated her considerable talents by taking on serious roles. For her starring portrayal in Min and Bill, co-starring Wallace Beery, she won the 1930-31 Academy Award for Best Actress (the eligibility years were staggered at that time). Dressler was nominated again for Best Actress for her 1932 starring role in Emma. With that film, Dressler demonstrated her profound generosity to other performers. Dressler personally insisted that her studio bosses cast a friend of hers, a largely unknown young actor named Richard Cromwell, in the lead opposite her. This break helped launch his career.

Dressler followed these successes with more hits in 1933, including the comedy Dinner at Eight, in which she played an aging but vivacious former stage actress. Dressler had a memorable bit with Jean Harlow in the film:[21]

Harlow: Do you know, machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Dressler: My dear, that is something you need never worry about.

Following the release of that film, Dressler appeared on the cover of Time magazine, in its August 7, 1933, issue. MGM held a huge birthday party for Dressler in 1933, broadcast live via radio.

Her newly regenerated career came to an abrupt end when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1934. MGM head Louis B. Mayer learned of Dressler's illness from her doctor and asked that she not be told. To keep her home, he ordered her not to travel on her vacation because he wanted to put her in a new film. Dressler was furious but complied.

Dressler appeared in more than 40 films, and achieved her greatest successes in talking pictures made during the last years of her life. Always seeing herself as physically unattractive, she wrote an autobiography titled, The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling.


Dressler died at the age of 65 on Saturday July 28, 1934 in Santa Barbara, California. Dressler is interred in a crypt in the Great Mausoleum in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.[22] Dressler left an estate worth $310,000, the bulk left to her sister Bonita.[23] Dressler left her 1931 automobile and $35,000 in her will to her maid of twenty years, Mamie Cox, and $15,000 to Cox's husband Jerry, who had served as Dressler's butler for four years.[24] The two used the funds to open the Cocoanut Grove night club in Savannah, Georgia in 1936, named after the night club in Los Angeles.[24]


From Min and Bill trailer

Dressler's birth home in Cobourg, Ontario is known as "Marie Dressler House" and is open to the public. The home was converted to a restaurant in 1937 and operated as a restaurant until 1989, when it was damaged by fire. It was restored but did not open again as a restaurant. It was the office of the Cobourg Chamber of Commerce until its conversion to its current use as a museum about Dressler and as a visitor information office for Cobourg.[25] Each year, the Marie Dressler Foundation Vintage Film Festival is held, with screenings in Cobourg and in Port Hope, Ontario.[26]

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Marie Dressler has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1731 Vine Street, added in 1960.[27]

In the late 1990s, two biographies of Dressler were published. One was entitled: Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star, by Ontario resident Betty Lee. The other, by Matthew Kennedy, titled Marie Dressler: A Biography (1999), is the more comprehensive source; however, only Lee had access to the diary of an intimate friend of Dressler's, the silent film actress Claire Dubrey. "A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler" by Victoria Sturtevant was published in 2009.

Canada Post, as part of its "Canada in Hollywood" series, issued a postage stamp on June 30, 2008 to honour Marie Dressler.[28]


1909Marie DresslerHerself
1910Actors' Fund Field DayHerself
1914Tillie's Punctured RomanceTillie Banks, Country GirlWith Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand
1915Tillie's Tomato SurpriseTillie Banks
1917FiredShort subject
Writer and director
1917The Scrub LadyTillieextant ; Library of Congress
1917Tillie Wakes UpTillie Tinkelpaw
1918Red Cross Nurse, TheThe Red Cross Nurse
1918Agonies of Agnes, TheThe Agonies of Agnes
1927Breakfast at SunriseQueen
1927Joy Girl, TheThe Joy GirlMrs. Heath
1927The Callahans and the MurphysMrs. Callahan
1928Patsy, TheThe PatsyMa Harrington
1928Bringing Up FatherAnnie Moore
1929Voice of HollywoodHerselfUncredited
1929The Vagabond LoverMrs. Ethel Bertha Whitehall
1929Dangerous Females
1929Hollywood Revue of 1929Herself
1929Divine Lady, TheThe Divine LadyMrs. Hart
1930Voice of Hollywood No. 14, TheThe Voice of Hollywood No. 14HerselfUncredited
1930Screen Snapshots Series 9, No. 14Herself, at Premiere
1930The March of TimeHerself, "Old Timer" sequenceUnfinished film, never released
1930Anna ChristieMarthy Owens
1930Let Us Be GayMrs. 'Bouccy' Bouccicault
1930Caught ShortMarie Jones
1930One Romantic NightPrincess Beatrice
1930Girl Said No, TheThe Girl Said NoHettie Brown
1930Chasing RainbowsBonnie
1930Min and BillMin Divot, InnkeeperAcademy Award for Best Actress
1931Jackie Cooper's Birthday PartyHerself
1931PoliticsHattie Burns
1931ReducingMarie Truffle
1932ProsperityMaggie Warren
1932EmmaEmma Thatcher SmithNominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1933Going HollywoodHerself, Premiere ClipUncredited
1933Dinner at EightCarlotta Vance
1933Tugboat AnnieAnnie Brennan
1933Christopher BeanAbby


See also


  1. ^ Obituary Variety, July 31, 1934, page 54.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Famous Star Is Dead at 62". Montreal Gazette: pp. 1, 9. July 30, 1934. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  3. ^ "Cobourg Mourning Marie Dressler". Montreal Gazette: p. 5. July 31, 1934. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  4. ^ Lee 1997, pp. 11–12.
  5. ^ Lee 1997, p. 13.
  6. ^ Coons, R. Marathons Common To Movies, The Olean Herald, 2 September 1931.
  7. ^ Kennedy 2006, pp. 27-29.
  8. ^ Lee 1997, p. 64.
  9. ^ Lee 1997, p. 65.
  10. ^ Lee 1997, p. 102.
  11. ^ a b Lee 1997, p. 148.
  12. ^ "Actress Saw Two Marriages Fail in 14 years". Calgary Daily Herald: p. 5. August 11, 1934. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  13. ^ ""MISS PRINNT" AT ALBANY.; Marie Dressler Scores a Success in G. V. Hobart's New Play.". New York Times: p. 5. November 5, 1900. 
  14. ^ a b c Silverman 1999, p. 23.
  15. ^ a b Lee 1997, p. 103.
  16. ^ Lee 1997, p. 105.
  17. ^ a b Lee 1997, p. 165.
  18. ^ Lee 1997, p. 166.
  19. ^ Lee 1997, p. 167.
  20. ^ Lee 1997, p. 173.
  21. ^ Silverman 1999, p. 24.
  22. ^ "Marie Dressler". Find A Grave. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  23. ^ Associated Press (August 15, 1934). "Marie Dressler's Will Is Probated". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: p. 3. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  24. ^ a b Associated Press (April 10, 1936). "Marie Dressler's Old Servants Open Night Club for Negros With Money Actress Left Them". The Evening Independent: p. 5A. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  25. ^ "Marie Dressler House". Vintage Film Festival. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  26. ^ "About the Marie Dressler Foundation". Marie Dressler Foundation. Retrieved September 6, 2011. 
  27. ^ "Marie Dressler: Hollywood Walk of Fame". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  28. ^ "Westmount schoolgirl went on to win an Oscar". April 7, 2008. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  29. ^ a b "Biography for Marie Dressler". IMDB. Retrieved September 15, 2011. 

Further reading

External links