Dressler, Marie (1869–1934)

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Dressler, Marie (1869–1934)

American comedian and film star who won an Academy Award for her performance in Min and Bill. Born Leila Marie Koerber on November 9, 1869, in Coburg, Canada; died on July 28, 1934, in Santa Barbara, California; daughter of an itinerant music teacher; joined the Nevada Stock Company at the age of 14; two marriages; no children.

Selected stage performances:

Robber on the Rhine (1892); The Lady Slavey (1896); Higgledy-Piggledy (1904); Tillie's Nightmare (1910).

Selected filmography:

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914); Tillie's Tomato Surprise (1915); Tillie Wakes Up (1917); The Scrublady (1917); The Cross Red Nurse (1918); The Agonies of Agnes (1918); The Callahans and the Murphys (1927); The Joy Girl (1927); Breakfast at Sunrise (1927); Bringing Up Father (1928); The Patsy (1928); The Divine Lady (1929); The Hollywood Revue (1929); The Vagabond Lover (1929); Chasing Rainbows (1930); Anna Christie (1930); The Girl Said No (1930); One Romantic Night (1930); Caught Short (1930); Let Us Be Gay (1930); Min and Bill (1930); Reducing (1931); Politics (1931); Emma (1932); Prosperity (1932); Tugboat Annie (1933); Dinner at Eight (1933); Christopher Bean (1933).

Describing herself as "too homely for a prima donna and too big for a soubrette," Marie Dressler was one of America's most endearing character actresses of the 1930s. The daughter of an impoverished music teacher, Dressler joined a stock company at age 14 and was a vaudeville headliner by the turn of the century. Her most successful turn on Broadway was as Tillie Blobbs, the daydreaming boardinghouse drudge in Tillie's Nightmare (1910), in which her rendition of the song "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl" was particularly memorable. This led to a film contract with Mack Sennett and a series of "Tillie" movies, the first of which co-starred Charlie Chaplin.

Dressler never caught on in silents, and her stage career slowed during the 1920s due to her involvement in the Actor's Strike of 1919. In 1927, a close friend, screenwriter Frances Marion , came to her rescue, fashioning the film The Callahans and the Murphys (1927) especially for her and then selling it to producer Irving Thalberg. Dressler and her co-star in the picture, Polly Moran , enjoyed success in several additional films together, including Bringing Up Father (1928). Dressler's career was boosted once more by her surprise casting in the serious character role of Marthy, a waterfront hag, in Anna Christie (1930). (Frances Marion, who wrote the adaptation, convinced MGM that Dressler could handle the part.) That same year, Dressler won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in another Marion screenplay, Min and Bill, in which Dressler ran a waterfront tavern with Wallace Beery. She and Beery, known as a delightful twosome, were together again in Tugboat Annie (1933). Although an unlikely star, Dressler was the No. 1 box-office attraction in the country for several years. The actress died of cancer in 1934. In a tribute, Photoplay called her a star of universal appeal: "If you ever saw Marie Dressler on the screen she went straight to your heart. That was because the shining qualities that made her so beloved by everyone that knew her personally were revealed … in her film interpretations."


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston: Little Brown, 1995.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. Cambridge Guide to American Theater. Cambridge and NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

suggested reading:

Dressler, Marie, with M. Harrington. My Own Story. New York, 1934 (an expansion of earlier autobiography, The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling, 1924).

Lee, Betty. Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star. KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1997.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts