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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Unexpected Pleasures --- Dressler and Moran

I’ve lately become one with the huge audience that went crazy for Marie Dressler back in the early thirties. Those patrons made her Number One boxoffice and knew from funny. I swear this woman is fast becoming my favorite actress; so step aside Norma and Deanna, Greenbriar has a new sweetheart. The discovery came courtesy of Warner Archives. They discounted a package of Dressler shows that included one I knew and wanted, Let Us Be Gay, along with several I’d never seen, including Politics and Reducing, a couple of team comedies with Marie and Polly Moran. Both were revelations for me. I laughed like a hyena at their antics. These two are in a way like a distaff Laurel and Hardy. Or maybe Dressler’s a Bill Fields in voluminous skirts. Anyway, the laughs come thick and fast. Veteran Charles Riesner directed Politics and Reducing. He’d been Chaplin’s right hand during the twenties and Keaton extended him reins for Steamboat Bill, Jr. The Dressler/Morans borrow from the best of silent clown routines. Reducing rollicks in a train sleeper recently vacated by Laurel and Hardy's 1929 Berth Marks, just preceded by Marie pulling verbal (and visual) gymnastics with stuttering Roscoe Ates. She later wrecks Polly’s art-deco beauty salon and does a telephone pantomime with Moran that had me rolling. Dressler’s unruly kids anticipate Harold Bissonette’s It’s A Gift offspring. They never pass by on bicycles without crushing her toes. Marie plays all of this wide open, mugging and sputtering like no other comedienne would before or again. This woman was comic inspiration itself. She’d plied big laughs on stage since the century began, was mentor to so many starting out in the biz (youthful beginner Mack Sennett sought her counsel). It must have wrecked a 1934 viewing public when she died at an absolute peak of their

Metro conventions are observed. There’s always a place for appealing ingenues in the Dressler/Morans, their being family-set comedies. Anita Page is ravishing as Marie’s unlikely daughter in Reducing. She’s nearly seduced by seeming cad Buster Collier, Jr. until mother intervenes. Both Politics and Reducing are schizo unpredictable in ways I loved. You never know when comedy’s mask will drop for stark tragedy’s intrusion. Politics’ story is set in motion by the gangland murder of Polly’s daughter, a moment played utterly straight (and well) by Moran. Plots seem to generally turn on small town virtue versus big city artifice and corruption. Had I but been born during flapper days, I'd have lined up with hard-earned nickels for this team. Heaven only knows how many actually did. I looked at figures for the Dressler/Morans and they were all socko. TCM is soon running another on my not-seen list, Prosperity, and it’s for sure the DVR will stand at alert. It occurs to me that these modest features would play nicely to any audience. All are of a piece with comedies we’ve known and enjoyed so repeatedly through movie buffing lives. Why didn’t I notice Dressler/Moran before? Maybe because they were rarely shown. Strike that. Make it never shown prior to TCM, at least where I’d have had access. It wouldn’t do to dismiss these as mere dumb slapsticks. Dressler was too human and sensitive an actress for that. Hoary gags as interpreted by her taste of ambrosia. To think that were it not for Warner Archives, I might never have bothered, but here’s the kicker: Both Politics and Reducing are excellent transfers. They look as good to me as any pressed DVD to come out of WB. That Dressler sale package includes six features for $59.95, including Politics, Reducing, Emma, Let Us Be Gay, Tugboat Annie, and Min and Bill. All are worth seeing (and having).

Check this previous Greenbriar post for a nutty 1931 Reducing promotional.


Anonymous Jim Lane said...

You win, John; Warner Archive, here I come...

Truth to tell, though, it doesn't take more than a nudge to get me on the Dressler bandwagon. If you want proof that she was a great actress, never mind Emma or Min and Bill; you need look no further than the scene in Dinner at Eight where she and Lionel Barrymore reminisce about her youth as the glamourous toast of Broadway. She convinces us, even as our eyes tell us (and a look at her photos from 1900 on confirms) that this old battleaxe never looked like anything but the back end of a bus. Yet Marie sits there flouncing and preening, as if to say "Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?" and we're hooked.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


I couldn't agree with you more about Dressler's scene with Barrymore in "Dinner At Eight". Even George Cukor said that Dressler wasn't fooling anyone when she pretended to be a Lillian Russell of that time. But one also knows and sees they are in the presence of truly overwhelmingly great acting! The screen lost a great deal of humanity when she passed.

2:59 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I watched Politics a while back and I wouldn't say the comparison is to Laurel and Hardy-- much more to the small town comedies of Fields, Edward Everett Horton, or perhaps most of all Will Rogers, since as you say it's usually a plot about big city sharpies or white picket fence snobs getting their comeuppance from Dressler's small town common sense. Frankly I don't find Dressler and Moran a team because I think Dressler blows her off the screen, as she pretty much did anybody. Here's something I wrote on NitrateVille about her unique position as a star (in regards to Emma):

"I find it so interesting that glossy MGM had a star who was aimed at that whole class of old-before-their-time, world-weary housewives and mothers who would put on their frumpy best, walk in ill-fitting shoes after a long day of doing things for everyone but themselves, and sit down for 75 minutes of intense identification with one of their own. Once labor-saving devices and family planning conquered America, women stopped being so tired and worn at such early ages, and so there's never been another star quite like her; the equivalent audience is seeing things like Mamma Mia! today, fantasies of late-middle-aged youth, not premature old age...

"[Emma's] setup doesn't entirely bear scrutiny... but it doesn't matter, it's all about her frumpy-old-lady common sense telling the world what's what, a Mr. Deeds for the support hose set, and you can see why her audience ate it up and she got an Oscar nomination. "

1:05 PM  
Blogger Booksteve said...

I saw a revival of DINNER AT EIGHT with my parents back in the late seventies and Marie Dressler was the one star I was not at all familiar with. On the way home, she was the one we talked about most!

1:07 AM  
Anonymous Erik said...

I was familiar with Dressler from Dinner at Eight; of course she's good but the role is similar to other crusty, older ladies from 30s films (maybe they were imitating her). But a few years ago I had TCM running in the background and they were screening REDUCING... the "I can't believe this is happening" expression Dressler has as mayhem breaks loose amplifies the gags, which are already good. PROSPERITY, POLITICS are along the same lines. Dressler is so likeable and able to make everything around her intensely funny and interesting. Same more or less goes for Min and Bill, though its not a comedy at all.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Hal said...

Were these Dressler-Moran pictures included in MGM's pre-48 syndication package? Years of watching the late late show and I don't remember ever seeing a one of them.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Do all old-time projectionists look like that guy?

YES, we do.

8:36 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hal, the Dressler/Morans were in the Pre-48 Greats syndicated group from MGM, though how many stations chose to run them I don't know.

9:42 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

I went to high school in Beverly Hills with a boy (we later became wriing partners for awhile) whose parents lived in Dressler's old house on Bedford Drive. (James Roosevelt was a later occupant).

Another wonderful team of that period were Mary Boland and Charlie Ruggles at Paramount. Here's hoping you'll do a post on their films at some point.

Your masthead today on the "custom posters" was really something. As I am doing a project, as I've mentioned before, on Lon McCallister (and William Eythe), I was naturally very interested in "The Red House" piece. For a guy who supposedly had a "lightweight" career, as even McCallister himself admitted to, he managed to work with some "heavy hitters" -- and as anyone who has seen McCallister's work can attest to, he more than held his own!


8:46 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, those Mary Boland and Charlie Ruggles Paramount comedies are nigh on impossible to find these days, as nobody seems interested in running the minor pre-48's now owned by Universal. Still, I'd enjoy seeing them someday ...

As for "The Red House", that's a really good one, isn't it? Not another like it, and a film I'd really like to see released on good quality DVD (I believe the pic is PD).

7:03 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


Honestly it's a real shame that all those great "little" Paramount films of the 30's are comsigned now to some sort of celluloid "no-man's land". Universal has released SOME titles of course, but I had to go to a little store here in the Valley to find a copy of Jack Benny's "Artists and Models", as well as "Buck Benny" -- and much to my surprise, they held-up better than I remembered them! The Ruggles-Boland series was absolutely charming as I recall. And, somebody on "Flickr" posted a rare still of something I had quite forgotten about from a Paramount of 1936, called "Hollywood Boulevard" about a forgotten star, well-played by John Halliday, with a number of silent stars in "cameos" and even Gary Cooper, playing himself! (Can't help wondering now if Billy Wilder wasn't think of this when he did a not dis-similar film at Paramount!) Oh, and then there is the venerable old "Double Door" from 1934, with Mary Morris (who was later Bill Eythe's acting coach at Carnagie Tech). The list is, let's face it John, endless!

Best as ever,


"The Red House" which was produced by Sol Lesser, for U-A release, is now I believe PD. McCallister was on record as saying he thought it was his best film, and it probably was!


4:38 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Allen Hollis sent the following e-mail:

Welcome to the small ranks of Marie Dressler and Polly Moran fans. Thanks for your blog on the subject. I have thought for years that Marie Dressler was so under rated these days because no one could see her films. I also thank WA for releasing these five films and hope that more will come. I would also like to see CHASING RAINBOWS, even in its cut version and she is without Polly.

By the way I also enjoyed your mussing on hunting down 8mm & 16mm prints.

Thanks Allen --- "Chasing Rainbows" is a favorite of mine among early musicals. What a shame that the color chunks are lost ...

5:04 AM  
Anonymous Ben Frey said...

Just stumbled upon this post about a month late but I must comment.

Count me among the small but discerning pack of Dressler fans. Up until last year, I had only seen Dinner at Eight. I had never seen anyone quite like her - very natural and spontaneous, larger than life (certainly), with immaculate comic timing, a comic's rubbery face and very strange eyes. As no one else has mentioned it, I must point out that her double-take/stutter-step at the very end of the film is one of the high points of physical comedy. She just plain stole the movie for me.

Then TCM's Summer Under the Stars 2008 had a full day of Dressler ( a day after having watched 16+ hours of Chaplin - I was already a weary pup). I started with Tillie's Punctured Romance at 6am and watched more or less straight through Min and Bill that evening. It was heaven. Whether playing slapstick or pathos, she just seemed to be completely in the moment, totally committed to the emotion of the scene.

But I must also say that Polly Moran doesn't do it for me. At times, she comes across as a Fanny Brice wannabe. Part of the problem is the roles she plays. Her characters are so nasty and petty and cause Dressler's characters such consternation and heartache. I have a hard time believing, even within the context of a farce ( Prosperity, for instance), that Dressler would ever want to set eyes on her again. I love skillful mugging (Dressler being a master in her silent films), but I find Moran too broad and unfocused.

It's past 1 in the morning right now but I'll be getting up in about 5 1/2 hours to watch The Patsy on TCM. I can't wait.

1:15 AM  

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