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Monday, April 09, 2018

What Got Laughs and Warmed Hearts In 1930

When Most Memorable Pick Was Hands Down Min and Bill

The number of films that were truly beloved is finite. One of them was Min and Bill. I say was because those who loved it are either a hundred years old or gone. Min and Bill earned back over five times its cost. People kept going time and again. Whenever MGM did a retro reel, Min and Bill was there. I found revivals from as late as 1963 at mainstream venues. Min and Bill was of sort that old people remembered fondly and talked about, even as television largely ducked it in favor of later, slicker titles from the MGM group. It had drama plus comedy, "bittersweet" a term observers at the time used. Some, including Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, called it "unsavory," which wasn't inapt, because Min and Bill does not shrink from sleaze, at least as that term was understood in 1930. Balance was restored, however, by brilliant trouping of Marie Dressler, that "grand old fire horse of the screen" as Norma Shearer called her when presenting 1931's Best Actress award to Dressler for Min and Bill.

MGM is often misunderstood as a company for which sole pursuit was empty glamour, beautiful people achieving what others of us could not. This, of course, does not take Dressler into account, or Wallace Beery, the two of them by far a most profitable team for Leo despite the mere pair they did together (three when you count Dinner At Eight, but they didn't interact so much in that one). Dressler died in 1934 as the most popular actress on US screens, so imagine a public's shock and grief, a similar response, I'd guess, to the loss of John Bunny back in 1915. These were less movie stars than family members, or at the least intense identification figures for an invisible army of plain folk who'd never enter rooms on the arm of a Clark Gable or Joan Crawford. MGM would spend the rest of a Studio Era eager to replicate Marie Dressler, but never came close. No other "fire horse" could deliver heart with the laughs, none for that matter approached her for humor, though the heaven knows, a Marjorie Main tried in vehicle after misbegotten vehicle where she and Beery tried recapturing glory that had passed with Dressler.

Wallace Beery was either a genius player years ahead of his time or no fit company for anyone to work with. He would show up with vaguest idea of what a scene was about and then wing  dialogue to distress of those who had taken trouble to memorize words and chalk marks. Those seasoned enough like Dressler could cope, plus she'd bring him to heel with cajole, then threats, in event he misbehaved. What Beery knew, as audiences certainly did, was how authentic he sounded, despite, or because of, disdain for scripts. Was it not caring, or supreme confidence? Based on Beery's eternity at performing, I'd say the latter. He had once trained elephants, worked for Sennett, then scooped a career out of silents as a heavy, or goofball, or even femme-dresser. I don't know who could have intimidated a man with background like this. Certainly no actor or executive at MGM. His roaring success just made Beery more intractable. I watch him with pleasure because he never does the expected. Whatever writers wrote was a first thing he'd discard. There's a scene near the beginning of Min and Bill where Beery says "Brush up on your minature golf" as Dressler departs the frame. That's minature, not miniature. The line is from left of field at the least, probably Beery in recall of a putting course he drove by that morning on way into Culver (midget golf a major fad in 1930). Anyhow, I'd submit Frances Marion (credited scenarist) wrote that line about like pigs flew. Yes --- Wallace Beery is my idea of acting genius.

Good as Beery was, it was Marie Dressler who spread icing on Min and Bill cake. She could pull a guffaw, then tears, with merest expression. Dressler was unapologetically broad, a vaudeville sensibility recorded on film to forever-after memorialize that style of performing. Dressler had the advantage, which can't be taught, of a really lived-in face. She had scaled to an earlier century top, got blacklisted when she joined a strike of chorus girls, then sunk to near-being a housekeeper for hire, this on eve of rescue by friend Frances Marion, who wrote parts for Dressler in late silent-early talkies at MGM. Anna Christie re-lit the fire horse and led directly to Min and Bill, a first that was customized for a Dressler comeback. She went meteoric from this to baffle an industry that thought film stars had to be pretty, or at least presentable. Starring vehicles after Min and Bill were all hits, each valuable for Dressler alone, some even better for company she worked with. Two unfortunately are locked out for expired story rights and haven't been shown for years: Christopher Bean and Caught Short. I'll bet both are winners, but will we live long enough to confirm?

Min and Bill is a rough rhinestone of an early talkie. There is little of Metro polish about it. Waterfront location was done at San Pedro. There are two full-out slapstick portions that got word-of-mouth and made patrons come back. Min and Bill would be an antecedent for It Happened One Night and others that inspired repeat viewings. A centerpiece, to be excerpted for decades to come, was Dressler chasing Beery around a cramped room and smashing furniture plus bric-a-brac over him. This is man-woman combat played full-out, and you wonder at moments if she might really kill him. It all goes on for minutes to what I'm sure was continuous 1930-31 roars (Min and Bill a late in '30 release). Heart-tug comes of "sea cow" Dressler's affection for ne'er-do-well Beery, then her sacrifice for adopted child Dorothy Jordan. Not selling out to a cheery ending gave Min and Bill an integrity harder to come by in conventional pics, Dressler's final close-up a lift as well as source of pathos. She enables happiness for others at cost to herself,  she and we OK with the bulls-eye outcome. A finish calibrated so well as this was rare, remains so, and always pays big at cash windows. Here was a rabbit Hollywood forever chased, but seldom caught. Min and Bill is available on DVD from Warner Archive.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Why there is not a single line dealing or even mentioning its sister Spanish language version?

3:46 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

A new one on me. Wasn't aware of it.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I had some multi-volume set of books about all the countries in the world (needless to say many regions got polished off in a single volume) but the part I spent the most time with, needless to say, was the section of the US volume devoted to the history of film. Only a handful of pages, I'm sure, but Min and Bill rated a photo, yet it was decades before I caught up with it. It works, for sure, though it tugs harder than we might find seemly now.

Dressler was a star at the last moment when there was an audience ready to bond with an older woman so rough-edged, years of keeping house and raising children in her face and swaybacked form. Her kindred women went to see her give a good stern talking-to to fools, children and layabout men (Emma is my favorite, a washerwoman's Lear with its Mr. Deeds-like tell them off in court ending). With wartime prosperity and labor saving machines, housework was no longer quite the drudgery it had once been, and even drudges kept themselves up better— the true heir to Dressler in the 40s and 50s isn't Main, I'd say, but Thelma Ritter.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

When I was a kid my mother bought the "cheap-ass" Funk & Wagnall's encyclopedia, a volume at a time, from Safeway grocery store in Aurora, CO. Looking at it today I do not see how I got by on my school reports with those cheap encyclopedias. The edition I described was published in 1970 and in the movie section F&W's said the three most iconic films of the 20th century were: THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, THE GOLD RUSH. and MIN & BILL.

I have yet to see the whole MIN & BILL, but I assume Paramount's TILLIE & GUS is a rip off of MIN & BILL.

6:13 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The Spanish language version exists and it is available. Here is a screen cap of the opening title.

7:45 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I adore Dressler, but Beery's popularity is one of history's greatest mysteries, as far as I'm concerned.

10:44 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

TILLIE & GUS is Disneyesque compared to MIN & BILL. There's no grit or real poignancy; it's an affable Fields film with Baby Leroy and the Great Man's comedy style. You can easily imagine it without Alison Skipworth's character, perhaps she was added to the script after MIN & BILL's success.

2:51 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

What makes MIN & BILL work is that Min does the right thing for the right reason without a shade of regret. She knows that by her action a life about to be destroyed has been saved. TILLIE & GUS is great. Love it. There is no comparison between them however.

6:06 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

More caps from the Spanish language version:

12:39 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

An ad from Cuba for the Spanish language version. This is more interesting than most of the ones that you posted because the program included a Laurel and Hardy short (which played in English).

12:50 PM  
Blogger RichardSchilling said...

Interestingly, TCM did not make Marie Dressler its "STAR OF THE MONTH" until June 2016, which I learned from a thread I saw on the TCM website celebrating that fact since Marie Dressler had not been a "Summer Under The Stars" Honoree since August of 2008! I do wish they have another tribute to her, because now I want to see all of her films!

7:22 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

6:28 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

From what I've read, even casual acquaintances would go out of their way to say nasty things about Beery the man (as opposed to Beery the actor). An interesting exception was Jeanette MacDonald who seemed to have genuine affection for the guy, accepting him as the same lovable lug off camera as on. She was a pretty high maintenance property herself and credited him with giving her the most valuable bit of advice when she switched over from Paramount to MGM: "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."

9:09 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

It has also been proven, without a doubt, that Beery DID NOT beat Ted Healy to death.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I'd pay good money to see someone introduce Meryl Streep as "that grand old firehorse of the screen."

3:00 PM  

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