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Thursday, February 06, 2020

Dressler Again Gives All


Money As Route To Misery in Emma (1931)

Another money-breeds-rotten-offspring story, these endemic to a widening Depression. Emma was a vehicle for newly-huge star Marie Dressler, whose line in laughs plus sentiment was beyond any rival's reach, save possibly Will Rogers, who shared with her a top boxoffice spot nationwide. What grief prevailed at Metro when Dressler died, sincere among staffers and not limited just to bookkeepers. Emma was small of cost and large of revenue, as in $350K to make and $1.9 million in worldwide rentals to count. This was all fruit of Dressler having starred. Frances Marion had been her writer muse, each of the star's defining roles created or developed by this scribe who was responsible as anyone for Metro success with early talk. Dressler as Emma is a selfless housekeeper who gives all for ingrate children she raised, a concept easy to buy as everyone knew privilege was gateway to no-goodness. Ma Joad's curtain speech in The Grapes Of Wrath ("Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good, an' they die out") was stating the obvious for moviegoers who'd seen the cliché play on a loop for at least ten pre-Grapes years.




Dressler could finesse burlesque with subtler shades, often within a single shot. As Min and Bill was the one to truly establish her, bumps from it would be applied to quick-serve follow-ups. Not since Mabel Normand had there been an actress to so meld slapstick with heart. Emma was first occasion for Dressler to carry bags more/less alone, no Beery, Garbo, whoever, to claim equal, or more, viewer focus. Internal concern was health trouble Dressler kept to herself as boxoffice rank rose; what work she'd perform had to be limited, with rest periods frequent. Like with Lon Chaney, MGM tried squeezing whatever juice they could from all too perishable fruit. More Stars Than There Are In Heaven threatened to become More Stars Were In Heaven Than Working At Metro, what with Chaney (1930), Dressler (1934), later Harlow (1937), headed in that direction, plus William Haines, Ramon Novarro, Buster Keaton, John Gilbert, dropping off top ranks as suddenly as some got on. Emma had mixed reviews, mechanics more obvious each time the formula was repeated. We could speculate as to how much longer Marie Dressler would have lasted had she lived, though there isn't doubt of her being at a summit when the end came.

Marie Dressler rules at Greenbriar: How To Lose Your Job As A Motion Picture Exhibitor, Early Talkers On The Ropes, Unexpected Pleasures: Dressler and Moran, The Patsy (1928), Min and Bill.

Be sure and listen to Farran Nehme's fine podcast survey of Marie Dressler's life and career HERE at Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This site.


2 Comments:

Blogger DBenson said...

There was a Dressler quote -- was it here? -- in which she said her acting secret was to give a touch of the grand lady to a scrubwoman, and a touch of a scrubwoman to a grand lady.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

Besides Lon Chaney, Marie Dressler and John Gilbert's passing, the deaths of additional MGM personnel (both current & former employees) during the thirties included a number of other high-profiled people: Renee Adoree (THE BIG PARADE; said to have contracted TB during the filming of THE TRAIL OF '98) and Joseph W. Farnham (the man who titled von Stroheim's GREED, later dialogue writer and, shortly before his death, head of the Short Subjects Dept.); and the suicides of Jean Harlow's spouse, producer Paul Bern; director George Hill (ex-spouse of Frances Marion and director of MIN & BILL and THE BIG HOUSE, at the time of his death reportedly overwhelmed at the prospect of directing THE GOOD EARTH); and Karl Dane, reduced to running a hot dog stand outside the Metro gates. Then there's Irving Thalberg's own death in 1936, and comedian Ted Healy's passing the following year.

The only comparison to MGM's death count or scandals of the thirties is what occurred at Paramount a decade earlier (the unjust Roscoe Arbuckle trials, drug addiction death of Wallace Reid, murder of director William Desmond Taylor and insinuations against Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand). Not easy times for even a studio head like Zukor or Mayer.

4:50 AM  

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