The title of Marie Dressler’s autobiography, Confessions of an Ugly Duckling sums up her career in a nutshell. Despite being a trained opera singer and a gifted actress, she had the body of a football player and the face of a mastiff. Unconquerable nature decreed that she must therefore play comedy and this she did to great popular effect for many decades.
She was born Leile Koerber in Cobourg, Canada in 1869. As a child, she wanted to be a bareback rider in the circus, so her family was actually relieved when she declared she wanted to be an actress. When she a mere 14 years old, she answered an ad for a place in a traveling stock company, and got the part. Her great size allowed her to claim to be an adult; she also brought along her sister to “chaperone and play small parts.” After an unhappy love affair with one of the company, she decamped and joined up with an opera company. Though she was merely in the chorus, she had the temerity to dream about one day playing the role of Katisha in The Mikado, thoroughly learning the part in her spare time. Miraculously, the company decided to do The Mikado, the actress playing the part of Katisha sprained her ankle, and the assigned understudy was unprepared. Marie went on. For the next several years, she was to tour with various opera companies, her salary gradually increasing to the point where she could support her entire family.
In 1896, she appeared with Eddie Foy in Chicago in a production of Little Robinson Crusoe. When Robber of the Rhine a play by Maurice Barrymore, flopped at the 5th Avenue Theatre, she found herself stuck in New York and out of work. To earn some money, she sang at the Atlantic Garden on the Bowery and Koster and Bial’s. Numerous parts arrived in time, including one in Princess Nicotine with Lillian Russell. Her first big hit was the 1896 The Lady Slavey, which ran for four years.
From 1900-04, she worked in vaudeville and burlesque doing coon songs and impersonations. She continued to return to the vaudeville stage periodically throughout her career, even while succeeded in other arenas. Between plays, she would work up a vaudeville sketch with a partner. One, called Tess of the Vaudevilles played 10 weeks straight at Proctor’s 58th Street. In 1919 she headlined at the Palace.
In legit, Joe Weber hired her for his company casting her in Higglety-Pigglety, Hotel Topsy Turvy etc, and many other farcical “burlesques”. Her biggest meal ticket was a play called Tillie’s Nightmare, 1910, which ran for 5 years, and then kept extended its life through motion pictures. In 1914 Mack Sennett did a film version starring Dressler called Tillie’s Punctured Romance which also included Charlie Chaplin. Any illusions that Sennett had suddenly acquired class by bringing this Broadway play to the screen will be dispelled by the titles of the sequels he did which also starred Dressler: Tillie’s Tomato Surprise (1915) and Tillie Wakes Up (1917).
Work dried up for Dressler in the 1920s, but in the 30s things were looking up indeed. Hollywood came knocking with a string of great roles. The talking Dressler proved herself to be a hot ticket. She played grand dames and homeless women with equal gusto. Among the films she did were Anna Christie (1930), Min and Bill, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar (1930), and Dinner at Eight (1934). The last film was released posthumously. But she had the pleasure of knowing that she was Hollywood’s number one box office draw for the last four years of her life.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and vaudevillians like Marie Dressler, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.