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Marie Dressler (9 November 1868 – 28 July 1934)

An Antidote to Ageism in Hollywood

By Rachel RobbinsPublished 2 months ago 4 min read
Marie Dressler

What if I were to tell you that I haven’t told you all my stories, that I haven’t even lived my best stories, would you believe me? I’m 54. I’ve met my great love. I’ve become a mother. I’ve done a range of jobs. What else could there be to talk about? What else could there be left to tell, to do, to discover?

Why would you (and sometimes me) believe that there is nothing more for me to do? That I am finished, better placed as side-kick, minor character, comedic cameo?

Well, it might be that like me, you got too many of your ideas about the stories we are allowed to tell from the movies. And…

“Hollywood’s message is clear. Women get old. Men just get… older.” (Stephen Whitty, NJ Arts)

Sally Fields and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump in 1994 - six years earlier she had been his love interest...

The Institute of Gender in Media looked at women over 50 on screen and found that in the years 2010 – 2020 characters over fifty only make up 20% of the characters on screen, and of those only a quarter are women.

It is well documented how women go from playing lovers to mothers in a very short period of time (with the unsaid part being that mothers are no longer sexually attractive). In Punchline, 1988 Sally Field played a love interest to Tom Hanks, but by Forrest Gump, 1994 she played his mother, despite being only 10 years older than him.

Jean Harlow - isn't this how films stars are supposed to look?

The biggest female stars are blonde, slight and beautiful, right? The glamorous woman is centre stage and even then we accept that she will be small, silent and apologetic for her allure. When did we become so accepting of a man narrating our stories, framing our bodies, denying us motivation? I’m sitting in a café and I’m surrounded by women of all shapes, colours and sizes. And all of them will have a story to tell. But would we listen if we didn’t like the wrapping?

There are trends in movies, but the women are always young and pretty, right?

Except, there was Marie Dressler.

Marie Dressler

As Betty Lee says in her biography of Dressler – the Unlikeliest Star:

“She was homely, overweight and over the hill, but there was a time when Marie Dressler outdrew such sex symbols as Garbo, Dietrich and Harlow”

In the January 1933 edition of Motion Picture Herald, Dressler was designated the number one box-office star against the competition of the pretty young women like Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford or Myrna Loy.

Marie Dressler had been involved in show business since the age of 14 in vaudeville and Broadway. She was a pioneer of early cinema appearing in the first feature length comedy Tillie’s Punctured Romance in 1914 alongside the Keystone Cops. But it was in 1930 at the age of 61 that she won her first Oscar for her role in Min and Bill and was nominated again in 1932 for Emma, just over a year before her death from cancer in 1934.

She was never a romantic lead. As she says in her autobiography “The Story of an Ugly Duckling

“Fate cast me to play the roles of an ugly duckling with no promise of swanning”

But she knew she could entertain,

“I realised that my beauty, if any, lay under the skin. No-one has ever exclaimed ‘Isn’t she a beautiful child!’. But I found it quite as delightful when they said, ‘Isn’t she funny!’”

Marie Dressler in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Her career was hardly a straightforward linear progression. There were triumphs often followed by periods of unemployment, bad financial management and bankruptcy. This probably added to her appeal in the depression era of the late 20s and early 30s. She was a star who had lived the worst of times, like her audience.

And it is easy to see why audiences loved her. She had great comic timing. The exchange between her and Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933) is delivered perfectly:

Harlow: I was reading a book the other day.

Dressler: Reading a book?

Harlow: Yes, it's all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?

Dressler: Oh my dear, that's something you need never worry about.

Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight (1933)

In Min and Bill (1930), we see Dressler at the height of her comedic powers, but also a toughness that deals with the drama of the plot.

Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery in Min and Bill (1930)

In Emma (1932), a schlocky melodrama, that follows Emma as housekeeper who marries the man of the house, only to be widowed and the grown-up children disputing the will. It could fail spectacularly without the strength of Dressler’s central performance. She carries the drama as well as performing physical comedy.

Marie Dressler and Myrna Loy in Emma (1932)

As the stills above show, she was never the glamorous starlet. But she was the box-office draw. Hollywood take note. People don't just want stories of outstanding natural beauty.

Marie Dressler was born 100 years before me (almost to the day – my birthday is 3 November in case you’re wondering – it doesn’t matter if you haven’t got me a present, I’m fine with cash). And was older than I am now when she was at the top of her profession. And who knows if she had not become ill, what else she might have achieved.

She is my great reminder that:

No, I am not in my twenties, but Yes, I am absolutely in my prime.

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About the Creator

Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.

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  • Kenneth Lawson2 months ago

    There is a world of actors and behind-the-scenes people who did great work that doesn't get the credit or recognition they deserve. There are some parts that are inherently written or meant to be cast for a specific age group. Ie The Fonze, an older guy couldn't convincingly play him, On the same token, a younger person couldn't play an older part, and be believable. However, there are character actors such as Marie and many others, whom we've seen in countless films that can do pretty much anything. Today once you get past a certain age, you're typecast as a type of actor, or are not even considered for parts that could be done by an older person. Of course, there are notable expectations. Such as Morgan Freeman, and the few of the Golden Age that are left. But I suspect that most older actors and actresses are ignored when it casting time. They want young beautiful faces and bodies on the screen. Whether they have talent or not. As much there was wrong with the old studio system, one thing, they did get right, was training and making sure the talent could do was was needed, dancing, singing, or acting. Something I fear isn't done as much as it should be.

  • Marie Wilson2 months ago

    I've always loved Marie Dressler; sometimes she's an absolute ham but perhaps the only actress, then or now, who can get away with such mugging! She was born not far from where I live in Ontario and I've been to her house. Thanks for this great insight into the wonderful world of Marie Dressler.

  • Kelsey Clarey2 months ago

    This was such a great look into old Hollywood! And a good reminder of how silly the self-imposed deadlines of age are. I'm not even 30 yet and I already find myself falling into the trap sometimes.

  • River Joy2 months ago

    I just love your work, the look at old Hollywood. It reminds me of film school, except I think I would have loved these presentations quite a bit more. So well done

  • Babs Iverson2 months ago

    This is an amazing tribute!!! Thank you for introducing me to an brillant actress that I was unfamiliar with!!! Lovely read and thoroughly enjoyed and loved it!!!❤️❤️💕

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