Celebrate Marie Dressler 150! Hometown Hosts Her Birthday in Style
“By the time we hit fifty, we have learned our hardest lessons. We have found out that only a few things are really important. We have learned to take life seriously, but never ourselves.”
I wholeheartedly agree. Marie Dressler should know, and wore the battle scars of showbiz- and life- to prove it. Dressler looked the very opposite of the youthful beauties that graced the stages and silver screens of her time, but Marie was the true audience favorite.
Born Leila Marie Koerber on November 9, 1868, Dressler left home at the mere age of fourteen (claiming she was 18) to join the Nevada Theatre Troupe, with aspirations for the bright lights of the Broadway stage. By her 20s, she made it to both Broadway and vaudeville. But it wasn’t until her early 40s when she transitioned to silent film, co-starring with Mabel Normand and a fresh-faced Charlie Chaplin in Mack Sennett’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914). The “Tillie” character continued to be a crowd-pleaser in more features.
After several comebacks following deep struggles in her career over the years, Dressler finally found huge success in motion pictures. By the early 1930s and with the transition to sound, she had reached a peak of popularity at a mature age. She was nominated and won an Oscar for her performance as an Actress in a Leading Role in Min and Bill (1931). The following year, she was nominated again in the same category for her role on Emma (1932).
In PreCode classics like George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933), magnetic stars like Jean Harlow lit up the screen with her beauty and charisma. But it was the extremely popular Marie Dressler whose name appeared at the very top of the credits. Her career and fame were on fire when cancer took her life at age 65 on July 28th, 1934.
In the coming months, Marie Dressler’s hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada will honor their most famous funny lady’s 150th birthday with a series of events. Recently I caught up with Rick Miller, President, and Chair of the Marie Dressler Foundation (https://www.mariedressler.ca/index.php), and here’s what he shared:
Kellee Pratt: Rick, how did you first become associated with the Marie Dressler Foundation and Museum?
Rick Miller: “When I moved to Cobourg, Ontario in 2011, I discovered the annual ‘Vintage Film Festival’ which was run by volunteers of Marie Dressler Foundation. I was curious as to the connection between the Festival and Marie Dressler, so I started to research the history. At that time, there was no Museum but instead, there was a ‘memorabilia room’ in Marie’s honor. I joined the Foundation as a volunteer and in 2013 I was elected to the Board of Directors of the Foundation and was appointed President & Chair.”
KP: When and how did you become a fan of Marie Dressler? Were you a classic film fan first?
RM: “I was first and foremost a film fan, not initially a classic or vintage film fan. I was a big fan of the Disney animation classics, which I watched over and over again with my young (at the time) daughter. I didn’t have access to TCM and therefore had limited knowledge and access to early films. When I assumed my role in the Foundation, I made it my mission to learn everything I could about Marie. This included reading several biographies about Marie and her own two autobiographies, watching every movie with Marie that was available, and digging into the Foundation’s extensive archive materials.”
KP: What is it about Dressler that holds such an appeal for audiences back then? Do you think her appeal would hold true for audiences today?
RM: “Marie was the top box-office draw for both 1932 and 1933. It wasn’t because of her age or looks. I believe it was her personality – she was well loved by fellow actors and fans alike. Initially, Marie became popular through her comedic roles in “Dangerous Females” and “Reducing”. Her popularity peaked during the Great Depression because her audiences could identify with Marie as the empathetic loving mother figure. This warmth was evident in her roles in Min and Bill, Tugboat Annie, Emma and Prosperity.
Today’s audiences would appreciate Marie’s talent as she could play a diverse number of roles.”
KP: Being such an ardent fan, undoubtedly you have become, in a sense, close to Ms. Dressler over the years. Please tell us- is there anything about her that the typical classic film fan may be surprised or delighted to discover?
RM: “After Marie’s theatre career ended in the mid-20’s, Marie operated a hotdog stand at the tail-end of Coney Island. She was proud that she could make a living outside of the theatre. Soon thereafter, scenario writer Frances Marion learned of her fate and arranged to write in a small part for Marie in Anna Christie, which became Marie’s comeback role, this time in the movies.
Fans may be surprised to learn that Marie suffered from stage fright for her entire career.”
KP: This year marks the 150th birthday of Marie Dressler, tell us about the many events going on between September and November in celebration.
RM: “In addition to the Marie Dressler Museum which focuses on the life and achievements of Marie, we have created a program of community events which we have named ‘Celebrate Marie Dressler 150’.
Firstly, we have created an Exhibition entitled ‘Cobourg’s Sweetheart: Celebrating Marie Dressler’ which will run from September 8 until November 10 here in Cobourg. The Exhibition features video interviews of community members with their stories, the history of Marie’s birthplace home, how American and international film fans popularized Cobourg, and how the community has stayed connected with Marie over the past 90 years. During the exhibition, there will be three presentations by local experts on the topics of ‘Art & Cinema’, ‘Music & Cinema’, and ‘Stage & Cinema’ during the early 1930’s.
On September 14, the Foundation is presenting ‘Women and Hollywood’ featuring documentary filmmaker, author, and film scholar Cari Beauchamp. Cari will talk about the powerful roles of women in front of and behind the camera in early Hollywood and the importance of communities of women then and now. Cari will be joined by Matthew Kennedy author of ‘Marie Dressler: A Biography’ who will talk about Marie’s role as a social activist. Both authors will sign copies of their books at the event.
On September 29th, the Foundation will host Dinner At Eight, a 1933’s themed birthday party celebration for Marie. The evening has been designed after the November 9, 1933, giant Hollywood birthday party for Marie during the depths of the Depression. The party was hosted by Lois B. Mayer with a special radio link to Cobourg, during which Mayer gave a shout-out to Cobourg residents listening in. I will send you under separate cover, a scan of the Cobourg Sentinel-Star newspaper article on November 9, 1933, announcing the birthday party.
This year’s celebration will include a 1930’s themed menu (not rations) along with big band and jazz music performed by an orchestra over dinner, Cobourg’s biggest birthday cake, a showing of Marie’s penultimate movie, Dinner At Eight, and some special surprises.
Finally, on Marie’s birthday, November 9, Cobourg will celebrate ‘Marie Dressler 150 Celebration Day’ in front of Cobourg’s national heritage building, Victoria Hall. There will be speeches, music, food and other giveaways to attendees. Downtown Cobourg is featuring ‘Celebrate Marie Dressler 150’ banners along the street.
Some trivia: Victoria Hall was officially opened by the Prince of Wales (who also shared Marie’s birthday of November 9 and would later become King Edward VII) on September 6, 1860. In 1907 Marie met the King in London and remarked how he, as an 18-year-old Prince of Wales, had opened a building in her hometown of Cobourg, Canada.”
KP: If someone is a huge Marie Dressler fan or a big classic film fan who yearns to discover a deeper appreciation for her, what’s the best way to make the most of a visit to MD’s hometown this Fall?
RM: “A good start would be to visit Marie Dressler Museum. The museum which opened in September 2016 in Marie’s birthplace, is one of the newest interactive heritage museums in the country and features a year-round exhibition called ‘From Cobourg to Hollywood: The Story of Marie Dressler’. Admission is free, and donations are welcomed.
The two-month long exhibition ‘Cobourg’s Sweetheart: Celebrating Marie Dressler’ will focus on the community’s love affair with Marie. [Again,] Admission is free, and donations are welcomed.
“Cobourg’s Sweetheart: Celebrating Marie Dressler” will run from September 8 until November 10 in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.
The 26th Annual Vintage Film Festival, held October 12, 13, 14 will feature three Marie Dressler films, namely The Patsy, Anna Christie and Politics along with many other interesting films. Program details and tickets are available at www.vintagefilmfestival.ca
Of course, depending on the timing of the visit, the ‘Celebrate Marie Dressler 150’ community events previously mentioned will also have a strong connection to Marie Dressler. Finally, Cobourg is a lovely little town with a population of around 18,000 which has one of the nicest beaches (on Lake Ontario) in the country.”
KP: Being the birthplace of Marie Dressler, it’s apparent Cobourg takes the responsibility of honoring her legacy in earnest. Other than the unfortunate fire in the late 80s, I was impressed to read her birth home has essentially served well in honoring her connection to it over the years. Did she ever return to visit her hometown after chasing the bright lights of showbiz at the young age of 14?
RM: “There is no record of Marie returning to Cobourg after she left. Her family had long since moved out of Cobourg and she did not have any relatives living in the area. The Toronto Star newspaper reports that Marie performed in a theatrical production of Tillie’s Nightmare in 1912 in Toronto and performed again in 1913.”
KP: Due to the timing of her lifetime, in conjunction with her bumpy journey of showbiz from stage to silents, to talkies, Dressler was middle-aged by the time she hit stardom. She received her first Oscar nomination, which she won, shortly after her 63rd birthday. Would you say she’d make a good role model for actresses today, of any age, to keep hopeful?
RM: “Marie is a good role model for women (not just actresses).
During World War I, Marie was one of the leading fundraisers for the Liberty Bonds, tirelessly traveling from town to town to speak at rallies which would often attract 5,000 or more 1925 attendees. She was a social activist, supporting the cause of those less fortunate than herself. In the 1919 Actors’ Equity Strike, Marie as a former chorus girl and now the highest paid performer on Broadway supported the cause of the chorus girls. The outcome was the loss of her career on Broadway when theatre owners banned her from performing on Broadway. In the mid-1920’s Marie was very active with women’s groups in New York, performing at various fundraising events. Her role in ‘politics’ exemplifies Marie’s own philosophy.
From a career point of view, Marie is an inspiration. She came from a modest background, ran away from home at age 14 (she must have been extremely brave) to make a career in theatre, silent movies, and talking movies in a career spanning more than 40 years. She had her share of career and personal setbacks, losing her fortune more than once, but she always had the spirit not to give up. Louis B. Mayer once called her ‘the most adored person ever to set foot in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio’.
Finally, Marie was ahead of her time with respect to championing the right of women to self-esteem. In her 1934 autobiography, My Own Story, she said:
“To this day, I contend that every woman has the right to feel beautiful, no matter how scrambled her features or how indifferent her figure. She needs this inward assurance to give her serenity, poise, and power. It is her birthright. To all women between the ages of eight and eighty, who want to grow in beauty, here is my advice: Forget what your looking glass tells you, but say to yourself a dozen times a day ‘I am beloved’. No woman who actually believes that she is precious in the eyes of another can be entirely without charm.”
KP: Dressler is also an example of a lady who never gave up. I read that she was very down on her luck, financially and career-wise, more than once, when folks like Frances Marion, George W Hill, Irving Thalberg, gave her comeback-from-the-brink opportunities that led to her mega-stardom. She certainly is an inspiration for hard-work, patience, and persistence, would you agree?
RM: “Yes, even when she was down on her luck, she was optimistic. She once said, while operating her Coney Island hot dog stand, ‘No job is ever menial. Just doing any little job well makes it a big job’.”
KP: If Marie Dressler were alive today, what priceless gem of wisdom do you think she’d give us in this oft-chaotic and whacky world of modern day?
RM: “I really like Marie’s quote, ‘Only a few things are really important’.”
KP: Finally, what hopes and dreams do you wish for the future of the museum and/or the film festival?
RM: “Marie Dressler was an unlikely star. The Foundation’s mission is to attract visitors to Cobourg to discover Marie Dressler. The Museum’s role is to present a compelling view of Marie’s life story and achievements and inspire others.
Every year since its inception in 1990, the Foundation presents bursaries to graduating secondary school students who are pursuing further studies in the performing arts. This year we presented four bursaries, each in the amount of $1,500. This is made possible by the generosity of our volunteers, donors, sponsors, and patrons of our annual Vintage Film Festival and other fundraising events. We would like to continue and grow this program over the coming years. The annual Vintage Film Festival presents a program of films over three days that span the earliest days of filmmaking to about 1960. We hope to inspire younger generations of movie fans to learn about and enjoy the treasures of early films.
We also present RearView DocFest, which is an annual festival of documentary films that are timeless and topical. Now entering its third year, we are seeing a real interest here, as well.
Finally, working with other organizations and film festivals, we aim to continue to champion Canadian-born Marie Dressler as one of the treasures of early Hollywood. We hope, with your support in writing this article, that we will attract a growing number of American visitors (including yourself) to Cobourg to discover Marie.”
If you’re interested in exploring more of Marie Dressler’s charming talents and universal appeal, this is your golden opportunity. Treat yourself with an in-depth discovery via a road trip to this quaint, little town in Ontario. Rick – and Marie- welcome you to join them!
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing and social media as her day gig, Kellee Pratt writes for her own classic film blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com). Kellee teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Screwball Comedy this Fall). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, Social Producer for TCM (2015, 2016), and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayHawk66.