Childhood & Early Life
Marie Dressler was born as Leila Marie Koerber on November 9, 1868, in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, to Alexander Rudolph Koerber and Anna Henderson. Both her parents were musicians. She had an elder sister named Bonita Louise Koerber.
Young Marie imbibed the passion for music from her parents. She would often accompany her father to St Peter’s Anglican Church where he worked as an organist. On some days, she would also perform the organ and sing.
Marie’s family was always on the go, moving from one community to the other until they finally settled in United States where her father worked as a piano teacher in Bay City, Michigan, Findlay, Ohio and Saginaw.
Marie’s stint with acting began as early as at the age of five. Her first ever performance was that of a Cupid for a church theatrical in Lindsay, Ontario. Following this, she acted in several amateur productions much to the dismay of her parents who detested her acting career.
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Her earliest exposure to stage and acting had set quite a massive impression on the mind of Young Marie who aimed to become an actor. Pursuing her dream, she left home at the age of 14 to join the Nevada Stock Company. It was during this time that she adopted her stage name, Marie Dressler after her father expressed his objection of her using the family name Koerber.
Dressler’s time in Nevada Stock Company was an extensive learning period. She polished her acting skills by learning the nuances of the profession. During her time in Nevada Stock Company, Dressler travelled frequently, as the plays that the company produced were mostly for the American Midwest audience.
Dressler’s debut on stage came as a chorus girl named Cigarette for the play ‘Under Two Flags’. For the next three years, she remained with the troupe acting for a couple of plays before she left the same to join the Robert Grau Opera Company.
After some time with Robert Grau Opera Company, Dressler joined the Starr Opera Company as a member of the chorus. She twice replaced regular actress and took up lead roles, as Katisha in ‘The Mikado’ and as Princess Flametta for an 1887 production.
She left Starr Opera Company and briefly re-joined her parents in Saignaw. However, she was called to join Bennett and Moulton Opera Company. For the next three years, she was on the road again, playing roles of light opera for the company. She remained with the company until 1891.
In 1891, she moved to Chicago where she was cast in two productions, ‘Little Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘The Tar and the Tartar’. She then moved to New York City. Following year she made her debut on Broadway at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in ‘Waldemar, the Robber of the Rhine’. The show lasted for merely five weeks.
Following her debut, she starred in various plays and shows including ‘Princess Nicotine’, ‘1492 Up To Date’, ‘Girofle-Girofla’, ‘A Stag Party’ and ‘A Hero in Spite of Himself’.
In 1896, Dressler received her first starring role as Flo in ‘The Lady Slaver’ at the Casino Theatre on Broadway. The show was immensely successful. Her mirthful expressions, seriocomic reactions and double takes were lauded by the audience.
Dressler quit the production on its tour to Colorado and instead joined Rich and Harris touring company. She returned to Broadway in ‘Hotel Topsy Turvy’ and ‘The Man in the Moon’
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In 1900, Dressler formed her own theatre troupe but it became bankrupt after the failure of its debut production, ‘Miss Prinnt’.
In 1904, she signed a contract with the Weber and Fields Music Hall management. She played lead roles in plays ‘Higgeldy Piggeldy’ and ‘Twiddle Twaddle’.
In 1907, Dressler first met her future husband James Henry ‘Jim’ Dalton. The two moved to London wherein she performed at the Palace Theatre of Varieties. At the same time, she attempted to come up with a modified production of ‘Higgeldy Piggeldy’. The show was a disaster and left Dressler broke for a second time in a row. She returned to New York and reinstated herself as a Broadway actor.
In 1909 and 1910, Dressler recorded for Edison Records. She next performed for a flop play, ‘Tillie’s Nightmare’ in Albany, Chicago, Kansas City and Philadelphia. Just before the show opened on Broadway, Dressler revised the show by installing a few changes. ‘Tillie’s Nightmare’ became a huge hit and magnum opus of Dressler’s stage career.
In 1919, Dressler was named President of the then newly formed Chorus Equity Association. After a couple of flop shows, Dressler returned to vaudeville stage with the Schubert Organization.
In 1922, Dressler took an extended trip to Europe but failed to sell a film script therein. She returned to New York but struggled constantly due to lack of work. After a couple of performances here and there, in 1926, Dressler made a final appearance on Broadway as part of an Old Timers' bill at the Palace Theatre.
Apart from theatre, Dressler made her presence felt on the big screen as well. She made her debut on big screen with the feature film, ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’. The movie was based on Dressler’s hit show ‘Tillie's Nightmare’. The movie was a major hit and was followed by two sequels and other comedies.
In 1925, Dressler retired from show business after few failures. However, her retirement did not last long as she returned to acting for Allan Dwan’s ‘The Jot Girl’. The film revamped the spirit of Dressler who was downtrodden with her failures.
Dressler’s comeback as an actor was aided from the help of Frances Marion, a screenwriter for MGM studio. It was on his request to Irving Thalberg, MGM chief, that Dressler bagged a role in a rowdy silent comedy, ‘The Callahans and the Murphys’ in 1927. The film was a big hit and it kick-started Dressler’s career again.
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Following her stint in ‘The Callahans and the Murphys’, Dressler next appeared in a small role in the first national film, ‘Breakfast at Sunrise’. Later, she was cast alongside Moran in ‘Bringing up Father’.
In 1928, Dressler essayed the role of a fluttery mother to Marion Davies and Jane Winston in the MGM production, ‘The Patsy’. The film was a major hit.
Hollywood’s conversion to talkies from silent films gave Dressler better opportunities. In 1930, upon the Marion’s persuasion, Thalberg gave Dressler the role of Marthy in the film ‘Anna Christie’. Her outstanding talent was immediately recognized as she was lauded both by the critics and the audience. Her excellence on screen gained her a contract with MGM.
Dressler became the hot star of MGM and a box office attraction. She starred in several comedy films and serious flicks. Talking of the latter, she was paired opposite Wallace Berry in ‘Min and Bill’. Her stellar performance in the film helped her bag the Academy Award for Best Actress. She was nominated yet again in 1932 for her starring role in ‘Emma’.
In 1933, Dressler starred in four movies including, ‘Going Hollyood’, ‘Dinner at Eight’, ‘Tugboat Annie’ and ‘Christopher Bean’. The fairy tale revival of her career met with a staggering halt in 1934 when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Unaware of her terminal sickness, Dressler continued to act appearing in more than forty films. She achieved her greatest success during the last years of her life.
Personal Life & Legacy
Dressler twice married in her lifetime. The first was to George Hoeppert, an American citizen, in 1899. The marriage gave Dressler an American citizenship. The union, however, did not last and the two parted ways.
In 1907, Dressler first met Maine businessman, James Henry ‘Jim’ Dalton. The following year the couple married in Europe. The marriage lasted till Dalton’s death in 1921.
Following Dalton’s death, Dressler moved in with a friend Nella Webb. In 1929, she moved to Los Angeles and later to Beverly Hills. During her last years, she lived with her maid Mamie and the latter’s husband, Jerry.
Just when her career had been revived and she tasted magnanimous success in films, Dressler was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She breathed her last on July 28, 1934, at the age of 65 in Santa Barbara, California.
Her home in Cobourg, Ontario, known as Marie Dressler House was converted into a restaurant in 1937. It remained operational until 1989. A fire damaged it completely after which it was restored as office of the Cobourg Chamber of Commerce. It today operates as a museum
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Canada Post as part of its ‘Canada in Hollywood’ series, issued a postage stamp on June 30, 2008 honouring Marie Dressler.