For decades, the world has been waiting for a thorough biography on the great Marie Dressler. Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star, by Betty Lee (University Press of Kentucky, 1997), rises to the challenge by illuminating the life and times of this most beloved actress. During her lifetime, Dressler commissioned two autobiographies – both ghost written with the assistance of her recollections through dictation – The Life of an Ugly Duckling (McBride, 1924) and My Own Story [As told to Mildred Harrington] (Little, Brown, 1934). It goes without saying the times and the style of presentation that prevailed decades ago are rather selective and not forthcoming. While the voice of this proud women and actress seems to come through at times in these memoirs, Ms. Lee’s single-minded quest to uncover the real story does justice to Dressler by depicting her as a three-dimensional human being:
There was something about Marie Dressler personally that attracted both friends and enemies like a magnet. Despite her life-long identification with ordinary people, she sailed through life like a queen, even during the years when she was a penniless failure. There is some evidence that she truly believed she was a queen – or at least an aristocrat – and she infuriated her admirers when she relentlessly subjected them to her regal posturing. Off stage and screen she was loyal to her special friends and contemptuous of those who did not conform to her expectations. She was generous to a fault, yet quixotically stingy, a professional who sometimes broke contracts as well as a trouper who would gladly invest every ounce of energy on an assignment. She often exhibited extraordinary shortsightedness in personal relationships, even though those who loved her truly believed she was the wisest woman in the world.
Yet, throughout this resolute account there is a golden thread of real admiration that Lee weaves into her tapestry:
Marie Dressler easily outdrew such cinematic sex symbols as Garbo, Dietrich and Harlow. To movie audiences suffering the hardships of the Great Depression, she was Everywoman. She was Bill’s plain partner Min, Tugboat Annie, and Emma, the tough, no-nonsense broad who was more at home on the waterfront or in the kitchen than in the rarefied salons of Fifth Avenue. And, even if she happened to be invited to Dinner at Eight in one of those salons, Dressler was the actress who made it clear that she had not only bet her chips and collected her rewards in the great game of life, she had uncomplainingly paid her dues as well.
A key element utilized by Lee, that opened the inner doors that Marie kept locked, were never-before consulted resources – specifically those of Marie’s close confidante, actress Claire Dubrey (1892 – 1993). Dubrey had actually written a manuscript about her friendship with Marie that was never published. By granting permission for Lee to make use of the manuscript, Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star has the touches that make this biography ring with authenticity. She relied upon the memoirs of Marie’s dear friend, writer Frances Marion. Lee also frequently refers to Marie’s earlier memoirs to confirm or disavow her research and believes Dressler’s account on many occasions to be the deciding factor. A notable exception is the author’s inability to rely on Dressler’s account of any romantic involvements, for Marie never wrote about her love life. Lee uses outside research and sheds light on a somewhat enigmatic relationship (marriage, mistress?) to one James Henry Dalton between 1907 and 1921. “Sunny Jim,” as he was known, still remains somewhat elusive. His inclusion in the tapestry of Marie’s life through this book is extremely interesting. Again using outside information, Lee alludes to other relationships that the actress cultivated – romantic and otherwise.
There is, however, a blooper or two in Lee’s research. For instance, she misstates that Marion was married to director George W. Hill in 1927. (Hill directed Marie’s comeback film, The Callahans and the Murphys, in 1927.) Marion was married to Fred Thomson until his death in 1928. She would marry Hill in 1930. She also could have devoted commentary to Marie’s feud with William Randolph Hearst. The crux of this feud was her contempt for his publicity machine practices. Lee also could have contributed more insight to Dressler’s subsequent friendship (she was a frequent guest at Hearst Castle) and working relationship with his companion Marion Davies.
While Marie truly thought herself homely and based much of her comedy on this assessment, this book contains photos of her as an attractive youngster and fetching vaudeville performer that contradict this point of view. She is quite fetching. Her life had more than its share of hardship. For the first time we have the facts to help us understand how she dealt with the world that shuffled her a hand – many times from the bottom of the deck. Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star may prove to be one of the likeliest biographies written for an audience who have known next to nothing about Marie Dressler’s life and career, but have taken into their hearts her image and enormous talent on film at face value. Recommended.