A New Sybil's "WHO'Z DAT?"... MARIE DRESSLER (November 9, 1868 – July 28, 1934)


Darlings! Mummy has made a decision! After reading dozens of posts and having hundreds of conversations with well-meaning folks who just don't know about the great CHARACTER actors who gave films the depth and genius that surrounded and supported the so-called "stars", I am going to post a regular, special entry called SYBIL'S "WHO'Z DAT?"....there'll be photos and a mini-bio, and the next time you see one of those familiar, fabulous faces that you just "can't quite place".......well, maybe these posts will help. Some of these actors worked more, had longer and broader careers, and ended up happier, more loved, and even wealthier than the "stars" that the public "worships". (I think there may be a metaphor in that! What do you think???). Well, while you’re thinking it over, step aside and make way for the true meaning of the Hollywood “battleship”…or “battle axe” ...whatever!

It’s MARIE DRESSLER (November 9th, 1868 – July 28th, 1934). Born Leila Marie Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada to parents Alexander Rudolph Koerber, who was Austrian and a former officer in the Crimean War, and Anna Henderson, a musician. Her father was a music teacher in Cobourg and the organist at St. Peter's Anglican Church, where as a child Marie would sing and assist in operating the organ. According to Dressler, the family regularly moved from community to community during her childhood, though this is unconfirmed. There is no information about her childhood education, either. It has been suggested by Cobourg historian Andrew Hewson that Dressler attended a private school, but this is doubtful if Dressler's recollections of the family living in poverty are correct. The Koerber family eventually moved to the United States, where Alexander Koerber is known to have worked as a piano teacher in the late 1870s and early 1880s in Bay City, Michigan, Findlay, Ohio, and Saginaw, Michigan. Her first known acting appearance was as Cupid at age five in a church theatrical performance. Residents of the towns the Koerbers lived in recalled Dressler acting in many amateur productions, and Leila often aggravated her parents with those performances. 

Dressler left home at fourteen to begin her acting career with the Nevada Stock Company, telling the company she was actually eighteen. The pay was either $6 a week, and Dressler sent half to her mother. It was at this time that Dressler adopted the name of an aunt as her stage name. According to Dressler, her father objected to her using the name of Koerber. The identity of the aunt was never confirmed, though Dressler denied that she adopted the name from a store awning. Dressler's sister Bonita, five years older, left home at about the same time. Bonita also worked in the opera company. The Nevada Stock Company was a traveling troupe that played mostly in the American Midwest. Dressler described the experience as a "wonderful school in many ways. Often a bill was changed on an hour's notice or less. Every member of the cast had to be a quick study.” Dressler made her professional debut as a chorus girl named Cigarette in the play UNDER TWO FLAGS, a dramatization of life in the Foreign Legion.

Dressler would remain with the troupe for three years, while her sister left to marry playwright Richard Ganthony. The company eventually ended up in a small Michigan town without money or a booking. Dressler joined the Robert Grau Opera Company, which also toured the midwest, and she received an improvement in pay to $8 per week, although Dressler claims she never received any wages. She ended up in Philadelphia, where she joined the Starr Opera Company as a member of the chorus. A highlight for her with the Starr company was portraying Katisha in THE MIKADO when the regular actress was unable to go on, due to a sprained ankle, according to Dressler. After the touring with different plays including one in which she was required to hit a baseball into the audience every night, she finally quit regional theatre and moved to New York City.

In 1892, she made her debut on Broadway at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in WALDEMAR, THE ROBBER OF THE RHINE which only lasted five weeks. Dressler had hoped to become an operatic diva or tragedienne, but the writer of WALDEMAR, Maurice Barrymore, convinced her to accept that her best chance of success was in comedy roles. Years later she would appear with his sons, Lionel and John in motion pictures and would also become good friends with his daughter Ethel. After years of more touring around the country and even to London, and a couple of bankruptcies involving her own productions and theatre companies, she settled once again in NYC. During World War I, along with the Barrymores she helped sell Liberty Bonds, and in the 1919 Actors’ Equity Strike she helped organize the first union for stage chorus players, which brought her into direct conflict with the big Broadway producers including George M. Cohan. From one of her successful Broadway roles, she played the titular role in the first full-length 6 reel screen comedy, 1914's TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE opposite Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. She went on to make several shorts in the film studios on the East coast, but mostly worked in New York City on the Broadway stage. Her career declined somewhat in the 1920s and Dressler was reduced to living on her savings while sharing an apartment with a friend and even living in a servant’s room in the Hotel Ritz.

In 1927, she returned to films at the age of 59 and experienced a remarkable string of successes. Dressler had many ups and downs in her amazing career, although she finally appeared some forty films. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930–31 for MIN AND BILL opposite Wallace Beery and was named the top film star for 1932 and 1933. Her appearance in the classic DINNER AT EIGHT (1933) directed by George Cukor remains an iconic star-turn despite the incandescent performances of fellow super-stars John and Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Billie Burke, and Wallace Beery.

Tragically, she would die of cancer in 1934 at the peek of her career. She was married twice but had no children, and was rumored to have had affairs with other actresses in Hollywood. Dressler was interred in a crypt in the Great Mausoleum in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Marie Dressler has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1731 Vine Street. After MIN AND BILL, Dressler and Beery added their footprints to the cement forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, with the inscription "America's New Sweethearts, Min and Bill.” For me, with her gruff delivery and heart of gold, Dressler will remain one of the greatest “sweethearts” that ever graced the silver screen. Along with her fellow Birthday-girl Edna May Oliver (November 9th, 1883), I could look at her forever!... For people who love films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Dressler remains yet another one of the Platinum performers that, once seen, can never be forgotten! She, like Edna May Oliver, is truly a perfect example of enduring power and talent in one who was never just "another pretty face". 

[Want to read other fun and funny stories here on SybilSez.com? Just enter any topic that pops into your head in the "search" window on the upper right! Who knows what might come up?...and feel free to share them with your friends!]