Oct 17, 2013

Marie Dressler, Emma

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And so Marie Dressler returns to the Academy Awards, coming back a second year in a row with a role that is essentially a warmer version of the sassy curmudgeon she played in Min & Bill mixed with Jane Wyman's insufferably devoted nanny from The Blue Veil. As I've watched these Best Actress nominees in chronological order, it's become vividly obvious just what kinds of roles could snag you a nomination back in those days, and it's starting to feel like the movies are blending in with one another. If you're a mother who suffers (Chatterton in Madame X, Chatterton in Sarah and Son, Hayes in Sin of Madelon Claudet, Swanson in The Trespasser), you get a nomination. If you're a motherly figure who takes care of/likes children, (Wyman in The Blue Veil, Dressler in Min & Bill, Dressler here) you get a nomination. I was ready to ho-hum Emma and Dressler, but I ended up being pleasantly entertained.

 photo ScreenShot2013-10-04at31621PM.jpgWhile at times it seems like Emma is suffering from an identity crisis (it's a cheesy family film that slides through scenes of slapstick comedy, a serious action sequence, and then suddenly pivots into a courtroom drama in the third act), it's an all-around entertaining film. At the heart of it is Dressler, who I feel brings everything to the role of Emma that I thought was missing from her Min & Bill performance. She is such a warm and charismatic presence on the screen--it's no wonder why she was such a popular movie star back in her day--you want to root for her and she has a quality to her that evokes affection. These qualities complement her loving maid character--she is much less frigid here than in her Oscar-winning turn, and I couldn't help but smile at points in the film. Equal parts assertive, maternal, thick-skinned, loving, and tender, she was quite the sight to see and she acts with a naturalistic confidence that I think many actresses of this era lacked. Some of her more subtler moments--the shock expressed upon finding about Ronnie's death, or the warmth she exudes while at the piano preparing to sing for her husband--say so much without the need for words.

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Of course, it's not a flawless performance. Emma herself is a very stubbornly static character--I shook my head hard during the courtroom scene in which she passionately cries out to her lawyer not to slander the "kids" who're accusing her of murder--she's a devoted maid yes, but much like Wyman you can only take so much of it before it feels horridly overdone. However Dressler's acting and charm make up for the writing's misgivings and while this isn't the most complicated role to play--I believe any actress of Dressler's stature could have done this role in her sleep--Dressler definitely rises above the material and the film may have fumbled had it been a less capable actress in charge of the part. This would be Dressler's final Academy Award nominated performance, as she was diagnosed with cancer around the time of the awards, but this is a quaint and perfectly fine performance to be recognized as your last. It's a film and a performance that is filled with the brim with endearment, kind of a nice symbolic nod to how much audiences adored her then.


  1. Dressler would be the first to agree she looked like a horse with a hat on, and had a figure like a sack full of doorknobs, and yet no one could resist her. Neither can I; she always puts me to mind of my own Grandmom. I don't think you could find an unkind word about her anywhere.

    In the early 1930s she was to the box office what Tom Hanks was in the 1990s. Her indomitable spirit and will to triumph over adversity, no matter what the role, was exactly the balm Depression-shaken audiences sought, and repaid her handsomely. She was the first woman ever to be featured on the cover of Time. Though not one of her nominated roles, she's probably best known for her financially pinched stage actress Carlotta Vance in Dinner At Eight, billed first ahead of the Barrymore brothers, Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow. I love her.

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  3. I can resist Dressler (and do). She takes "curmudgeon" to its nth degree and her ceaseless mugging is insufferable. She also doesn't seem to know what to do with her hands. Her performance here is as mannered as all of her work that I've seen and she is effective in only three moments: the scene at the piano when her husbands dies, when she angrily throws his children out of her house and when she's told that 'Ronnie' has died. Otherwise, she barks and scruffs her way through her scenes with a nastiness that's off-putting and belies the adoration she receives at the end. I found her acting in this film to be harsh, over-the-top and quite unenjoyable.