Sunday, May 28, 2006

Picked Flick #53: Min and Bill

If, as surely does happen, Oscar-winning actresses congregate in heaven for their own exclusive socials, Marie Dressler sticks out like more than a sore thumb. Here was an actress of such stout frame, heavy brow, and rectangular jaw that she makes Shirley Booth look like Gwyneth Paltrow. By all rights, Dressler should have been too big, too thick for movies, excepting perhaps the Odessa Steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin; she's a dead ringer for the doomed, outraged giantess who marches her dead child back up toward the marauding soldiers. Somehow, though, in the early 1930s, as the birdlike Lillian Gishes and Mary Pickfords of the silent era passed their torch to the peppy comediennes and glamour goddesses of the studio era, Dressler rose to the absolute top of her profession. More than just a comeback queen, having faded in the wake of antique triumphs like Tillie's Punctured Romance (directed by Mack Sennett in 1914, and co-starring Charlie Chaplin), she emerged as a veritable superstar, briefly without peer. Consider this extraordinary reminder from Matthew Kennedy's terrific biography: "At the time of her death in 1934, Dressler was the most beloved film star in America. According to an August 1933 Time magazine cover story, her films then earned an average of $800,000 each—a sum far exceeding the draw of all other stars. The honor of box-office champion was officially given to her in 1932 and 1933 by the Quigley Publication and the Motion Picture Herald's nationwide poll, which asked 12,000 motion-picture exhibitors to name movie stars with superior earning power. Dressler topped Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Mickey Mouse. There were Marie Dressler puppets, dresses, fan clubs, and commemorative flowers."

All this for an actress whose alter ego in Min and Bill calls herself an "old sea cow." Typically of Dressler's manner, in this and other films, she utters the line in a tone that registers toughness, good humor, resignation, lucid practicality, a fainter twist of sour than you'd think, and an earnest but highly subliminal invitation to Bill (Wallace Beery), her boarder and possible paramour, to contradict her. He doesn't, but then, he needn't: the rich relationship between this man and this woman is terse, tempestuous, but palpably felt and fully realized. The title figures are not obviously in love, at least not in an obviously romantic way, but they are fully, crucially, almost unquestioningly implicated in each other's lives. They share meals and confidences and barbs. They enjoy liquor together, and nurse each other. They have great, terrible, rocking rows: just watch how Dressler pummels the imposing Beery and knocks him all around a room—and then goes after him with an axe, gutting the door of the closet where he's hiding, in what is obviously not a process shot. Most importantly, they are guardians and protectors of Nancy (Dorothy Jordan), a teenaged girl whom Min has raised after her loose, dypsomaniacal mother Bella Pringle (Marjorie Rambeau) left her as a babe in Min's boarding house. When Bella sallies back into their lives, Bill shares Min's alarm that Nancy may be taken away, but he's also helplessly attracted to this svelte, easy figure. The status quo of this ersatz, fish-smelling family won't stay the same, but how and to whom will Nancy escape, especially now that boys have come calling? Will defending Nancy turn Min against Bill? Is his fascination with Bella a partial rejection of Min? Why is there a slapstick boat chase in this movie, and how does Dressler glide so swiftly from that sort of sequence to the stark poignance of Min walking home, kicking a can along the sidewalk, uncorking huge emotions without seeming to let any out, and avoiding cliché at almost every turn?

Min and Bill, in a deft and efficient 66 minutes, offers a semi-comic spin on the kind of dockside melodrama popularized by Eugene O'Neill in works like Anna Christie (adapted to the screen the same year as Min and Bill, with Dressler in the cast). Something about the wharfs, a perennial locale for late-20s and early-30s cinema, prompted actors, directors, and other artists to crystallize strong, almost rough emotions within concise but deceptively layered story structures. While Min and Bill is less visually poetic than something like Sternberg's The Docks of New York, director George Hill's straightforward style nonetheless serves the material and the actors perfectly. Dressler and Beery clearly connect with the audience and with each other in ways that modern movies rarely ask, and which even the greatest bygone stars seldom achieved. The hefty, exaggerated muscularity of their acting, the very quality that might on the surface seem dated and uningratiating, locates Min and Bill on a subtle, exciting, hugely entertaining, and era-specific intersection between theater and film. Almost everything about Min and Bill is subtly, humbly impressive, and Rambeau's supporting performance is a real livewire, years before the Academy got around to acknowledging second-tier roles. Thank goodness they got it right with Dressler, though. In single moments or shots, her face may seem to work too hard, or her physique may imply a short route into typecasting, but her presence, her choices, her humor, her energy, and her gravity are utterly distinctive, and all to be savored. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1930 MGM Films.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

All right, I'm driving out to rent this tomorrow. I just saw Dressler for the first time in Tillie's Punctured Romance, and she was just wonderful, a brilliant physical comedienne who stole the film from Chaplin. She seemed completely fearless, especially in her dance scenes. It's too bad her career didn't take off after that--imagine the treasure trove of comic performances we missed out on.

10:17 PM, May 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This makes me wanna see "Min and Bill" all the more now - it's a shame it can't be tracked down anywhere in my area.

I've seen very few of Marie Dressler's films but she's been the highlight in each of them - particularly in Anna Christie (where she upstages Greta Garbo's first words uttered on-screen, thetn disappears for most of the movie and is sorely missed) and Dinner at Eight (where she's delightful). I count me as a fan.

10:29 AM, May 29, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

what good fortune. This arrived in my mailbox the day you posted this. so i haven't even read your post. I'ma watch the movie this week and then read.

can't wait.

10:57 PM, May 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I rented it, and although I'll have to expand on this if I write it up for my site, my addition to the conversation is "What Nick said."

12:43 AM, May 31, 2006  

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