This is an edited, expanded version of an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.
Marie Dressler (née Leila Marie Koerber) (9 November 1868-28 July 1934), one of the preeminent female comedians of the late silent and early sound era, was born in Cobourg, Ontario. Her mother, Anna Henderson, was a musician, and her dad, Alexander Rudolph Koerber (born 13 April 1826 in Germany), was an officer in the Crimean War.
As a child, Leila sang and helped with operating the organ at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, where her dad worked as a music teacher and organist. At age five, she played Cupid in a church performance in Lindsay, Ontario.
The Koerber family frequently moved from place to place. They’d moved to the U.S. by the late 1870s, living in Michigan and Ohio. Throughout her travels, Leila acted in many amateur shows, which annoyed her parents.
Leila left home at fourteen and joined the Nevada Stock Company, claiming to be eighteen. She sent half of her weekly $6 or $8 salary to her mother. Because her dad didn’t approve of her using the Koerber family name, she adopted the stage name Marie Dressler, after an aunt.
Marie professionally débuted in the play Under Two Flags, as a chorus girl named Cigarette. Her older sister Bonita also joined the troupe around the same time, but left after three years when she married playwright Richard Ganthony.
Marie’s star continued rising, and she débuted on Broadway in 1892, at the Fifth Avenue Theatre (razed in 1939). Though she hoped to make a name for herself as a tragedian or operatic diva, playwright Maurice Barrymore (father of John, Lionel, and Ethel) convinced her she’d be a natural fit with comedy.
Marie went from strength to strength, and supported her parents with her $50 weekly salary. Eventually, she bought them a house on Long Island.
She formed her own troupe in 1900, though their first show was a bust, forcing her to declare bankruptcy. After that setback, her career went back on the upswing, even after having to declare bankruptcy again in 1909. She had more hits than misses.
Marie appeared as herself in two shorts in 1909 and 1910, but her first official film was the 1914 Keystone picture Tillie’s Punctured Romance (also starring Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand). It was based on her 1910 hit Tillie’s Nightmare, a play she rescued from failure by editing it without the authors’ permission.
She acted in six more films during the 1910s, including two Tillie sequels, though her primary mode of acting remained the stage.
Her career was on the wane by 1920, and she preoccupied herself with visiting veterans’ hospitals after returning from a long trip to Europe. Her final Broadway appearance was in 1926.
Marie was said to be suicidal when director Allan Dwan offered her a bit part in The Joy Girl (1927), a two-strip Technicolor film. Later that year, venerable screenwriter Frances Marion, remembering Marie’s great kindness to her during the filming of Tillie Wakes Up (1917), talked MGM wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg into giving her a chance as an actor.
This was the start of a slow but steady comeback, but she didn’t truly come into her own as a comedian till sound came along. Her first sound role, Marthy in Greta Garbo’s Anna Christie (1930), earned her a $500 weekly contract with MGM.
Marie got a Best Actress Academy for Min and Bill (1930), and was nominated for Emma (1932). By 1933, she was America’s most popular moviestar. She was incredibly beloved and popular throughout Hollywood too.
Marie once said, “I’m too homely for a prima donna and too ugly for a soubrette.” She knew she wasn’t the world’s skinniest, most beautiful, or youngest woman, but she used her unconventional appearance and voice to great comedic advantage.
After Marie died of cancer at 65, her funeral was attended by huge crowds. Even the notoriously awful Louis B. Mayer had great respect and affection for her.