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Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Marie Dressler

By Bruce Johnson

Marie Dressler (Leila Marie Koreber) (Nov. 9,1869- July 28,1934), the daughter of a music teacher, was born in Ontario. She started performing at the age of 14 when she joined a small-time stock company. By the time she was twenty she was a seasoned veteran of light opera and the legitimate stage, and had performed in grand opera. She was a large woman considered homely looking which she realized limited her opera career. She said, "I was too homely for a prima donna and too big for a soubrette." Maurice Barrymore, father of the famous acting family, told her, "you're a born female clown." 

Eddie Foy advised her to establish herself as a clown from the very beginning of her act by stumbling down a flight of stairs as she entered. She followed his advice with good results. She said, "ever since then I've been bumping into scenery to amuse the customers."

She performed on Broadway in 1892. About eight years later she became a vaudeville headliner and one of America's leading comediennes. She co-starred with Eddie Foy in Little Robinson Crusoe, starred in The Lady Slavey, and appeared with Weber and Fields in Higgledy-Piggledy and Twiddle Waddle.

She poked fun at herself in shows by singing songs like "A Great Big Girl Like Me" and "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl."

Mack Sennet was interested in making a feature length comedy film in 1914, but none of his established film stars were popular enough yet to interest backers. (Chaplin had been appearing in films for less then a year.) Sennet hired Marie to appear in Tillie's Punctured Romance, a film version of her Broadway play. Marie's supporting cast was Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, and the Keystone Cops. The infant appearing in the picture was Milton Berle. The film ran for six reels (about 90 minutes), more then three times the normal length of comedy films to that point, making it the first feature length comedy.

Following this movie she appeared in several other film comedies, including five more about Tillie. Essentially though she remained a vaudeville and musical comedy star.

In 1919, when Equity, the union which still represents stage actors, was formed, Marie served as president of the Chorus Equity. Marie's stage career declined in the early twenties as the result of a reprisal against the union leaders from theater managers led by Albee. She was vindicated in the mid-twenties when Albee and Edward Darling produced an extremely successful series of old-timer shows. When shows with younger stars failed to cover expenses, the shows reuniting vaudeville veterans were profitable. In 1925, Marie was paid $2,000 for a one week appearance in a vaudeville veteran show.

Frances Marion, a MGM screenwriter Marie had earlier helped with her career and nursed while she was sick, repaid Marie in 1927 by writing a film script called The Callahans and the Murphys specifically for Marie. This film revived Marie's movie career. Her co-star was Polly Moran. Marie and Polly formed a comedy team and made four more films together. Frances Marion also continued working with Marie, writing the scripts for several of her best films, including Dinner At Eight and Min and Bill.  In 1929, Marie appeared in a movie called the Hollywood Revue of 1929. The format of the film was a vaudeville show. Other former vaudeville stars who appeared in it were Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Cliff Edwards, and Gus Edwards. The emcee of the movie was Jack Benny, in his first motion picture appearance.

Her career received a boost with the popularity of sound. In 1930, she was cast in a dramatic role, Martha, the waterfront hag, in Anna Christie. That year she was teamed with Wallace Beery for the first time in Min and Bill playing irascible waterfront rats. She won an Academy Award for her performance. In 1933, they played similar characters in Tugboat Annie.

For the last four years of her career, she was America's number one box-office attraction. During her career, she was a personal acquaintance or friend of seven U.S. Presidents, including President Roosevelt who was a big fan of her work.

As popular as she was with the public, she was even more popular with her fellow entertainers. At one point in her career typhoid fever kept her from working for several months. Many vaudevillians donated their talents for a benefit show at the Victoria Theater raising $7,842 for her. Everyone in show business was devastated to learn that she had cancer in 1932. She fought her illness while continuing to perform during the last two years of her life.

She wrote an autobiography titled The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling. She said, "I was born homely and for fifty years it has been my lot to make my living on the stage where the first requisite for a woman's success is supposed to be a face that's easy on the eyes. I was born serious and I have earned my bread by making other people laugh... when everything else fails I get my voice down to the audience and make a face." She just managed to finish the book before her death. It was published posthumously.

Excerpted from The Clown In Times Volume Two Issue Three

Copyright 1996 by Bruce Johnson, All rights reserved

Information On The Clown In Times, and other publications, by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson


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