The Home Stretch: Marie Dressler in Emma

(the 2nd of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

MARIE DRESSLER IN EMMA

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The competition (Cliff: 3 for 3!):

Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet

Lynn Fontanne in The Guardsman

Watching Emma, I felt a strange desire to give Marie a career achievement award, not only because it was one of the formidable comedic actress’ last roles before dying of cancer in 1934, but because the movie’s crazy-quilt story stuffed a career’s worth of acting into a scant 72 minutes.  After a heavy opening scene, the first half of the film is a leisurely, loving portrait of a family maid frazzled by a doddering inventor, his buoyant pilot son, and a brood of snooty older siblings (including a pouty young Myrna Loy).  Plenty of amusing incidents, including an improbable visit to the son’s airfield and a ride in the flight simulator, provide plenty of time for Marie’s signature mugging and glowering that she does so well in Dinner at Eight the next year.  The plot doesn’t really kick in until halfway through the movie, but when it does, it makes up for lost time Valiant Is the Word for Carrie-style.  In less than forty minutes, we’re treated to a whirlwind courtship, marriage, honeymoon, and death of the inventor, leaving Emma in charge of the estate.  The children turn on her—pilot excepted—and accuse her of murder, leading to an inheritance scuffle and ultimately a straight courtroom drama in the last reel of the film (the director had turned in another climactic trial in A Free Soul the year prior), to say nothing of the son’s dramatic trans-continental flight to testify before it’s too late!

By the time the compact saga winds down, Marie has run the gamut from slapstick comedienne to nurturing mother and fearsome defender of the family name.  Though she exercised a similar juxtaposition in cruder, more abrupt fashion in her winning role in Min and Bill, here Clarence Brown commits wholeheartedly to the tonal shifts in the film, letting her performance exercise a wide range comfortably.  Her comic abilities, polished by the decades, are unerring (even if they belong to an outdated school of broad humor), but I was a particular fan of the more dramatic scenes.  She snaps into them instantly and unselfconsciously, and suddenly that amusing floppy face becomes a careworn emblem of her pride and love for the family in her charge.  She sells loss as well as aggravation, laments as well as huffs.  For 1932, Helen Hayes does pull off an uncanny feat of aging, but I honestly found Marie’s character to be more entertaining, subtle, and fully human—while the great dramatist Helen certainly shows an innate talent and a greater promise, Marie is showing the mastery of a career as old as Chaplin’s.  At the end of her career, this is probably her strongest role, and a vote I’m pleased to cast!

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2 thoughts on “The Home Stretch: Marie Dressler in Emma

  1. […] on as their maid.  She thus becomes the nurturing caretaker of Rains’ inventor and his family (strange parallels with Marie Dressler in Emma), keeping to the background throughout the whole film except to […]

  2. […] on as their maid.  She thus becomes the nurturing caretaker of Rains’ inventor and his family (strange parallels with Marie Dressler in Emma), keeping to the background throughout the whole film except to […]

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