Sunday, April 19, 2015

1930/1931: Marie Dressler for Min and Bill

Marie Dressler plays Min, the tough, hardened owner of a wharf hotel who is raising a teenager named Nancy who was left with her as a baby. Min does everything she can to keep her ward safe, especially when Nancy's alcoholic mother shows up unexpectedly, which sadly involves pushing Nancy away and trying to pretend she doesn't really care about her.

I was hoping to really like this movie, but on the whole it wasn't much to write home about. The plot was weak, the dialogue was lacking, and there were too many random fight scenes, not to mention the typical early-talkie sound issues. But I did think the best aspect of the movie was Dressler's performance, which was obviously why I was watching it in the first place. Though I didn't particularly like her character, and kept begging her to just give Nancy a hug and stop pushing her away, I did like the way she was portrayed. Min has clearly had a very hard life, trying to run a business and raise a child on her own while living in a sketchy harbor, and the only way she knows how to survive is by being tough. This involves never showing that she cares too much about anyone or anything, including Nancy. I thought Dressler did a wonderful job of not only maintaining Min's hardened exterior, but also showing the struggle when her love for Nancy threatens to break through that shell.

I also thought she had good chemistry with her co-star Wallace Beery, who plays Bill, a fisherman staying at Min's hotel. Min and Bill clearly have feelings for each other, and they fight like an old married couple, but they're not actually romantically involved, at least as far as I could tell. Around Bill, Min can let her guard down a little. At least with him she doesn't even try to pretend that she doesn't love Nancy, as he'd see through that instantly. I really liked the scenes between the two of them when they weren't fighting, and I wish the film had more of those.

Marie Dressler was born in 1868, which is at least 26 years earlier than any other Best Actress Oscar winner. Unlike the young, thin, conventionally attractive stars who usually win, Dressler was overweight, frumpy, and had just turned 63 when she received the award, making her the oldest recipient for fifty years, until Katharine Hepburn won for On Golden Pond at age 74. Though Min and Bill isn't anywhere near my favorite movie, I think it's nice that at least for this once, in an era when glamour was considered essential to a film actress's success, the Academy was able to recognize that acting talent doesn't always come in the same package.

Dressler was nominated for Best Actress again the following year for Emma, but then only had a chance to make a few more films before dying of cancer in 1934, thus becoming the first Best Actress Winner to pass away. After seeing how good her performance was in this, I can only imagine how amazing she would have been given better material and even slightly more advanced sound equipment.

Coming up next: Helen Hayes breaks the Canadian streak

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