You are here

Louise Dresser

Biography: 

(1887-1965)

Vaudeville singer and silent movie actress, Louise Dresser, was born in Indiana as Louise Kerlin and ran away with a provincial stock company, eventually settling in Chicago. There she was encouraged by song composer Paul Dresser, who claimed her as his sister and gave her his last name. She made her reputation in the rooftop late-night clubs for putting over new songs, so was sought out by aspiring songwriters. One of these, Jack Norworth, who later composed "Shine on Harvest Moon," became her first husband in 1906. Norworth took her to New York and talked Lew Fields into inserting her into "About Town" as a featured vocalist. She wowed the audience and became a Broadway regular, gracing musicals with her high fashion outfits and "insinuating" vocals. The marriage lasted until 1909 when Dresser dumped him for actor Jack Gardner.

For a decade she worked with every important producer of musicals on Broadway except Ziegfeld, making as great a success in huge venues such as the Winter Garden Theater as intimate houses. Highlights included "Candy Shop" and "The Matinee Idol." When not in a revue or musical, she toured vaudeville. Her stage career was interrupted by an on-stage injury while playing "Have a Heart" in 1917.

Dresser played vaudeville for five years before moving to Hollywood and entering films, aided by her friend Pauline Frederick. Dresser, always a bit chesty, began to look somewhat matronly. She was cast in a series of movies as distinguished married women. None of the first sixteen films she graced was a hit, except for Valentino's "The Eagle" in which she played Catherine the Great. She was contemplating a return to the stage in 1926 when her role as Marie De Nardi, an opera singer who lost her voice, in "The Goose Woman" made her a star. Her film career during the remainder of the 1920s was curiously inconsistent, alternating scintillating performances such as a circus wife in Michael Curtiz's first American directorial effort, "The Third Degree," with somnambulism such as Mrs. Alcott in "Padlocked."

In 1929 Dresser was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for "A Ship Comes In." She became particularly beloved by the public for her repeated outings as Will Rogers's co-star in seven features in the 1930s. Her films and performances became increasingly memorable in the 1930s with notable performances in "State Fair," "The Scarlet Empress," "Maid of Salem," and "Girl of the Limberlost." David S. Shields/ALS