No one embodied feminine rage with quite the volcanic physicality of Marie Dressler. Brawny, homely, and huge, she dominated stage and screen whenever she appeared. Born Leila Koerber in Ontario, Canada, she joined a traveling opera company when aged fourteen, changing her name to Marie Dressler. Maurice Barrymore, father of Ethel, John, and Lionel, reportedly anointed Dressler the rising comic artist of the American stage. She worked in sketches and revues with Weber and Fields ("Higgeldy Piggeldy," "Roly Poly"), in burlesques, finally appearing as Tillie Blobbs in "Tillie's Nightmare," a musical that made her an international star and popular novelty vocalist for her anthem, "Heaven will Protect the Working Girl." Mack Sennett made a film of the work, "Tillie's Punctured Romance," starring Dressler with Charlie Chaplin. This began a hilarious series in which a romantic but homely woman transforms into a crazed ox when suitors wandered after slimmer girls.
She returned to work in New York with Ziegfeld in "Century Girl," but was discharged during rehearsals. Thereafter she didn't work on the stage for fourteen years despite repeated try-outs and petitions. In 1927 she insinuated herself back into films as a character actress and continued role by role until in 1930 when in "Anna Christie" she stole the movie from Garbo. This began an extraordinary string of acting triumphs, the Academy Award for Best Actress for "Min and Bill," "Emma," "Tugboat Annie," and "Dinner at Eight." In her 60s Dressler was acknowledged as one of the finest screen actresses of the early sound era. David S. Shields/ALS