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Thursday, May 20, 2010

TUGBOAT ANNIE (1933)

This immensely successful Marie Dressler vehicle isn't the expected sentimental comedy, but a tragedy-tinged domestic drama hiding in plain sight behind her comically large girth & redoubtable spirit. Dressler, as Annie, runs a tugboat as broken-down as she is, along with her dipsomaniac husband Wallace Beery. Robert Young is their handsome boy, the youngest Captain in port, and a remarkably pretty Maureen O’Sullivan is their new, understanding daughter-in-law. Most of the comedy stems from Beery’s drunken behavior, but the film sees more than easy laughs in the situation. By the fourth reel the drinking has robbed Dressler of her work, her life’s savings and even her son. Forced to choose between a husband unable to survive without her and a 'son who knows best,' Dressler gets the chance to show her instinctual acting chops, landing emotional bombshells with a directness that bordered on genius. A heroic coda sets everything to rights, but it hardly detracts from what we can read between the lines of all the forced merriment. Mervyn Leroy, on loan from Warners to M-G-M, helms in an appropriately rough & ready manner, aided by the great Gregg Toland on camera, but he's not quite able to recreate the remarkable waterfront verisimilitude director George Hill brought to the previous Dressler/Beery match-up, MIN AND BILL/'30, an unsung early Talkie masterpiece once you make it past the opening reel of slapdash slapstick.

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