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Thursday, December 9, 2010

MIN AND BILL (1930)

Thanks to its more memorable title, TUGBOAT ANNIE/’33, the follow up to MIN & BILL, is a better remembered film. But this wildly popular waterfront dramedy is the best of the two films that matched Wallace Beery with that unclassifiable near-genius of sentiment, slapstick & girth, Marie Dressler. It’s a tough weepy (with plenty of knockabout laughs) about a surrogate mother who sacrifices all to make sure her ‘daughter’ gets a chance in life. Superbly helmed by the forgotten George Hill, it shows a fluidity in its camera work and a gritty, down-at-the-heels unscrubbed atmosphere that belie both its studio (M-G-M) and its early Talkie date. Maternal martyrdom is no longer portrayed with quite the same reverence, but of its type, only the silent version of STELLA DALLAS/’25 hits the same notes. No surprise that they were both scripted by Frances Marion, married at the time to director Hill, and about to pull off a gender-switch on the formula in THE CHAMP, which won Beery his Oscar the following year as surely as this one nailed it for Dressler. But while Beery was a popular slob actor who could be very effective in the right role, Dressler was on an entirely different acting planet. There’s nothing small or tidy about her technique & responses, and she could be deeply embarrassing when her material didn't give her much to chew on (just see LET US BE GAY/’30). But as Orson Welles once said about movie acting and James Cagney, it’s not how big a performance is but how true. There was something terribly true, and terribly tragic about Dressler. And from this film until her death four years later, the old trouper rode high as America’s most popular Hollywood star.

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