Film history: Focus on early Academy Award winners Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler

Wallace Beery (1885-1949) and Marie Dressler (1868-1934) were two of MGM’s top stars in the early days of the studio. They appeared together in “Min and Bill” (1930, earning her an Academy Award as Best Actress), followed by “Tugboat Annie” and “Dinner at Eight” (both 1933). After one more film, she deceased the following year from cancer at age 65.

Beery, known to be not the easiest actor on the MGM lot, was described in an incident by author Scott Eyman in The Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (pp. 222-223, publisher New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005  – ISBN 0-7432-0481-6) as follows.

He [Wallace Beery] was a bulbous, upstaging ham who wouldn’t rehearse and stopped acting around the time of “Viva Villa!” [1934], content with playing the lovable slob. He was also a grumpy, miserable miser who would park his station wagon by the stage door and use his lunch hour to steal material and props that weren’t being used, then move his station wagon elsewhere. Once the prop man caught on to what was happening to his disappearing stock, he would cruise the lot until he found Beery’s car, jimmy the door, and unload the booty.

(…) Beery was loathed by everybody, and happy oblivious. When he had lunch at the commissary, he wouldn’t leave a tip. Questioned about it, he would explain that a tip was for special service, and since he was a famous movie star, he automatically got special service. Therefore, a tip was a waste of money. Once [in 1943], Beery invited the twelve-year-old [child actor] Darryl Hickman to go to lunch with him. They ordered hamburgers, and when it was time to go, Hickman said, “Gee, thanks, Mr. Beery.”

“Okay kid,” replied Beery, “you owe me 75 cents.”

(…) When Howard Strickling went to [Louis B.] Mayer to complain about Beery, Mayer listened and sighed. Finally, he said, “Yes, Howard, Beery’s a son of a bitch. But he’s our son of a bitch.”

Author Betty Lee states in her biography Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star (publisher Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997 (ISBN 0-8131-2036-5) on p. 181 the following about their collaboration while making “Min and Bill.”

Wallace Beery and [Marie] Dressler seemed like a perfect match in “Min and Bill” [1930], and they were destined to appear together in two more movies, but it has never been made clear as to whether they were actually compatible. Irene Powell, Dressler’s cousin, recalled that the actress’s sister Bonita was sure that Dressler “hated that fellow she played with–Wallace Beery–they didn’t get along at all well.” Yet George Hill [director of “Min and Bill”] told an interviewer: “When they gave me two such unconscious scene-stealers as Marie and Wally to work with, I had visions of having to tear them apart when they were before the camera… but each wanted the other to have all the business. It must be love!” And director Mervyn LeRoy revealed that Beery became quite testy when an ailing Dressler was late during the making of “Tugboat Annie” and loudly complained that he was tired of waiting for “that old bag.”

Finally, Scott Eyman concluded in The Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, by quoting actor Robert Young.

[Wallace] Beery met his match only once, when he worked with Marie Dressler on “Tugboat Annie” and “Min and Bill.” “She was really lovely,” remembered Robert Young, “a wonderful person. She’s come the long, hard way, and she was very, very grateful. And she wouldn’t take any nonsense from this baboon [Wallace Beery]. She straightened him out the first day. ‘Look, you silly shit, you pull one more thing like that on me and I’ll have your head. On a platter. And not an expensive platter. A little, cheap, lousy, wooden platter. Like John the Baptist. With a personal note to L.B. Mayer.”

A clip from “Min and Bill” with Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery