Marie Dressler and Ageism

Press play to listen

Transcript

Welcome to Museum Moments, presented by the Canadian Women in Film Museum. The museum is based in the childhood home of actress Marie Dressler in Cobourg, Ontario. These Moments explore themes and topics surrounding Canadian women in Early Hollywood to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Today, we will be exploring the topics of gender and ageism through Marie Dressler’s experience in Hollywood.

Dressler refused to let her age restrict her career and instead, she used it to her advantage. In fact, when she was 14 and looking to begin her career with an amateur acting company, she overstated her age declaring that she was 18. In her personal biography, she humorously recalled that at the time she was so “tall and well-developed” that when the company met her, they had not questioned her age. Nonetheless, after the First War World, she had trouble finding work because of her age and it took her seven years before she was able to find steady work in the entertainment industry.

But why was age such a common concern for women in early Hollywood? Much research on stardom in the early to mid-1900s highlights the criteria of youth and beauty in cinema. These principles frequently measured a woman’s fame by their ‘sex appeal’ and her ability to fit idealized narratives in film. Stars like Mary Pickford and Norma Shearer also struggled with these unrealistic standards. For instance, when actresses like Clara Bow were thriving during the silent film era of the 1920s Pickford felt ‘outdated.’ She strived to reinvent herself in 1928 by cutting off her renowned long curls into the trendy flapper bob. When this did not offer any long-term changes to her status, she began embracing her age. Likewise, Shearer went to extra lengths to create a powerful Hollywood glamour persona, specifically through fashion, beauty products, and exercise all meant to preserve her youth.

In contrast, Dressler embraced her age and found much success later in it. She went onto make 22 films between 1927 and 1933, and eventually earned an Academy Award in 1931 at the age of 63. As Dressler said, “amusing and dramatic things can happen to men and women after they are thirty or even forty.” This made her an unconventional star in early cinema which only fueled her confidence to defy the traditional role of women in comedy. This role was the harsh stereotype where ‘youthful’ women are the subject of the male gaze and the male laugh permitting audiences to stare at and judge them as naïve and sexual objects. Dressler challenged this character and formed her own distinct yet subversive acting style that worked to change this gendered expectation in Hollywood that women are no longer ’suitable’ for film after their so-called prime age.

Thank you for listening to today’s Museum Moments. For more information, or to join us for another Museum Moment, visit our website at cdnwomeninfilm.ca, or visit us in-person at the Marie Dressler House in Cobourg, Ontario.