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Canadian Illustrated News, Aug.7, 1880
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Canadian Actress Marie Dressler Discovers Her Talent For Comedy

Actress Marie Dressler was born in Cobourg, Ontario in 1868. She became an international star adored by movie fans around the world, and won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1931.

Discovering comedy

Marie Dressler
Greta Garbo on left, with Marie Dressler in "Anna Christie" (My Own Story, 1934, copyright expired)

Source: Dressler, Marie. My Own Story. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1934. Excerpts from Chapter 1.

... I was born homely. And for fifty years it has been my lot to make my living on the stage, where the first requisite for a woman's success is supposed to be a face that's easy on the eyes. I was born serious and I have earned my bread by making other people laugh...

I think I must have been elected chairman of the entertainment committee at birth. My mother confessed that she had to smile when she first saw me. I was such a determined, pugnacious-looking mite. My father and the country doctor who officiated were not considerate enough to restrain themselves to a smile. They laughed.

That's what people have been doing ever since.

Well, thank God, I soon learned to be just as happy when folks said, "Isn't she funny!" as if they had ah-ed and oh-ed and exclaimed, "Isn't she beautiful!"

That's what they said of my sister Bonita, who was a pink-and-white Dresden doll. When Bonita and I, dressed in our best bibs and tuckers, sallied forth to Sunday school, in whatever little town we happened to be living at the moment, a dozen benevolent grown-ups would stop us between our house and the church to pat Bonita's head and coo, "My, isn't she lovely!" As they sometimes patted my head too, I thought I was included in the compliment, and I glowed with happiness...

To my ears there is no music quite like the music of happy laughter. As a child, I was always trying to beguile Mother into laughing. I would mimic the fat, floury-handed baker, the pompous postmaster, the near-sighted minister in his pulpit -- anything to bring a smile to Mother's anxious face.

At first I did not extend my efforts beyond the family circle. But there came a day that was to leave its mark on my future, when I was to find the laughter of my public balm to my wounded vanity. I remember it all as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Bonita and I had gone to a party in all the glory of starched organdy and blue sashes contrived out of Mother's best summer silk. We played "spin the plate." Bonita's turn came first. She stepped up like the little lady she was and gave a flawless performance. A subdued murmur of admiration followed her back to her chair.

It was my turn next. Teeth gritted, jaw set, I grasped the plate in a hot little paw and advanced with a determined stride toward the center of the room. I would do as well as Bonita or die in the attempt. Halfway to my goal, I tripped on a rug and fell sprawling. A roar of laughter greeted my downfall.

Even while I burned with shame, I liked that laughter. They were having a good time because of me. As I lay there flat on my back, with my heels all tangled up in my sash, I made a momentous discovery: It was pleasanter to have folks laugh at you than to have them ignore you. Very well then, I would give them something to laugh at. From that moment on, I deliberately began to imitate a yearling in a china shop. And I basked in the sunshine of the laughter and attention I drew.

So, you see, it was lack of beauty that drove me to clowning, and it was clowning that eventually put me on the stage. I firmly believe that I owe whatever good fortune has come my way largely to the fact that I was born without a pretty face..."

Watch Marie Dressler in the movies

Check out these video clips from YouTube to see the famed Marie Dressler:

More about Marie Dressler:

  • Read about this Canadian heroine in the book 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces by Merna Forster (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2004).
  • Watch a video about Marie Dressler from History by the Minute.

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