Did you know that Marie Dressler was the top money-making star in 1932 and 1933? Eat your heart out, Greta Garbo! Did you know Wallace Beery was the highest-paid star in Hollywood in 1932? Eat your heart out, Clark Gable! This unlikely couple (by today’s standards) were wildly popular. They co-starred in Min and Bill, a terrific little movie which led to them being put together again in Tugboat Annie. The kindest thing you could say about Dressler was that she was tubby and plain. If you wanted to be mean you could call her fat and ugly and not really be inaccurate. (Beery was no matinee idol, either.) But boy, was she funny! I loved her in Dinner at Eight.
I’ve been trying to think of another woman of her era in the movies who could carry a comedy all by herself and I’m coming up empty. On Broadway there was Fannie Brice, but no real funny actresses in the movies except for comedy foils like Margaret Dumont with the Marx Brothers. It wasn’t until a bit later that screwball comedies became popular, but even then they were romantic comedies, and the women were part of a funny couple.
There is nothing romantic about this one. She plays a middle-to-old-aged woman who has been the governess/maid/mother to the Smith family for thirty years. She plans to take her first vacation to Niagara Falls, and the widowed Mr. Smith (Jean Hersholt) goes along and reveals that he would like to marry her. After a lot of resistance, she agrees. Then he suffers a heart attack and dies, and leaves everything to her. Which does not go down well at all with three out of four of the ingrate children. She ends up on trial for murder. Doesn’t sound all that funny, does it? Particularly when the movie starts out with a woman dying in childbirth. And it’s true, the ending gets pretty sloppy and sentimental, and Emma is a bit over the top in her lack of concern for herself and total devotion to the rat bastard kids. But it’s the getting there that is fun. She has such an expressive face, and she has some great lines. It’s not her best movie, but well worth watching. Myrna Loy is in it, a few years before she became a big star.