Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Min and Bill


This was one of the big movies of 1930, and the one that made Wallace Beery the biggest star at MGM. No kidding. Until Clark Gable came along, Beery had a clause in his contract that said he would always be paid one dollar more than anyone else on the lot! It was so successful that a sequel was made, Tugboat Annie, which many people believe was even better than this one.

I think Beery and Dressler could have been one of the great screen couples, up there with Bogey and Bacall, Astaire and Rogers, Loy and Powell, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto. It’s a shame they only made those two movies together (I discount Grand Hotel, because they weren’t a couple in that one.) They were two of the ugliest people who ever worked in Hollywood, up there with Edward G. Robinson and Anne Ramsey, but they were terrific in the right parts. If they’d ever mated, the child would have resembled a bulldog.

Beery is the captain of a fishing ship in what looks like San Pedro, or maybe San Diego, hauling in tuna the size of torpedoes. There are a lot of three-masted sailing ships at the docks! Marie Dressler owns a boarding house/ bar and grill/ barber shop on the docks. She has raised Nancy from the age of six weeks when her no-good mother abandoned her. Now she’s fourteen (and doesn’t look a day over twenty-eight) and child welfare people are on Min’s ass to get her to go to school. The girl is a tomboy, and loves gruff, blustering Min (who obviously loves her back just as much, but tries not to show it), and finally is pressured by the authorities and Min to go to school and make a lady of herself.

Min ships Nancy off up north to a school that will make a classy woman of her, and get her out of the clutches of her awful mother, who sees the child as her meal ticket in her old age. She returns two years later, engaged to a swell with a big yacht. Then Nancy’s mother reappears and threatens to spoil everything by revealing herself. Min pumps two bullets into her, sees her daughter off—still in hiding—and then quietly goes off with the cops, satisfied that she has protected poor Nancy. Me, I would have let the bitch squeal and see if the prospective hubby has the balls to stick with Nancy, but it was a different age. Your roots were more important.

The big attraction here is the wonderful characters of Min and Bill, and the great acting by Beery and Dressler, who won the Oscar that year. Some say the award was for past performances, that this wasn’t her best work, but who cares? She’s great. But I think what really sold the picture was a huge, comic knock-down drag-out fight between Min and Bill about halfway through. It’s worthy of a James Bond movie. They literally destroy the room, climaxing with Min going at a closet door with an axe to get at Bill cowering inside. And when it’s over, she’s all sympathy. Did you get hurt, Bill? Oh, poor thing. It’s clear they’ve done this before. It’s in the tradition of battling spouses, where for some reason the guy never lays a hand on the wife, terrified of her. We all know that never happens, but it was a comic trope of the time, the henpecked husband.