By Victoria Sturtevant
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Additional resources for A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler
Moral polarization is the process by which melodrama draws its dramatic conflict from clear-cut distinctions between good and evil. ”37 In extreme form, this tendency leads the sensational melodrama to develop into the action serial, which strings the action along through several false closures. Sensationalism is the process by which melodrama subjects the audience to extreme shocks and thrills. This often takes the form of stunting: characters leaping from trains onto moving cars, sword-fighting, or swinging across canyons on flimsy ropes.
Dressler’s catastrophic plunge into the Pacific Ocean references this heroic mode of female physicality on screen, but it reads like a stunt gone wrong. The empty police car falls off the pier after her, and for a moment it appears that Tillie is about to be crushed, a stunt that suggests real danger. But Tillie is unharmed, and the problem of getting her out of the water prompts the next series of athletic gags. Dressler’s flexible, active body is set expertly to the purpose of appearing to lose control—of expending energy in every direction and finding no solution to her physical peril.
25 Irish World was particularly aggressive in locating the offensive caricature specifically in Marie Dressler’s body, which was singled out for negative comment: “Marie Dressler, who appears as Mrs. Callahan, has successfully impersonated a gorilla. Miss Dressler, as she appears in this film, might take the beauty prize as an ape in the jungles. That Miss Dressler chooses to look like this is her own business—or misfortune. 27 In the racist logic of a post-Darwinian nineteenth century, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were the most “evolved” race, while bre aking boundaries • 41 other ethnicities were closer to humanity’s simian ancestors.