Marie Dressler is a curiosity in the annals of MGM film stars. The studio that boasted 'more stars than there are in the heavens' developed stars that were beautiful or handsome; they invested much time, energy, and money in developing them with acting lessons, dancing lessons, singing lessons, and publicity. They started them out in small parts with established stars to build up a fan base. They worked hard to get their glamorous leading men and leading ladies out there.
Given how MGM worked hard to bring about these glamorous figures into our cinemas, the portly Dressler, well into her 50s when she made her first sound film, ending up as one of their biggest stars seems downright bizarre. The public, however, loved Dressler, in part because they so identified with her ordinariness. The fact that she was a great actress too I figure had something to do with her popularity. Dressler sadly died in 1934 at age 65, her loss mourned by a public that had embraced her as one of their own.
Dressler won an Academy Award for Best Actress for Min & Bill, and received a second nomination for Emma. I find it a pity that both Marie Dressler and Emma are not as well-remembered as they should be, given how moving both were in the film. Sometimes it stumbles slightly, but I think it's pretty impossible not to react emotionally to its gentle tale of a good woman surrounded with bad people.
Emma Thatcher (Dressler) has been the live-in housekeeper to the Smith family for 32 years. She's known all the children: Bill, Isabel, and Gypsy, all their lives. The patriarch, Fredrick (Jean Hersholt) is a bit bumbling but a good man and an inventor. Sadly, Mrs. Smith dies in childbirth to her fourth child, Ronnie. This comes just at the moment Fredrick has invented something that will make the family very wealthy.
After 32 years, the children are all grown to be rather spoiled and selfish. Isabel (Myrna Loy) is the most snobbish of them all, her marriage to a French count enhancing her inflated view of herself. Bill (George Meeker), a lawyer, is equally superior. Only the easy-going Ronnie (Richard Cromwell), who loves flying, seems to think well of Emma. This is reciprocated, for while Emma defends all of them, it's clear Ronnie is her favorite.
However, Emma is going on her first vacation in 32 years to see Niagara Falls for a month. It's going to be tough for them given how dependent the whole household, children and staff, have grown on Emma. At the train station, Fredrick realizes that he and Emma are two lonely old souls, and he asks her to marry him. Emma, who isn't in love with Fredrick, sees however his kindness and sees that it might be good to share what time they have with someone. "Growing old alone is a very dreary business," he tells her, and at the falls, they marry.
All the Smith children save Ronnie are outraged that their father has married 'the help', even if Emma has been basically the only mother they've known. Things are made worse when a month into their marriage, Emma is left a widow, Fredrick's loving but weak heart finally giving out despite Emma's best efforts to keep him healthy. Bill, Isabel, and Gypsy are more outraged when they discover their father gave everything to Emma. The good-hearted Emma plans to give back the family fortune to the children, believing it their birthright, but as soon as she sees them, the wicked three Smith children begin accusing her of manipulating their father into disinheriting them and threatening lawsuits to show their father was insane. So vicious is their united assaults on both Emma and Fredrick's memory that she finally loses her temper and furiously orders them at of the house. Only the loyal Ronnie stands by her side.
The Smith children aren't merely determined to show Emma used their father for her own schemes. A maid who was with Emma and Fredrick when he died gives a deposition, where facts are twisted to suggest Emma actually murdered Fredrick to get the money. Emma is more saddened that shocked that the Smiths bring her up on murder charges. Despite what they say, she still believes them good kids.
Ronnie isn't impressed, but outraged, and races back in the planes he so loves back to Emma despite a major storm. One can imagine what became of Ronnie.
At the trial, Emma's outbursts defending the Smith children despite what they've said about her convinces the jury that she is too good a person to have done what she did. However, right after she is exonerated, she learns of Ronnie's death, devastating her beyond measure. In the end, she gives up the money to the surviving Smiths, who in turn realize how awful they've been. They beg her forgiveness and ask her to stay at the house, but she declines, sensing her job is done. At an employment agency, she learns of a young family with many children, and so life begins for Emma. She is a miracle worker to her new family, who has a newborn son. Emma makes but one request of her new family: that they name the newborn Ronnie.
Emma is an early example of what we now call a 'dramedy', for it has moments that are purely comedic and moments that are as weepy as anything from the "Golden Age" of cinema. Here we see just how good Dressler was an actress, and why despite her frumpy appearance she was so well-loved by the public. Early on, Emma is determined to stop Ronnie's passion for flying and goes straight to the airport. Despite herself, she's talked into getting on a practice plane. At first, she loves it, but when she's told not to touch a lever, she gets huffy and decides no one tells her what to do. Doing so, however, causes the practice plane to pretty much spin out of control, making the poor woman take unintended loops. This whole scene is hilarious (even if we can clearly see the screen behind her in some shots). It's successful because it comes by naturally: her blunt persona clashing with the insanity of an out-of-control plane.
However, later on there are moments that simply break your heart. Shortly after their marriage, Fredrick, lying on a couch under many blankets, asks Emma to play the piano and sing to him. She tries to laugh off the request, but agrees. As she plays her song, looking occasionally at her husband, he dies, only Emma and the maid don't realize it. Thinking he's merely fallen asleep, Emma shushes the maid away and continues her song, a gentle look of love in her face, as the screen slowly starts fading to black.
Clarence Brown, the director, has many beautiful moments like this, such as when after the trial, he pulls the camera back when Emma learns of her beloved Ronnie's death. There's also early in the film, when Mrs. Smith dies in childbirth. We see the dynamics of the family as Emma essentially orders people around, and when she silently tells Mr. Smith that his wife has died as she cradles the newborn with the other children around.
Brown and Dressler managed to balance the comedy and tragedy in Emma quite well. Dressler's Emma can both stand up to her brood (telling the snobbish Isabel that she wasn't aware her husband lost sleep over how Emma didn't wear a cap when serving guests) but also make excuses for them, almost blind to how rotten all but Ronnie had grown.
I'd say the only part that felt forced was another comedy bit, when Fredrick inadvertently opens Emma's luggage, causing things to spill out without realizing it (including her very large corset).
However, Emma's basic goodness always came through, and that's an immense credit to Dressler. It's also incredible to see Loy, who would become the epitome of the loving mother, play a bitch and play it so well. It's no surprise given how good Loy was as an actress, but to those who know her best from the Thin Man films or say, The Best Years of Our Lives, to see her as a rotten selfish snob is a bit of a revelation. Cromwell's easy-going Ronnie (who always called Emma 'beautiful' despite her objections) was a delight, never going overboard with the breezy nature of the character. He showed his dramatic abilities when he sends a telegram that is sadly received after his death, telling her to keep her chin up and that he's on his way.
We as the audience know that he won't make it, which makes the eventual discovery of this all the more sad.
It is heartbreaking to see her goodness and genuine love for the children so badly rewarded, and even more sad when at Ronnie's wake (a mirror image of his birth with Emma looking down at the sight), they all realize what they've done and beg her forgiveness. As Emma shuffles off away from the family she's devoted her whole life to, it is hard not to cry.
Emma is a very moving picture, with moments of comedy and tragedy that are balanced quite well. Marie Dressler's performance is also in equal terms funny and touching, showing her range as an actress. I hope people do find Emma, for both the film and Dressler simply should not be forgotten. For those who do see Emma, that is unlikely to happen.