By Victoria Sturtevant
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Additional info for A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler
Dressler’s comeback years traced a progression from a drunken scene in the comedy The Callahans and the Murphys, which audiences read as scandalous, crude, and lowbrow, to a drunken scene in the heavy drama Anna Christie, which audiences read as sensitive, heartwarming, and sophisticated. Dressler’s use of her body in these years shifted slightly, and the vehicles in which she appeared shifted tremendously. While her parodic slapstick comedy had always relied on a judicious combination of slapstick and sentiment, these were the years when Dressler’s unruly body found a new outlet in the service of melodrama.
It is a remarkably self-conscious moment in the film, a projection of the cinematic conventions being parodied in this comedy. The crooks’ intense experience of anxiety upon watching this film-within-a-film toys with the way melodrama works by inducing 22 • a gre at big girl like me pathos in the viewer. They are outraged at themselves and deeply uneasy. Their anxiety exceeds the film frame when Mabel notices that the man sitting next to them at the picture show wears a detective’s badge. She grabs Charlie’s hand just as she sees the villain and villainess of the piece being handcuffed.
An impossible choice or terribly necessary (if terribly contrived) sacrifice ratchets up the emotional register of the film. Moral polarization is present in the way characters suffer for their wrongdoings. 46 In the iconic Stella Dallas (1937), for instance, both Stella and Stephen love their daughter and do their best to raise her well, but their difference in class status creates an unbearable fracture in Laurel’s identity that can be resolved only through Stella’s sacrifice of her maternal position.