Seen: On VHS on my tv, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.
A few months ago I read the memoir of early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion, and became a little obsessed with her and her various juicy and enlightening anecdotes about the industry. Of the many films she worked on, Min and Bill stuck out in my mind for her loving stories about Marie Dressler, a successful stage performer who fell on hard times as she aged but was pulled back into stardom with roles in 1930s comedies thanks to Marion's help. Min and Bill represents Dressler's Hollywood peak, garnering her an Oscar for Best Actress, and I was happy to find a copy of it at my local video store. The story focuses on Min (Dressler), the foulmouthed proprietor of a dockside inn, whose teenage charge Nancy (Dorothy Jordan) was left on her doorstep as a baby and now works for her. Min is clearly fond of the girl but when truancy officers come to investigate their situation, she accedes to Nancy's eventual placement in an all-girls boarding school, pretending she cares nothing about her. In reality she is trying to keep the girl away from her drunken, greedy mother (Marjorie Rambeau), whom Nancy believes is dead.
Blending clever dialogue, raunchy characters, and an undercurrent of melodrama, Min and Bill presents an interesting moment in early sound and pre-Code Hollywood. In terms of direction, camerawork, and pacing, the pieces don't quite fit together, and I felt like the filmmakers had a clear story and presentation in mind that just wasn't fully realized on screen. Luckily, the performances and gritty locations more than make up for any minor technical floundering, and I immediately latched on to Dressler's simultaneously boisterous and cantankerous Min, whose yelly, cussy facade hides a sentimental old softie with an iron will. Her interactions with the drunk and well-meaning sailor Bill (Wallace Beery) are hilarious and really fun to watch, as they trade equal amounts of insulting barbs and affectionate glances. The sequence where Min tries to beat the SHIT out of Bill is remarkable, I mean she just destroys a whole fucking room, and it is actually kind of terrifying, and mostly just awesome, and ultimately speaks to the motherly love Min has for Nancy just manifesting itself in a physical way.
It's a little too melodramatic for its own good, with a dark ending I did not see coming, but overall I really enjoyed Min and Bill. It's witty and entertaining, while also genuinely heart-wrenching. Dressler carries the film through in a spectacular performance completely worthy of her Oscar, and I did develop a little crush on Wallace Beary. He's adorable!
Pair This Movie With: For more Marie Dressler and salty sailors, there's Anna Christie, another Marion-penned drama and notable for being Garbo's first talkie.