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Extra info for A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler
Halfway through the film, Mabel and Charlie go to the picture show and see a crime melodrama titled A Thief’s Fate, about a young couple robbing a poor, innocent country girl and eventually being caught and punished for this transgression. The film’s victim is a young woman who is thinner, weaker, and more terrified than Dressler’s Tillie. Mabel points out to Charlie that this is a facsimile of themselves upon the screen, and she experiences terrible guilt in being confronted with the narrative of their own transgressions.
The crooks make a hasty retreat from the theater, where the emotional energy of the audience is building into outrage at their crime. But for audiences of the comedy, the presence of the wilting ingénue in A Thief’s Fate highlights the extent to which Tillie’s powerful body and force of character inspire astonishment, rather than pathos. She freely steals her father’s money, enjoys her time on the town, gets a job when she needs to, figures out Charlie’s game as soon as she has all the information, and gamely, if unsuccessfully, attempts to shoot him.
Chapter 2, “Breaking Boundaries: The Unruly Body,” investigates how the star’s expansive use of her body upset boundaries of gender, ethnicity, and class during the transitional years of the early sound era, paving the way for her later stardom. Here Dressler’s posture and style of movement are used as a basis for discussing how melodramatic and comic narrative modes are dynamically combined in her performances. Chapter 3, “Politics and Prosperity: The Body Politic,” uses the conventions of the maternal melodrama to argue that Dressler’s ample body collapsed the public sphere/ private sphere binary in her comedies, allowing her characters to figure as the maternal/matriarchal center of imagined utopian communities.