Saturday, July 26, 2014

Stubs – Min and Bill

Min and Bill (1930) Starring: Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery. Directed by George Hill. Screenplay by Francis Marion, Marion Jackson. Suggested by the novel Dark Star by Lorna Moon. Run Time: 66 minutes. U.S.  Black and White Drama, Comedy

Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery may seem like unlikely movie stars, let alone box-office champs, but at one time both were considered major stars at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, their home studios. In fact, Beery was at one time the highest paid actor on the lot with a guarantee in his contract that he would make one dollar more than any other actor.

Charlie Chaplin co-starred with Marie Dressler in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914).

A surprise star, Dressler was no stranger to movies, having appeared in the Mack Sennett comedy Tillie’s Punctured Romance(1914) as Tillie Banks, along with Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin. The film was based on a Broadway play she starred in, Tillie’s Nightmare. But she did not appear in films from 1918 until 1927, likewise her stage career had pretty much ended after World War I. However, she was offered a film role in 1927 and went on to have a second and very successful career. In 1933, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

Marie Dressler was the first woman on the cover of Time magazine.

Beery was not a pretty face either. His film career included a series of shorts in which he played Sweedie, the Swedish maid, a masculine character in drag. In 1916, he married Gloria Swanson, who also starred with him in Sweedie Goes to College (1915). But their marriage was short and troubled, including allegations of rape and a forced abortion. He went on to make many notable silent films, including Beggars of Life (1927) with Louise Brooks. Hired by Irving Thalberg to work at M-G-M, Beery would go onto to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Big House (1930). 

At M-G-M, Dressler and Beery were first paired in Min and Bill and the combination made them both box-office gold. And Min and Bill was a very successful film, making $2 million back when that was real money. But while I’ve heard of Min and Bill, I had never actually seen the film until a recent day long salute on TCM to Beery.
Min (Dressler), is a hard-boiled, self-sacrificing proprietress of a waterfront hotel, where her on-again off-again sweetheart and close friend Bill (Beery), a fisherman, also lives. We first see Bill’s ship arrive in port with hatches full of tuna and six bottles of Russian vodka that he bought 12 miles out in International waters and sells to Min for $10.

The relationship between Bill (Beery) and Min (Dressler) is left somewhat ambiguous.

Years before, a prostitute, Bella (Marjorie Rambeau), left her unwanted daughter, Nancy (Dorothy Jordan), in Min’s care. Nancy, now a teenager, works long days at the hotel, and catches the eye of a sailor on Bill’s crew, Alec Johnson (Russell Hopton), which Min does not like. Alec follows Nancy into the kitchen and Min follows after to break things up before they get too far. Min tells Bill that she doesn’t like Alec making eyes at Nancy.

Meanwhile, Nancy takes a load of trash down the pier to throw it in the water, some of which gets on to Dick Cameron (Donald Dillaway), whose motor boat is docked on the pier. Dick takes offense and yells at Nancy until Min arrives and chases him away. Min starts to untie the boat, but when Nancy gets in, they accidentally start the engine and steal it. Dick takes chase in another boat and then Bill and the police chase after in a second boat.

Runaway speedboat in the harbor. Let the laughs start. Please!

What follows is supposed to be a funny chase scene as the out of control speed boat narrowly misses pilings, bridges and other boats in the harbor. At one point, Min gets thrown from the boat into the water on a sharp turn. Dick jumps from one boat to the other to rescue Nancy. Meanwhile, Min gets picked up out of the water on crane and is dangling there when Bill and the police arrive.

Back at the hotel, Bill gives Min a comical massage, mostly him pulling up on her neck to realign her spine. Min finally convinces Bill that she’s better so he’ll stop. Just then, a truant officer (DeWitt Jennings) arrives to talk to Min about Nancy. He tries to persuade Min that she is not a fit mother and that Nancy should be sent away to school. Min agrees to send Nancy to school, but for the time refuses to give up Nancy.

Min confronts a truant officer who comes about Nancy (Dorothy Jordan).

Up in her room, Min hides money from the till in a sock and catches Bill spying at her through the lock in the door. Bill tells her that her sock isn’t safe, but Min convinces Bill she’s ready to ward off potential robbers, showing him her gun. She tells him that she’s been saving money for 40 years in hopes of saving enough so she can go back to Seattle, where she’s from. Looking out the window, Bill sees Alec with Nancy.

Down at the dock, Alec is making promises to Nancy, if she’ll sneak away with him to San Francisco. He starts to put the moves on her, when Min and Bill arrive to break things up again. Min has Bill sock Alec, knocking him out.

Nancy complains to Min that all she wants is to have is a good time and tells her that in a couple of years there will be nothing Min can do to stop her from dressing up and drinking with the gang. Min decides then and there to take Nancy away from the docks. Telling Nancy that she only wants her gone to save her business, Min packs up Nancy’s things and takes her to the school superintendent’s house, the Southards (Frank McGlynn and Greta Gould). Min makes up a story about Nancy’s parents so she doesn’t sound like such a low-life. Nancy begs Min to let her go home with her, but Min is adamant. It is obvious that even though she’s doing the right thing, she still feels bad about it.

At school, Nancy gets okay grades, nothing to write home about, but she has a problem with attendance and tardiness. After hitting another girl, Nancy runs back to Min. But while fishing off the pier, she manages to inadvertently snag Dick’s hat while he rides by in his motor boat. Dick is mad and starts to confront Nancy, when Min comes back. Nancy begs to stay, but Min demands that she return to school, telling the girl she never wants to see her again.

Min took in Nancy because her mother was unfit to raise her.

When Min goes into the hotel, she sees Bill drinking with a woman, whom he doesn’t realize is Bella, Nancy’s mother. Min convinces Bella to come upstairs so they can talk. Reluctantly, Bella goes, though she flirts with Bill on her way up the stairs. In Min’s room, Bella asks about her kid. Min lies and tells her that the girl was fragile and died several years ago. Bella’s a wreck, but it’s hard to tell if it’s from the news of her daughter’s death or the trip she’s just made or it’s the drinking she’s been doing with Bill. Min allows Bella to lie down in her room. But right then and there, Min decides that she needs to get Nancy even further away.

Bill doesn't know that his new drinking buddy is Bella (Marjorie Rambeau), Nancy's real mother.

Taking her nest egg, she hurries over to the Southards. But no sooner has she left then Bill comes into the room. Bella seems to have recovered significantly to have a few more drinks with Bill.

Meanwhile, Min tells the Southards that Nancy’s mother had left money to make sure Nancy got a good education at a girls’ school. Mr. Southard agrees to get Nancy in a school up north. Outside, Min tells Mr. Southard to get Nancy out of town in 24 hours or else she would take her back.

Back at the hotel, Min walks in on Bill and Bella. Min kicks Bella out of the hotel, but saves her real anger for Bill. Bill really looks afraid of Min. They end up rolling around on the floor. Bill tries to escape out the window, but Min puts him a chokehold and throws things at Bill. Bill retreats into his closet and tries to lock himself inside.

But Min returns with an axe and cuts through the door. Bill wrestles with Min for control of the axe. Min ends up biting Bill’s arm and knocking him to the ground. Suddenly worried that Bill might be hurt, Min comforts him.

After beating him up, Min comforts Bill.

Two years later, Nancy sends Min a letter, which she reads to Bill while he munches on a watermelon and spits out the seeds. In the letter, Nancy tells Min that she’s returning with Dick.

Onboard ship it is obvious that Nancy and Dick are in love. But when the night air proves to be too cold, the couple unknowingly sits on some deck chairs outside of Bella’s cabin. Bella, who is doing what she does best, gets caught by ship officials with a man in her room. She takes notice of how Nancy and Dick move away after the man in her room leaves. Bella thinks they’re acting snooty.

The next day, Min goes down to the dock to meet the boat, but hides in the shadows when she sees the Southards are there to meet Nancy and Dick. Instead, Min runs into Bella and pretends that bygones are bygones and invites her back to the hotel. When Bill sees Min with Bella, he tries to sneak away, but gets caught. Min convinces him that they are all old friends now. But when Bill starts to tell Min, in front of Bella, about seeing Nancy getting off the boat, Min kicks him to stop.

Up on the roof of the hotel, Min, with Bella in tow, tries to keep a lookout for Nancy and Dick. When she sees them arrive, she makes an excuse to Bella and then goes downstairs to meet with Nancy. Min tries to keep her at arm’s length, keeping up the ruse that she doesn’t care about the girl, hoping she’ll go away. Nancy tells Min that she and Dick are going to be married, are planning to move to Boston and that she and Dick want Min to come live with them. Min starts to get, but stops herself from getting, caught up in the fantasy.

Bella, who has been waiting for Min to return, comes downstairs and runs into Nancy. But neither knows the relationship with the other and all Bella can talk about is how Nancy reacted on the boat. Min does her best to chase Nancy away, telling her that she doesn’t want any part in the wedding or the newlyweds’ lives. Nancy cries to Dick, who tells her that they’ll forget all about Min.

On the day of the wedding, Min tries to use a fortune teller game to keep Bella away from the ceremony and encourages her to go to San Francisco where good fortune supposedly awaits her. But Bella has heard about the wedding from some dockhands, who tell her that the Dick is marrying a girl from the docks and decides that the girl, Nancy Smith, is really her daughter. Bella tells Min that she plans to make the most of the opportunity to get some money from Nancy and Dick.

Bella tells Min she plans to get money from Nancy and her fiance, Dick. Min can't let her do that.

But Min doesn’t want Bella to ruin Nancy’s first chance at real happiness. Min tells Bella that she won’t let her leave the room. Bella tries to get out by burning Min’s face with a heated curling iron. Min returns the favor by shooting Bella dead with her gun.

Alec happens to be in the hallway outside Min’s door but hides when he hears Bill approaching. When Bill sees Bella’s dead body, he tells Min that she’s going with him on a fishing trip to Mexico. But once they leave, Alec goes inside the room and finds the body; and apparently tells the police about the shooting.

Min doesn’t follow Bill down to his boat. Rather, when she hears the horns at the pier, she goes down to look at the wedding ceremony. Min sees Nancy looking happy, but stays too long. In the final scene, as Nancy sails off on her honeymoon, Min is led away by the police. Even though she is in custody, Min manages to smile, knowing Nancy is safe and happy.

The film ends with Min seeing that Nancy is safe and happy.

The film was such a success that Dressler and Beery would be paired again in Tugboat Annie (1933) and Dinner at Eight (1933). While Dressler would win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Min, Beery would win one too, at the same Award show, for Best Actor, but for The Champ (1931) [Prior to 1933, the Academy Awards were not tied to the calendar like they are today.]

Beery and Dressler leaving their hand prints at Grauman's Chinese
Theater on January 31, 1931, following the success of Min and Bill.

Min and Bill would find Beery somewhere in the middle of his long career. He would go on to appear in a total of about 250 films in a 36 year career from 1913 to 1949. He would die in 1949 of a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home.

Dressler’s return to films was almost over by the time she made Min and Bill. She would appear in less than ten more films before her career ended in 1933, just three years later. She did earn one more Best Actress Academy nomination for her role in Emma (1932). She died of cancer in 1934 at the age of 65.

Min and Bill is one of those films I had heard about for years, but when I actually saw it the film proved to be a disappointment. I really wanted to like this movie, since I had always heard how wonderful everyone was in it. I’m afraid I don’t see it. Dressler, who seemed to be on screen twice as much as Beery, is sometimes hard to understand as her character sometimes speaks with broken English. Also I don’t find her face to be very expressive. Maybe that’s what makes the half smile at the end of the movie so memorable, but I’m not sure they make up for the rest of the film. Beery’s Bill is really a supporting character in the film, despite the actor getting equal billing. This role did not make me a fan of his. Of course, it apparently had the opposite effect on audiences in 1930.

The film seems very dated and hasn’t aged well. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a silent film with talking added to it as an afterthought; even Leo the Lion’s roar at the beginning is silent. While the film seems to capture the depressing hardship of life on the docks, the story it tells didn’t grab me and I didn’t think the acting was all that great. Sometimes it’s difficult to watch a popular film from decades ago and understand what all the fuss was about. This is truly the case with Min and Bill.

If you’re like me and have heard about Min and Bill, I would tell you that its reputation is overblown.

This film is available through the Warner Archive:

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