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Extra info for A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler
Dressler’s physicality insistently mocks the excessive emotional register of the melodrama. Moral polarization is overturned in the constant oscillation between victim and villain that structures the film. The film begins with Tillie knocking Charlie on the head with a heavy wooden block; he is the first victim of violence. But when he decides to take her money, he turns to the camera and tillie ’ s punctured romance • 23 gestures his evil intent in the hackneyed style of the melodramatic villain, plucking at his bow tie and twiddling his fingers greedily.
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.
Sensationalism is the process by which melodrama subjects the audience to extreme shocks and thrills. This often takes the form of stunting: characters leaping from trains onto moving cars, sword-fighting, or swinging across canyons on flimsy ropes. Mack Sennett, a parodist, and D. W. Griffith, a melodramtist, both started their careers at Biograph, so Sennett could lay claim to an across-the-lot familiarity with the logic of Victorian melodrama that fueled early narrative cinema. Sennett’s films nearly always feel like jabs at his former colleague and hold the conventions of sensational melodrama up to ridicule.