Still photos scarcely do justice to the oil-painting-in-a-rainstorm quality, ever mobile and melting, of Marie Dressler's face. The elderly woman who was the top star of the early 1930s was beloved as much for her expressive bulldog mug as she was for comic weepie vehicles like this 1932 film created for her by her friend Frances Marion.
Dressler dominates the space around her like an ambulatory sofa -- Emma's best moments come as she stumps determinedly across the screen, buffeted by propeller breezes at an airport, swooping through a railway station in pursuit of an errant ball of yarn. As a maid/governess/eternal surrogate mother to a family of largely ungrateful whelps, Dressler's domestic heroine is one of many created for the screen by scriptwriter Marion. Emma most decidedly rules her world, including her nominal boss, genial incompetent Jean Hersholt, telling him, "Mr. Smith -- of all the children you're the most childish." Their relationship rehearses both the era's and Frances Marion's interest in breaching class barriers, and Marion as much as director Clarence Brown can be thought of as auteur of this piece. But Brown and cinematographer Oliver Marsh must be commended for the remarkably fluid camerawork that gives Dressler plenty of room to emote. Some overhead views of a courtroom are particularly effective. Above all, though, it's Dressler's picture, 1930s America looking itself in the mirror and seeing a broken-down domestic as its working-class hero.
Emma plays Sunday, June 21, at 7:15 p.m. (with King Vidor's The Champ at 5:30 p.m.) at the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant (at College) in Berkeley. Tickets are $6, $1.50 for the second show; call (510) 642-1124.
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