Min and Bill (1930, George W. Hill)
In its day Min and Bill was a massive popular success, catapulting its two stars Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, both already widely beloved, into a status as the highest-paid and most popular box office draws of the early sound era in Hollywood. One needn’t spend much time analyzing the picture to understand why — without painting in bold strokes, it connects its central pair of waterfront eccentrics, Beery’s layabout commercial fisherman and Dressler’s commanding innkeeper, directly to its audience free of dilution. Their playful bickering and knowing back-and-forth, their very American modesty and savvy, and their impulse to protect their kind are presented, thanks to writer Frances Marion, director George Hill and producer Irving Thalberg, free of condescension as a high-spirited mirror of Depression-era audiences. All this despite MGM traditionally being remembered strictly as the studio of glitz and glamour. It often was, but the young Thalberg’s sense of artistry and emotional attachment to populism (so evident when he worked at Universal) never left him; indeed, was enhanced by his economic power in the ’30s.
In just sixty-five minutes, Min and Bill takes you through a two-year whirlwind that gathers up everything and nothing in the lives of four key people it documents. Min saves up doggedly for a long-wanted escape to Seattle, away from the docks and their noise and scrappiness; she needs no help but Bill, the sort of person who’s always around even though no one really knows why exactly, lends support and conscience; a de facto (illegally) adopted daughter Nancy (Dorothy Jordan), abandoned by her real mother as a baby, begins to find promise with an education and romance that Min sacrifices immensely to provide for her; and there are the decadent foibles of the drunken, troubled Bella (Marjorie Rambeau), actually Nancy’s mother, a secret kept carefully by Min so that Bella, a chaotic person who brings the damnation of cruelty and selfishness onto the home when she’s present, is unable to ruin her daughter’s life.
A big reason Beery and Dressler resonated with audiences as modest heroes of a kind — although they do very little in this film beyond simply living their lives, at least until the climax — is that they don’t merely act but look like real people. Dressler is a stronger performer, at least for this kind of film, than Beery, whose casual walk is convincing but who tends to ham it up for the camera in an affable but sometimes distracting way; that notwithstanding, their chemistry is mesmerizing, and it’s all the stronger because Beery is such an odd-looking lug of a man, and because Dressler is a large woman in her sixties. They’re quick with a cutting remark but in the most affectionate and realistic sense, never in the contrived manner familiar from rapid-paced screwball comedies of later years. Those films are wonderful, but this one has different goals; the comedy’s much broader and predicated far more on the physical and mundane, the reach for the spectators on grounds of the comic as well as the sentimental much more direct and free of pretension.
In contrast to the MGM films known so widely for their sense of ritzy confinement, from Grand Hotel to The Wizard of Oz, Min and Bill is both invigorating in its use of open-air sets, the nearby sea always palpable, and believable in its setting of economic stress. The naturalism of both locations and characters allow it to feel like a picture that is being lived in. Of course there is comic business to spare — an extended boat chase, a rather relentless fight scene between Dressler and Beery — that reels you in with its unashamed easiness, but when the story shifts its attention to Nancy and Bella, things take a darker turn.
For a time, it’s almost a kind of pandering — Min makes very apparent that she doesn’t want to lose Nancy as a day-to-day part of her life, puttering around daily at her speakeasy, but upon Bella’s reappearance, Min’s desire to protect Nancy from her real mother and the severely haunted life she symbolizes overtakes her. She doesn’t merely give away her treasured savings but eventually sets herself up for an even greater loss. And in the crucial moment, in one of the most heartwrenching closing scenes in Hollywood history, she makes plain that all she wants is happiness for her beloved, and none of the glory and thanks to come from it. To provide selflessly is in fact, she comes to believe, her greatest calling; this entire story is told in nothing more than a camera move and a facial expression in the final three minutes. Coming from the writer of The Champ, this could have been milked for all of its tearjerking potential and, this being Thalberg’s MGM, would likely have been forgiven and even embraced for it. Instead, Hill covers it quickly, carefully, wordlessly, only giving us just enough information to see the results of Min’s unforgivably violent but still somehow unselfish final act. It teeters on the edge of the maudlin and the subtle, but somehow comes out — thanks to the joint efforts of Marion, Hill and especially Dressler — to be one of the most deeply, effortlessly moving sequences in cinema. (For a person with adoption in their family, that goes double; it’s as emotionally taxing for such a person as Sunrise likely is for a couple that went through troubles and rekindled.)
Most of the names associated with this remarkable film have passed into history, known to Hollywood buffs and few others; these days, as big a moneymaker as Min and Bill was at the time of its release, you have to pay full-price for a burn-on-demand DVD to even see the thing, which is a shame and few are likely to take the plunge for a film from a transitional year in which most talking pictures were still creaky and visibly struggling with dialogue, sound recording and performances. (This film has no such problems and is in fact incredibly polished for its time.) But Frances Marion, one of the first women to make a career of screenwriting and possessed (even if Bad Girl and The Big House had been the extent of her output) of a singular, startling talent, deserves to be remembered in terms as lofty as Thalberg often is. The same goes for Dressler, who along with Beery proved that the criterion for stardom did not ride simply on the conventional glossiness of the youthful and conventionally pretty (which is not to say that she was not beautiful); her comic timing is above reproach here, but in the scenes of pathos she achieves elegance and perfection with the barest and simplest of movements and expressions. She might be the first person to win an Oscar just for a faint smile in one specific moment. And she deserved it completely.