Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Film: Min and Bill
Format: Streaming video from TCM Watch on laptop.

More than most films, comedies are a product of their time. What one generation finds funny, the next generation scratches its head at. Such it is with Min and Bill. Listed as both a comedy and a drama, the comedic elements of the film are the broad slapstick style that actually work better in silent films than they do in early talkies. The initial comedy scene, which involves one of our title characters hijacking a boat, is the sort of thing I’m talking about here.

We establish our three major characters right away. Bill (Wallace Beery) is a fisherman who lives at a dockside boarding house operated by Min (Marie Dressler). The two have a comically antagonist relationship, but it’s evident within a few moments that the two are extremely fond of each other. While Min loves her boarding house and Bill, too, the real joy in her life is Nancy (Dorothy Jordan). Nancy was abandoned by her mother as an infant and has been raised by Min to assist around the boarding house. Nancy’s age is indeterminate; all we know is that she’s very young; 14 or 15 would be a good guess.

The boat hijacking mentioned above happens when the young son of the local cannery parks his boat at Min’s dock. Upset by this, Min and Nancy get in the boat to drive it away, but lose control of it What we get is some really interesting early camera work and rear projection. For its time, there is little doubt that this sequence was both riotously funny and fairly innovative, even if it doesn’t play this way to a modern audience. And if you think that eventually that young Dick (Don Dillaway) is going to end up as a love interest for Nancy, well, you’ve seen a movie before.

Regardless, shortly after Min is rescued from her boat excursion, the police and school superintendent show up at her boarding house to ask about young Nancy. It is their belief that Nancy has been taken out of school by Min, who forces her to work around the boarding house from dawn to well past dusk. Nancy claims that she’s not in school because she doesn’t want to be there, but she promises to start sending Nancy to school. Later that evening, Nancy is caught canoodling with Alec (Russell Hopton), who is at least twice her age and has much less than the best of intentions concerning Nancy. Based on that, Min decides to pack Min off to live with the superintendent, much against Nancy’s desires.

Nancy hates this, of course, and wants to come back to the boarding house, but Min refuses. Shortly after this encounter, Min discovers Bella (Marjorie Rambeau) in the boarding house. It takes a few minutes to get there, but if you’re suddenly guessing that Bella is actually Nancy’s mother come back to claim her daughter after Min has raised her, well, once again, you’ve seen a movie before. Worse, the boozy Bill is immediately attracted to Bella, which causes even more tension with Min. The rest of the film concerns Min dealing with the consequences of what is going on around her, and despite her gruff demeanor, doing what she thinks is best for Nancy’s future.

The biggest problem with Min and Bill is that it’s more than 80 years old. What this means is that our main plot points are so well known to the average viewer that it looks like a cliché despite those film clichés being much, much younger when this film was made. It’s hard to fault Min and Bill for relying on what have become obvious movie tropes, because these weren’t specifically hackneyed cliché when the film was created. We know we’re going to get something like a resolution we want, because that’s how things rolled in 1930. If that resolution involves a little murder and a denouement that wouldn't pass the Hays Code, well, so be it.

Marie Dressler is the heart and soul of Min and Bill. Again, the role she is playing is one that has become a trope, albeit one that is generally played by male characters. Min is the character with the gruff, angry exterior and the tender-hearted center. It’s impossible for her to demonstrate any sort of tenderness or affection overtly, but Dressler is an accomplished enough actress that both her fake anger and her true emotions are obvious to anyone watching. Dressler doesn’t look like a matinee idol, but she had the chops.

Truthfully, Min and Bill is another in a recent list of films I’ve seen lately that is innocuous at its worst and not much more than innocuous at its best. But Marie Dressler is worth your just-over-an-hour of time. That it telegraphs its punches is merely a product of its time. That every one of those plot twists could be easily solved with a sentence or two is equally a product of its time.

Why to watch Min and Bill: Marie Dressler is all the reason you need.
Why not to watch: You know every character and every plot twist.

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