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Additional info for A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler
Dressler’s comedy is all about the body, and her body is excessive—too old, too large, and too active for feminine propriety. Because Dressler was large, her voice and gestures expansive, the way she occupied space was often read as masculine, transgressing the boundaries of feminine containment. In her very early years on stage, she was sometimes called upon to play male roles. She recalled, “As a general thing, I played the Queen, if there was one. 7 A review of her stage work described the androgyny of her stage presence: “Marie Dressler has a certain virility in her humor.
The Callahans and the Murphys is a study in ethnic body stereotypes, an exploration of how marginalized ethnicities work and play and fight with each other. And ethnic bodies, in this film, are the vehicles of excess and pollution. The largest target of this reading of ethnic bodies was of course the Irish. Nearly all the film’s gags were predicated on the notion that Irish bodies were coarse, excessive, undisciplined, drunken, dirty, and hypersexual. The original opening showed Ma Callahan pulling fleas off herself because she and her young sons all share a bed with the family dog.
It is precisely the fact that this kind of caricature of stock Irish characters had nearly disappeared in 1927 that fanned the controversy around the film’s regression to the bad old days. 12 Moore’s most obvious Irish-assimilation film, Irene, was released in 1926, just a year ahead of The Callahans and the Murphys. This film cast Moore as a spunky and virtuous daughter of Irish immigrants who first achieves success as a fashion model (model minority, indeed) and then marries her wealthy boss.