By Victoria Sturtevant
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Additional info for A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler
This moment suggests both Dressler’s athleticism, in performing physical comedy while treading water, and Tillie’s energetic incompetence, in being unable to rescue herself, despite her brave efforts. The contrast between the two bodies—Dressler’s and Tillie’s—suggests the heroism of the serial queen while it mocks the helplessness of the melodramatic victim. The physical shock of danger is thereby transformed into the physical shock of laughter. The reviewer for the New York Daily Mail was unsure whether audiences could tolerate the film’s sustained comic onslaught for the full six-reel running time (about eighty minutes).
Ironically, the very attention to the bodily that Bakhtin celebrates for its ability to strip class distinctions from a population can also reinforce gender difference. Women’s bodies are the site of social anxiety and contempt, fetishization and voyeurism. A comedy based on the corporeality of the body holds as much social danger for women as it does the potential for liberation. So Bakhtin’s sage use of the term “ambivalent” for the carnivalesque moment is important. It is not all liberation and proletarian revolt.
The film ends in an un-marriage, resisting the rush toward the heterosexual clinch that defines both Victorian melodrama and conventional comedy. The two women set aside their rivalry and their opposing moral positions of innocent country girl and sophisticated city girl; their embrace is the utterly nongeneric final image of the film. Sensationalism is referenced in the film’s many thrills and spills. The physicality of the gags builds slowly throughout the film, from little knocks on the head and kicks in the rear, through some recurring swinging-door knockdowns in the restaurant, to a drunken dance between Tillie and Charlie that allows Dressler to throw her diminutive partner around like a bag of feathers.