Was Marie Dressler a big star or a Bit Actress? Well, both, actually. Dressler was born in Canada somewhere between 1863 and 1971, depending on which account you read. She started acting at age 14, and in 1892 made her debut on Broadway.
She was in a play written by Maurice Barrymore (1849 - 1905) who was the father of Lionel, Ethel and John, and great-grandfather of Drew. That family has great genes! Dressler later worked with Lionel and John Barrymore.
The early movie days were not well documented. There are notes that Dressler started working in film in 1910, but IMDb shows her first film as the 1914 Chaplin film, Tillie's Punctured Romance. There is a reference to Actors' Fund Field Day in 1910, with the cast all listed as playing themselves. In any case, it is accepted that Mack Sennett was the one who got her into movies. She may have had more small parts in early films.
Dressler made two sequels to Tillie, and a few shorts through 1918, and then found herself blacklisted from movie jobs because of an actor's strike. In 1927 she was back in movies, cast in The Callahans and the Murphys. She made a few more silent films, and returned to the stage to work with Edward Everett Horton (1886 - 1970).
As an experienced stage actress, Dressler was a prime choice for sound films. Many silent stars lost their popularity when they had to speak, and Dressler was one of the lucky ones who already knew how.
After appearing in Annie Christie (1930) opposite Greta Garbo (1905 - 1990), Marie Dressler was considered a movie star and signed to a $500 a week contract at MGM. She went on to win the 1931 Academy Award for Best Actress in Min and Bill (1930) co-starring with Wallace Beery (1885 - 1949).
Dressler was now the biggest box office draw of the time. More hits followed. Emma in 1932, Tugboat Annie and Dinner at Eight in 1933. Those last two were again with Wallace Beery.
Jean Harlow is a very sexy 22 year old, married to Wallace Beery! Let's see, he was 48 years old. (No comment!) Even though the casting was evenly divided among the stars, Dressler, Beery, John and Lionel Barrymore - Dressler dominates the screen when she is in a scene. Her final comment to Harlow is classic.
Marie died of cancer in 1934, just a year after making Dinner at Eight. So, was she a star or a Bit Actress? She was a star, but she only made 29 films. And she could hold her own with the Barrymores sharing the credits.