EMMA (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932) directed by Clarence Brown, is not a screen adaptation to the famous Jane Austin novel of the same name, but actually an original screenplay by Frances Marion for Marie Dressler, whose popularity soared following her Academy Award winning performance in MIN AND BILL (1930). In the format tradition of Dressler's leading roles, she appears in another sentimental tale with insertions of comedy where her character wins both heart and admiration from those around her, particularly the movie going public of 1932.
With the opening credits rolling to the underscoring of "In My Merry Oldsmobile," the story begins with a 1911 prologue set in a Long Island home where Emma Thatcher (Marie Dressler) works as a nanny in the Smith household. As Mrs. Smith (character unseen) struggles with her pregnancy, she finally gives birth to an infant son born without breathing. With Emma's help, the baby survives while Mrs. Smith succumbs, leaving her husband, Frederick Smith (Jean Hersholt), an inventor by profession, to go through life rearing the infant and older siblings, Gypsy (Edith Fellows), Isabel (Dawn O'Day) and Billy (Wally Albright) with Emma's help and guidance. Twenty years pass. Mr. Smith, is now a millionaire living in an estate with additional servants, Matilda (Leila Bennett), the maid, Drake (Wilfred Noy), the butler, with Emma still in charge of the household, while the children, now adults, still looking up to Emma for advise and insurance. Unlike the others, Ronnie (Richard Cromwell), the youngest raised by Emma as her very own, looks up to her with great admiration, even addressing her as "beautiful." Of her many worries, Emma's biggest concern is Ronnie's love for aviation. After 32 years of steady employment, Emma finds it's time to take her long awaited vacation, thus, leaving the Smith family to be on their own. Frederick, however, after taking her to the train station, proposes to Emma. They marry and go to Niagara Falls on their honeymoon. Having learned of this news in a newspaper, the Smith children, Gypsy (Barbara Kent), married to Count Pierre Marlin (Andre Cheron); Isabelle (Myrna Loy), a snob; and Bill (George Meeker), find it very humiliating, with the exception of Ronnie, who finds it to be great. After Smith dies of an unexpected heart attack, Emma is left everything according her late husband's will. The Smith children, however, feel Emma married their father only for his money and take her to court on a murder charge.
Marie Dressler, far from being a physical beauty, gives a beautiful in depth performance as Emma, a hard working, devoted nanny in a much deserved Academy Award nomination. A well scripted theme on how lovable little children grow to become mean enough to turn against the one who sacrificed everything for them is quite essential, even today. What makes this particular Dressler comedy-drama succeed is the absence of her frequent co-star, Polly Moran, who's presence is usually more annoying than amusing, something that would have thrown this story off balance had she appeared. Rather than having Moran in support, there's Leila Bennett in the minor role of a comical housekeeper. Though comedy has its limitations, one scene played strictly for laughs is where Emma encounters a "flight tutor" airplane that goes way out of control when pressing the wrong buttons.
Of the Smith siblings portrayed, Richard Cromwell stands out as Emma's very own Ronnie. His very likable performance doesn't take any attention away from both Dressler and the youthful Myrna Loy, early in her MGM career. Loy offers a fine characterization of an unsympathetic rich girl. Her charming and witty screen personality for which she's become famous would develop with each passing movie over the next few years. George Meeker, Kathryn McGuire and Barbara Kent as the other snobbish siblings, do well enough for themselves, but don't gather enough attention from contemporary viewers to post comments as opposed to the more famous Loy. Jean Hersholt, however, up to this time notable for playing villains, offers a heartwarming portrayal in whatever scenes he's in. One worth noting is where he tries to bid farewell to his housekeeper, Emma (Dressler), at the train station, capably handled with charm and humor. Other members of the cast consist that of John Miljan and Purnell B. Pratt as rival courtroom attorneys, and Dorothy Peterson appearing briefly as Mrs. Winthrop.
Of the handful of movies for which Dressler appeared, starting with the Mack Sennett feature length comedy, TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914) that co-starred the legendary Charlie Chaplin, for years her name simply rests on the frequently revived all-star production of DINNER AT EIGHT (1933). As for EMMA, it's certainly Dressler's finest achievement on screen and her most underrated. Regardless of its age, it's still a timely story with a moral message quite relevant after all these years. Available on DVD, EMMA can be seen and appreciated whenever broadcast on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. The next time anyone interested in hiring a nanny wonderful with children, Emma, like the movie itself, is highly recommended. (***)