This first Oscar ceremony showed that the Academy embraced performances that not only received critical praise but also won wide attention and acclaim by movie goers and industry insiders, too – in the Best Actress category, it honored a performer that combined a high level of visibility thanks to her appearances in three successful and acclaimed motion pictures but whose work also won loud praise and laudation by itself, too, making her a both popular and legitimate choice for this first award. It was an appropriate way to establish and warrant its own selections and the Academy would continue to appeal to the different target groups audiences, insiders and critics (though always to different degrees) when it acknowledged further giants of the screen like Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer and Marie Dressler who had all worked their way to the top of the industry and guaranteed the admiration of countless supporters and fans throughout the country. But even with this distinct focus on established stars or later on upcoming sensations like Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, this new entity also constantly aimed to include achievements with less visibility or popularity – as an organization, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences aimed to recognize achievements only based on merit and worthiness, showing that popularity and talent, longevity and superiority don’t always go hand in hand and that outstanding artistic achievements can easily be overlooked by moviegoers, hidden within quickly forgotten motion pictures or too obscure for general mass appeal. And even if this goal often failed to be accomplished, it still stands as one of the Academy’s strongest principles and Oscar voters always aimed to include little-known or even completely unknown performers and artists in their line-ups, wanting to show that an organization of experts can find remarkable achievements that might otherwise have been ignored and award its distinction only based on talent and quality and that way win more legitimacy and respect for its decisions. Ultimately, it’s a concept that was rarely realized as Academy members were always influenced by trends as well as their own bias and industry connections but they still often found room for fameless names for whom the nomination (or win) would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience or the begin of sudden stimulation of their careers. And at its first ceremony, the Academy was already eager to display its ability to find hidden gems and recognize artistry in unlikely places and highlighting the work of unknown performers when they nominated a little-known, 51 year-old character-actress besides two of the most famous stars from the ceasing silent era in the Best Actress category. Looking only at her movie career, Louise Dresser could certainly be called a ‘late bloomer’ but the strong-willed performer from Indiana had been an entertainer and artist for almost her entire life after she ran away from her home at 16 to pursue a career on the stage before she made her movie debut at the age of 44 in The Glory of Clementina (but not as the title character). On the Broadway stage, she appeared in musical comedies and operettas and charmed audiences with her sophisticated elegance while she focused on her abilities as a noticeable character actress in her later movie work, most prominently playing Calamity Jane in Caught, Catherine the Great opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Eagle and later as Empress Elizabeth opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress. It was an overall lasting and fulfilling career that crossed different genres and fields, included both silent pictures and talkies and allowed Louise Dresser to make the best out of the possibilities she was given and for which she had left her home many years ago – and that culminated with the ‘Citation of Merit’ that was given to her for her work in A Ship comes in during the first Academy Awards presentation in 1929. It was an honor that shed a sudden light on an actress that was mostly unknown to American movie audiences but her inclusion in the first Best Actress line-up did not change the course of her career or her overall legacy – her name remains mostly as obscure today as it was already in 1929 and Louise Dresser did not experience a new revival in her professional life, mostly because the Oscars were still in their first year and did not bring the kind of publicity and fame they would in the years to come. Louise Dresser was therefore not destined for a new and exciting career as 21-year old fellow nominee Janet Gaynor nor was she one of the biggest female stars on the big screen like 30-year old Gloria Swanson (whom Louise Dresser had supported in 1923’s lost Prodigal Daughters) and she continued to appear in various talkies, apparently not feeling the problems that many actors faced during this transition period, before she abandoned her screen work after her final appearance opposite Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray in Maid of Salem in 1937. Of course, the Oscars were not expected yet to truly change or approve careers and artistic choices and they had as little influence on Louise Dresser as they had on Janet Gaynor and Gloria Swanson who both would undoubtedly had continued their career paths the same way even without the Oscar statuette or their status as runner-up since they both benefitted from their fame and the popularity of their motion pictures more than this strange new award organization – two circumstances that Louise Dresser could not use to her advantage since A Ship comes in was basically as unfamiliar as the actress herself and couldn’t compete with the daring themes of Sadie Thompson, the artistic achievements of Sunrise and Seventh Heaven or the ongoing popularity of Janet Gaynor and Charles Ferrell in Street Angel. Instead, the movie came and went with little excitement or attention and the inclusion of Louise Dresser as one of the Best Actresses of the year consequently already raised a few surprised eyebrows in 1929 just as it does today and it poses the question if the Academy was successful in finding a hidden gem in her performance or if this new organization was still trying to really determine what it wanted to honor and what it truly considered the outstanding achievements of the year.
A Ship comes in is a movie that celebrates patriotism and the USA by presenting a family that come to this country to find a better life and even if they have to endure hardship and personal tragedies never question the virtues of this country and how it gave them more than they could ever ask for – still, it’s a very quiet and personal execution without any grand exaggerations and the story also never turns the Plezniks into a symbol of immigration itself but tells their own and unique tale without overemphasizing the events in their lives for a greater meaning. In a similar way, Louise Dresser’s Mrs. Pleznik remains a singular creation that doesn’t stand in a symbolic context like Janet Gaynor’s Wife in Sunrise – but this lack of greater context also denied Louise Dresser the opportunity to ever step out of the shadows of the other characters and plot points even if the emotions of Mrs. Pleznik sometimes remind the viewers about her honest dedication to her family and stand as the strongest constant of the story. When A Ship comes in introduces Mrs. Pleznik for the first time during their arrival on a boat in America and right before the health inspection that will decide if they are allowed to leave the ship and start their new life, Louise Dresser already shows the main sentiments that constantly shape her existence – a certain state of worry that something or someone might harm her family, a sense of duty to the demands of her husband and the determination to do all she can for the sake of her children. Still, those features are always explained and referenced by the story itself more than Louise Dresser since the camera only occasionally focuses on her and gives her the chance to explore Mrs. Pleznik’s motives and ideas. After this opening scene, Mrs. Pleznik’s life happens almost completely inside the new apartment of the family and Louise Dresser only appears whenever the script specifically asks for her character’s appearance, denying her the chance to create a logic flow in her role and instead only gives her the chance to craft single moments and scenes that maybe do present a coherent picture of Mrs. Pleznik but also underline the one-dimensionality of her personality. But even if these limitations are constantly visible, Louise Dresser does the most she can with the role itself – her face displays an ongoing honesty of her emotions, displaying her worries and happiness with open expressions as she feels joy over the new job of her husband or a sense of gloom whenever someone unknown knocks on their door. The actress also disappears into the part of Mrs. Pleznik without any false vanity and builds a strong and believable relationship with all her co-stars, creating especially moving moments at the end when her husband returns and she simply hugs him with silent tears, displaying the deep affection between these two characters and she always retreats to her feelings of comfort and familiarity that ask her to do the best she can for the sake of her children and her husband – Mrs. Pleznik never denies her own simplicity or her secondary role in her family and Louise Dresser’s performance is expressive enough to generate a feeling of despair and loneliness that never leaves any doubt about the sincerity of her emotions. Like Janet Gaynor’s Wife in Sunrise, Mrs. Pleznik is a mostly passive creation but where Janet Gaynor was able to give her character a strong basis and a strength that ultimately turned The Wife into the most deciding force of the story, Louise Dresser unfortunately had to surrender to the passiveness of the role – when her son gets home, beaten up by other kids in his schools, Mrs. Pleznik is allowed a shocked expression but leaves it to her husband to approach and comfort him. It’s a role allocation that certainly makes sense in the context of the story but leaves Louise Dresser with little to do in moments like this – she is therefore much more memorable whenever A Ship comes in actually focuses on her character’s inner turmoil, even if it is again shaped by inability to express it clearly. She is especially moving when she realizes that her son is pondering the idea to join the army – Mrs. Pleznik is again unable to comprehend how her family is changing around her, feeling at home in this country that is still so strange to her and can only see the danger that he will get himself into if he actually decides to fight for the USA and even if Louise Dresser herself is still not allowed to do more than grab the shoulders of Mrs. Pleznik’s son in maternal love and fear, she still assures the audience that, despite her apparent weakness, she is the loving and gentle force that holds this family together and also makes it clear how much her son really loves her, too. She later repeats these moving images when her son appears in his uniform for the first time – his father is certainly full of pride over his son and his decision but both already sense the sorrow they will bring over Mrs. Pleznik, making the scene about her even before she enters the frame, again underlining that even if Mrs. Pleznik doesn’t have a large physical presence in the proceedings, she still leaves a lasting impression simply with her honest feelings and loving support as she, often with slight confusion or downright puzzlement watches her family become ‘American’ while she doesn’t really understand any of it. She movingly dedicates this scene to the love of a mother as she is almost afraid to touch her son and lets Mrs. Plaznik, despite her imposing physique, appear strangely delicate, letting her inner state of mind influence her body language – even if she slightly exaggerates a last outburst of emotions just as she later equally overdoes a scene in which her husband tries to cheer her up and she goes along with it, giving fake hysteric laughs that only proof that Louise Dresser is always stronger whenever she is asked to retreat into the insecurity of Mrs. Pleznik’s own mind. This insecurity also highlights the strongest moments of Louise Dresser’s performance which both arise from Mrs. Pleznik’s alienation from the world around her – when she wants to plead in front of a court that sentences her husband for a crime he did not commit, she suddenly becomes alive with desperation, even more so because the judge cannot understand her and she to beg her little daughter to translate her hopeless begging. And later, she receives a telegram about the fate of her son and again has to ask her children to help her with the meaning of the text – and when her daughter breaks down crying, Mrs. Pleznik again can only desperately beg to be informed about what has happened and what everyone understands except for her. It’s an internal and external distance that kept her away from life itself that ultimately distanced her from her family, too, and Louise Dresser manages to make these sudden tragedies strangely devastating despite the fact that her character had barely ever established itself before during the running time of A Ship comes in.
The role of Mrs. Pleznik, a woman who is almost without any real opinion and mostly be defined by not understanding at all, certainly benefits from Louise Dresser’s external and internal realization but it is easy to imagine that most actresses of her generation would have achieved the same results in this part. Louise Dresser surrendered to the limitations of the part even if those limitations served the story well – it is not necessary to see Louise Dresser’s face when Mrs. Pleznik buys a funeral wreath since her defeated body language is already enough but the effect of scenes like this is mostly based on Mrs. Pleznik’s character itself and not Louise Dresser’s actual performance which mostly became a vessel for the limitations of the role without adding any shades or depth herself. She is certainly a good vessel for this task and she also fulfills the demands of silent pictures with precise focus but she certainly lacks the life, the poetic clarity, the vibrancy and mysteriousness of many other celebrated performances from the silent era that were able to constantly pose and answer questions about their characters, added depth and complexity with a single look or possessed a magic screen presence that made words unnecessary in the end. Louise Dresser’s performance in A Ship comes in unfortunately lacks these qualities as the movie holds her back too strongly and while she meets the demands of silent pictures with her expressive face she also to surrender to them at the same time since the alienation of Mrs. Pleznik often gets lost in the proceedings – it is easy to imagine that a talking picture might have had better use of the character and could have given her more opportunities to emphasize her distance from her new country. But overall, Louise Dresser also does not inhabit a personality on the screen that would put more emphasis on Mrs. Pleznik by itself – Louise Dresser would have needed a stronger role to truly shine just like Mrs. Pleznik would have needed an actress with a more visible personality and strength to truly shine. The Academy can certainly be applauded for casting a light on a mostly unknown character actress but considering the small number of performers who were acknowledged by the Academy for silent pictures, her performance does feel far too neglectable and nondescript to be highlighted by this specific honor. Janet Gaynor’s role in Sunrise was, despite certain similarities, memorable and loud. Louise Dresser, despite some moving displays of motherly love, unfortunately remained as silent as the movie that surrounds her.