Tugboat Annie: Seattle's First Movie

  • By Eleanor Boba
  • Posted 11/10/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11142
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In 1933 Seattle played a part in a blockbuster movie. Tugboat Annie, the story of a long-suffering female tug skipper in the mythical community of Secoma on Puget Sound, was the hit of the day, in many cases being held over for a second week at movie houses across the country! At the height of the Great Depression, this gritty yet comic tale of weather-beaten characters tugged at heartstrings. It made more than a million dollars for MGM, a huge sum in the day. The film's star, Marie Dressler (1868?-1934), made the cover of Time magazine in August 1933, just after the movie's release.

Tugboat Annie, featuring the well-known team of Dressler and Wallace Beery (1885-1949), appeared in theaters only weeks after filming was complete. Background scenes feature Lake Union, Queen Anne Hill, and Puget Sound. Real Northwest towboats compete for business on the water. A tugboat crashes into a ferry on Elliott Bay and a passenger liner arrives at the Bell Street Pier to the cheers of thousands. 

The bulk of the filming of Tugboat Annie took place on sound stages, sound pools, and lakes in or near MGM's Culver City studios in California. However, enough scenes were filmed locally to justify calling Tugboat Annie the first major motion picture to be shot in the city. (Indeed, with the exception of an episode of Ripley's Believe It or Not filmed in Tacoma in 1932 and some scenes shot on Mount Rainier for Cecil B. DeMille's 1925 silent movie The Golden Bed, it was the first major movie filmed anywhere in Washington.)

Tugboat Annie

The movie Tugboat Annie was based on the short stories of Norman Reilly Raine (1894-1971) published in The Saturday Evening Post. Raine began writing his Annie stories in 1931 during a brief stint as a writing instructor at the University of Washington. He gathered inspiration for his popular tales from visiting the Seattle waterfront, incorporating the atmosphere and characters into his fiction. 

The unsinkable Annie (a widow in the stories, though married in the movie) is a tough-talking, late-middle-aged skipper who more than holds her own with both seafarers and landlubbers. She is master of the Narcissus, a sea-going tug. The yarns are full of salty language and local color.

"Tugboat Annie Brennan relinquished the wheel to Shiftless. 'When you wake up,' she told him, 'try to remember we're headin' for Everett, not China.' She stood in the wheelhouse doorway for a minute, and pushed back her old felt hat, drawing deep into her capacious chest the invigorating Puget Sound air, fragrant of pines and the sea. 'These is the days I like,' she went on contentedly, half to herself. 'There's a kind of a twang in the air. My goodness, I'm that hungry I could eat a horse and chase the driver" (Raine, Tugboat Annie, "When Greek Meets Greek").

The Myth of Annie

In the Puget Sound region a myth developed around the title character of the movie. This myth, nurtured over decades, is that Annie was based on Thea Foss (1857-1927), matriarch of the Foss family and founder of the Foss tugboat business (now Foss Maritime). Books, articles, and museum exhibits repeat this information as given.

Raine never met Thea Foss; however, he was acquainted with Wedell Foss (1887-1955), one of Thea's three sons and a partner in the family business. The Foss corporate history credits Wedell Foss with suggesting the plot for Raine's first Tugboat Annie story. Raine himself identifies Wedell Foss as one of his informants in a telling interview with Pacific Motor Boat magazine in 1934:

"With the background for a story developing in my mind, and a tentative character to fit into it, I still had no plot. It was then that I sought ... cooperation from the heads of the tugboat lines in Seattle and later with the Wrigley and Red Stack people down the coast. ... I sought out and talked with Wedell Foss, that canny Norse member of the Foss Company, Inc., and with George Cary, the genial partner of the Puget Sound Tug and Barge Company. From the first gentleman I got a stirring and interesting episode around which to build my plot; from the second I got material to supplement it; and so steamed back to my office full of beer and inspiration, and commenced to bang out Tugboat Annie" ("That's How ...").

So who was Annie? Was she Wedell's mild-mannered mother, who never actually plowed the waters? Was she Kate Sutton, the owner and manager of the Providence Steamboat Company in Rhode Island, about whom Raine had heard from a reporter friend? (When asked if she was the inspiration for Tugboat Annie, Sutton reportedly said "I hope not!") Was she entirely fictional?

The answer appears to be a bit of each, along with a large dose of Marie Dressler.

Continuing his treatise in Pacific Motor Boat, Raine explains the genesis of Annie:

"Then, suddenly, I ran into an obstacle. The good lady in Providence was not, I speedily saw, a sufficiently colorful and definite character around whom to build the story. ...Then I recollected having seen, some time before in the film "Min and Bill" a marvelous piece of characterization of a waterfront character, played by that grand old trouper, Marie Dressler. I had my answer. I would write Miss Dressler into the character. Not, be it noted, with any idea of motion picture sale or production, but simply as someone whom I could visualize clearly as I wrote; who was rough of tongue and soft of heart; who could be adamant in a business deal, yet hold the affection and interest of magazine readers, as Miss Dressler won the affection and admiration of picture fans" ("That's How ...").

Thea Foss is not mentioned in the Pacific Motor Boat interview, although Raine must have been aware of her through his friendship with her son. Neither are there any references to her in the local press coverage of the movie at the time of its filming and premiere in 1933. However, in 1941, Raine apparently did mention the Foss matriarch in an article in the Montreal Gazette touting the second Tugboat Annie film, Tugboat Annie Sails Again:

"[Thea Foss] had died in 1927, but she was still a picturesque tradition on the waterfront [in 1931]. So she came to my mind when, as a lecturer at the University of Washington, I decided to write about a woman tugboat captain. Knocking around to get tugboat atmosphere I met Thea's son, Wedell Foss, one of the heads of the Foss Launch and Tugboat Company. He turned out to be a great biographer. He explained that he not only wanted to honor his mother, but to make the public know about tugboats and Puget Sound. He succeeded in doing so through me" (Montreal Gazette).

The quotation above is characterized as having been "told" to Marjorie Rambeau (1889-1970), the Canadian star of Tugboat Annie Sails Again. It is difficult to judge whether the words really are those of Raine or merely constitute a colorful bit of back story for a piece about the second movie.

Wedell Foss himself is sometimes mentioned as the inspiration for Annie's rival in the first movie and later her son's boss, Red Severn. Others see Severn as a nod to shipping magnate Robert Dollar (1844-1932).

The Myth of Marie

The bigwigs in Hollywood clearly identified Dressler with the part of Annie. Fresh from her 1931 Oscar win for Min and Bill (1930), the 64-year old Dressler's star was riding high in 1932 when casting commenced for the picture. Unfortunately her health was not. Knowing full well that she was battling cancer, MGM's Louis B. Mayer talked her into a punishing three-film contract over a six-month schedule, of which Tugboat Annie was to be the second produced. (In good Hollywood tradition, Dressler's age is uncertain. Dates for her birth range from 1865 to 1871, the date that appears on her grave marker. Most sources plump for 1868.)

Betty Lee's well researched biography of Dressler, based on primary-source material including the diaries of Dressler's close companion, Claire Dubrey, details how Mayer protected his valuable property:

"As he had previously arranged for Dinner at Eight, Mayer ordered that the star's working day be confined to three hours, that stand-ins be used for rehearsals, and that a sofa be available for Dressler's use when the camera's were not turning" (Lee, 247).

Some have assumed that Dressler and her co-stars traveled to Seattle for the filming of Tugboat Annie. This is extremely unlikely. All scenes with Dressler and co-star Wallace Beery were filmed at MGM studios, even those on the water. There was no need for them to travel to Puget Sound, especially in Dressler's condition. The local newspapers, full of coverage of the film crew on Lake Union in April 1933, make no mention of the presence of any of the lead actors. 

One fable connected to Dressler's mythical stay in Seattle can be traced to her own autobiography. The story goes that MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer purchased a small cottage Marie had admired and had it moved for use as her dressing room and residence while on location. Dressler's use of the phrase "on location" has been interpreted by some biographers to mean Seattle. A close reading of Lee's biography of Dressler makes it clear that the location was a lake near the Culver City studios.

Despite such pampering, the Tugboat Annie shoot was not easy on Dressler. In her autobiography, the actress describes filming at MGM:

"The most grueling piece of physical labor I ever put in was during the filming of the storm scenes in 'Tugboat Annie.' One coastwise sailor in the cast told me that in twenty years' experience aboard tramp steamers he had never encountered rougher seas than those manufactured in our studios. They should have been good. Mr. Mayer spent $30,000 on the dock alone! Able-bodied men were slapped down by waves the script described as mild. There was more than one arm in a sling, and at least one leg in a plaster cast before we got through" (My Own Story, 271-72).

Actors Afloat

Marie and Wally may not have acted in Seattle, but there were other performers with strong local connections. MGM hired several local boats in starring roles: the venerable Arthur Foss tugboat (then called the Wallowa) played the part of the Narcissus, Tugboat Annie's own boat; the Sea King, owned by the Gilkey Brothers, portrayed rival towboat Firefly; and a cannery ship, the General W.C. Gorges, a former German steamship, stood in for the fictional Glacier Queen, a passenger liner captained by Annie's son in the movie. The ferryboat Washington of Kirkland, sailing under its own name, is T-boned by the Narcissus in Elliott Bay. No fault of Annie's, the accident occurs when her husband is distracted by a floating cask of bootleg "hooch."

Many other tugs and boats were hired as extras. Employees of Foss Tugboat and Barge were pulled into service by Wedell Foss, a strong booster for the production. 

Mervyn LeRoy (1900-1987) came to town to direct his floating actors. The director of Little Caesar was quoted in the paper as saying "I've directed mobs of 'gangsters,' but you can't talk to a tugboat -- you must do it with signals to their pilots" (Seattle Daily News, April 11, 1933). For one scene, LeRoy resorted to having rubber tires thrown into the boilers of the tugs to create the black smoke he desired. Crowds gathered on the shores of Lake Union to watch the action.

Because many of the maritime scenes were filmed in Culver City, it was necessary to build a replica of the Wallowa for exterior shots. Well-known naval architect Carl Nordstrom was hired to prepare plans of the boat. The Seattle Times reported that Nordstrom was to draw up plans of both the Wallowa and the Sea King, but it is possible that the plans of the Sea King were never used. Portions of the Glacier Queen were constructed on MGM's Stage 22. Photos in the book M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot show the Wallowa replica on a studio lake as late as 1970 alongside other famous film vessels including the Cotton Blossom from Showboat. Movie magic allowed these boats to change identity for subsequent movies.

The replica tug may or may not have been used as an extra in another Wallace Beery film, Barnacle Bill, in 1940. About the same time the erstwhile Narcissus had a narrow escape. According to M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot

"In November of 1940, because of falling high-tension wires, fire raged through the area, destroying much of the [Lot One] set and threatening the old Tugboat Annie tugboat. The heat was so intense, and aggravated by a stiff ocean breeze, that windows in the studio's Cartoon Department across Overland Avenue were shattered. The tugboat survived, however, and would finally be secured on the Lot Three lake" (M-G-M..., 119).

Seattleites also had their chance to be extras in a real Hollywood movie. According to the local papers, somewhere between "a few score" and 10,000 locals turned out as unpaid extras for the big scene where the Glacier Queen steams alongside the Bell Street Pier to brass bands and streamers. Other locals were on hand as background characters in the scenes filmed on Lake Union. Houseboat dweller Maria Fisk was hired to double Marie Dressler in long shots on the boat. Foss employee and sometime bootlegger Donald Louis "Peppy" Peppan stood in for Beery. Seattle Mayor John Dore, enthralled by movie-making, reportedly donned a sailor's cap to appear in some scenes. Of course local pilots and crewmen worked the boats. Captain Clarence Howden piloted the Wallowa/Narcissus.

Arc Lights in Seattle

Tugboat Annie had its world premier at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle on July 28, 1933. The city made the most of the honor. The first showing, at 11:30 in the morning, was heralded with a cacophony of ships' whistles from Seattle's harbor. The big event in the evening involved fireworks, balloons, klieg lights, and many local celebrities including Mayor Dore and Lieutenant Governor Victor Meyers. Governor Clarence D. Martin sent a telegram, as did the film's stars. The Seattle Star covered the celebrations:

"While a cool evening breeze brought the salty breath of Elliott bay up thru downtown canyons, glaring arc lights swept the faces of thousands who came to watch the first showing of the picture which is to send the echo of Puget Sound towboat whistles around the world" (Seattle Star, July 29, 1933).

Tugs in Tacoma

Tacoma held its own premier of the movie three weeks following the Seattle event, rightfully claiming a share of cinema history. "Secoma," after all, was a mash-up of the two port cities.

On the Sunday following the opening, the first Tugboat Annie races were held on Commencement Bay to great fanfare. Myth has Marie Dressler personally presenting the silver loving cup to Captain Arthur Hofstead of the tug Peter Foss, which had nosed out the Captain O.G. Olsen by a scant three feet. Although the Marie Dressler Loving Cup may have been donated by the actress or her people, the Tacoma News Tribune informs us that the prize was presented by Leroy V. Johnson, general manager of the Jensen-von Herberg Company that owned the local theater showing Tugboat Annie.

Tugboat racing became a staple at maritime events on Puget Sound from that day.

That's a Wrap

Marie Dressler died of cancer a year to the day from the Seattle premier of Tugboat Annie. Her character, Captain Annie Brennan, pursued her adventures on Puget Sound in two more movies, a short-lived TV series, and some 75 short stories which trickled out from the pen of Norman Reilly Raine until the author's death in 1971.

Seattle would not see another major motion-picture filming until MGM returned with Elvis Presley in 1962 to shoot It Happened at the World's Fair (released in 1963). By that time Seattle was identified more with the aerospace industry than with the maritime. Tugboat Annie remains a pleasant reminder of rough-and-tumble days in a waterfront town.


Norman Reilly Raine, Tugboat Annie (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1932, 1933, 1934); "Tugboat Annie," Time: The Weekly Newsmagazine, Volume XXII, Number 6, August 7,1933, pp. 23-24; Stephen Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan, M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot (Solana Beach, CA: Santa Monica Press LLC, 2011), 118-119, 245; Norman Reilly Raine, "That's How Tugboat Annie Was Born," Pacific Motor Boat, November 1934, pp. 8-9; Mervyn LeRoy with Dick Kleiner, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1974); Marie Dressler with Mildred Harrington, My Own Story (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1934); Matthew Kennedy, Marie Dressler: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999); Victoria Sturtevant, A Great Big Girl like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009); Betty Lee, Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997); Michael Skalley, Foss: Ninety Years of Towboating (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1981), 24; "The Providence Steamboat Company: Still a Family Business," PowerShips, "the Magazine of Engine-powered Vessels from the Steamship Historical Society of America," Summer 2012, pp. 23-25; The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by Gordon Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1966), 423-424; "The New Tugboat Annie," Montreal Gazette, January 8, 1941, p. 3; Richard E. Hays, "Tugboat Annie World Premiere of Wide Interest, The Seattle Times, July 28, 1933, p. 14; Hi Green, "Thousands View Puget Sound's Greatest Tugboat Race," Tacoma News Tribune, August 21, 1933, p. 1; "Tugboat Annie Comes Home to Acclaim of Thousands," Seattle Star, July 29, 1933; Emmett Watson, "Waterfront to Churn Saturday ... Thanks to Tugboat Annie," The Seattle Times, May 15, 1986, p. B-1; "Salmon Ship to Take Part in Cinema Drama," Seattle Daily News, April 14, 1933, p. 30; "Tug Boat Annie, Ahoy!" The Seattle Times, April 11, 1933, p. 5; "'Tugboat Annie' in Second Week at 5th Avenue," The Seattle Times, August 5, 1933, p. 2; Glen Carter, "Tugboat Annie," The Seattle Times, June 14, 1970, p. 124; "Plan Big Fete as Show Opens," Seattle Star, July 29, 1933; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Blizzard forces Cecil B. DeMille film crew from the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier on October 26, 1924" (by Eric L. Flom), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 26, 2015); Zachary Keeler, "When Hollywood Went to Washington: Hollywood's Golden Age in the Evergreen State," The Great Depression in Washington State, Pacific Northwest Labor Civil Rights Projects, University of Washington website accessed September 2015 (http://depts.washington.edu/depress/); Lisa Peppan Facebook message to Eleanor Boba, January 3, 2021, in possession of Eleanor Boba. Note: This essay was amended slightly on January 7, 2021. 

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