Upon the death of her father, a railroad engineer, Louise was obliged to cut short her education at the eighth grade and find a job.
Equipped with a railroad pass, Louise traveled to Boston with the promise of a singing engagement. The job turned out to be in a burlesque house. Despite misgivings, she donned tights and performed, often supplementing her income by singing sentimental songs at a local wax museum. While on tour in vaudeville in Chicago, she sought out songwriter Paul Dresser (brother of the novelist Theodore Dreiser and composer of "On the Banks of the Wabash") to ask for a special orchestration.
As she often recounted to interviewers, Paul Dresser, who admired William Kerlin, was delighted to meet the daughter of one of his heroes and immediately called a stage manager to find a part for his "sister. " On the basis of this connection, she adopted the name Dresser, although she never acknowledged rumors that she had been legally adopted by Dresser.
Dresser made her musical comedy debut in Lew Fields's About Town (1906). She may have been added to the cast at the suggestion of Jack Norworth, a popular young leading man and author of "Shine On Harvest Moon. " Despite Fields's introduction, Dresser credits Charles Frohman with giving her the finest stage opportunity of her career when he cast her in his The Girls of Gottenburg (1909). This placed her, according to reviewers, in the "foremost ranks of musical comedy favorites. " Thereafter she was always considered for parts requiring a beautiful blonde or talented comedienne, or when a "snappy new song" was to be introduced.
Dresser appeared in The Girl Behind the Counter (1907), Candy Shop (1909), and Matinee Idol (1910); she toured in The Golden Widow (1909) and A Lovely Liar (1911). She returned to New York in Broadway to Paris (1912) and Potash and Perlmutter (1913), reviewed as the best work of her career. She played Patsy Pygmalion in George M. Cohan's Hello, Broadway! (1914) and appeared in Cordelia Blossom (1917) and in the Jerome Kern musicals Have a Heart (1917) and Rock-a-bye, Baby (1918). Between musical comedies Dresser continued to tour in vaudeville, often billed as the "Girl from the Wabash. "
In the Have a Heart production Dresser tripped over a loose carpet on stage and broke her wrist in February 1917; she later sued the Liberty Theatre owners for $50, 000. Despite some work in vaudeville, her career ebbed at this point; Variety reported that she had been inactive for the year of 1919.
Lured by Pauline Frederick's suggestion that she join the cast of The Glory of Clementina (1922), Dresser moved to Glendale, California. Her film career began with roles as a much-put-upon mother or a patient wife in Prodigal Daughters (1923); The City That Never Sleeps (1924); The Third Degree, White Flannels, and Mr. Wu (1927); The Air Circus (1928); Not Quite Decent (1929); Mammy (1930); and A Girl of the Limberlost (1934).
She was featured in Fox's first "talking drama, " playing the mother in Mother Knows Best (1928). In 1927 the Flint Journal reported that "few other screen actresses of the day can so authentically portray the maternal. " Dresser also created a "nicely costumed" Catherine the Great in The Eagle (1925), with Rudolf Valentino; an accused murderer in Blind Goddess (1926); a leather-lunged Calamity Jane in 1931; a prioress in Cradle Song (1933); and Empress Elizabeth in The Scarlet Empress (1934). After successes as Will Rogers's foil in films such as Lightnin' (1930), State Fair (1933), David Harum (1934), and The Country Chairman (1935), she made her last film appearance in Maid of Salem (1937). In retirement she lived quietly in Glendale until her death in Woodland Hills, California.
Louise was described as "the girl with the pleasing contralto voice" and regarded as one of the most beautiful actresses on Broadway.
Her marriage in 1906 to Norworth ended in divorce in 1908 because of his relationship with actress Trixie Friganza. In May of that year Dresser married Jack Gardner, a singer and later casting director at Fox. They had no children.