Marie Prevost – Biography
by Ralph Lucas
It is a sad commentary that fame sometimes brings cruelty decades after a death. The death was that of Canadian-born silent movie star Marie Prevost in 1937. The cruelty is how she is remembered. Some 40 years after Prevost died, singer-songwriter Nick Lowe penned a tune titled “Marie Prevost,” which includes the lines: “She was a winner… Who became the doggie’s dinner.” Unfortunately, with quite some exaggeration, that is what happened, but there are some facts that were left out of the song.
Marie Prevost started out in life as Mary Bickford Dunn in Sarnia, Ontario. When still a child she moved with her parents first to Denver, Colorado and then to Los Angeles, California. It was a fateful decision. Had the family stayed in Sarnia, or Denver, chances are Mary Bickford Dunn would have remained unknown. But then we would have been robbed of one of the great beauties from the silent era.
Prevost worked as a stenographer, but prompted by comments about her stunning good looks, knocked on a few doors and was discovered by a studio scout and hired at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. While Sennett is usually credited with creating a frenetic kind of film comedy exemplified by the Keystone Kops, it is usually forgotten that he tried to inject some glamour into the movie biz with his Bathing Beauties. Prevost, now re-named Marie, would start out as one of those beauties. She was just 18 years old and working for one of the most famous companies in Hollywood. But Prevost wasn’t destined to remain part of the crowd. Her looks, often described as “perky” could not be overlooked. By time she was 21, Prevost had played the lead character in a number of Keystone shorts and, like many of the people who worked for Sennett, was hired away by another studio.
At Universal, she almost immediately became a huge star of the silent screen. An embodiment of the so-called Jazz Age in films like 1921’s Moonlight Follies, and The Married Flapper and Kissed, both released in 1922. She moved from light comedies into dramas and other titles worth noting from her stay at Universal include Nobody’s Fool, Don’t Get Personal and The Butterfly.
Her stay at Universal was short and she soon signed a contract to work for Warner Bros., starting in 1922. While she would only stay with that studio for four years, she would make some of her best movies and would ignite the screen with her overt sexuality. At Warner, Prevost began to make the first of what would turn out to be a 10-film liaison with leading man Monte Blue. Three of her best films would bedirected by one of the greatest directors of the era, Germany’s Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch was a master of the Hollywood sex farce and Prevost was one of the stars of his breakthrough film The Marriage Circle in 1924. In the film she plays a very flirtatious Mizzi, who attempts to seduce a happily married doctor, played by Monte Blue, who is away from his wife at the time. The highjinks between them were terrific, and the film didn’t need sound to have people rolling in the aisles, as they used to say.
Prevost worked again with Lubitsch in 1924’s Three Women, and a year later in Kiss Me Again. Also of note were her successes in The Beautiful and the Damed, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and in the role of Marjorie Jones, the female lead in the film Brass. The balance of that decade saw her turn out one good film after another even after she left Warner Bros., going on to sign with the now-unknown Producers Distributing Corporation.
Much like the way she had been teamed with Monty Blue, here she would make six films with Harrison Ford, including Up in Mable’s Room. The image below is a detail of the glass promotional slide for the 1926 film, on the right. But as the decade drew to a close, the first talking pictures were being released. Many actors could not tame their exuberant physical gestures to perform in a more subtle manner now that sound would carry so much of the message. Some, simply didn’t have a good voice now that they could be heard. Neither of these things applied to Prevost. It was a combination of unforeseen events not touched on in Nick Lowe’s song, and largely forgotten in the details of her tragic death.
The first event in Prevost’s downturn began when her mother was killed in car accident. Virtually inconsolable, she began to drink heavily to ease her pain. Also, the Great Depression had started and just when it mattered, Prevost found herself without a contract at a major studio. Added to that was the fact her 1929 film, The Godless Girl, directed by Cecil B.DeMille by the way, was a flop at the box office. And, if all that wasn’t enough, her drinking had caused her to put on weight and now in her early 30s, her career was in serious trouble.
That said, Prevost continued to turn out strong performances in most of her films through 1930. Of particular note was her role as Joan Crawford’s prison pal in Paid, as well as her superb work as a wisecracking crony of Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure. But two years later things had changed. She made only four films in 1932 and the last of these had seen her marquee billing slip from star to a supporting role in Three Wise Girls. In the next three years she would appear in only nine films, many of them made for small studios on small budgets. She was by now extremely heavy and in an attempt to regain her former status she began to diet. In truth, she stopped eating.
And that’s how she died. Prevost starved herself to death. And the part about the dog is true. Trapped in her master’s home without food or water, survival instincts were too strong and so her pet stayed alive by using the only food available. Instead of being remembered as one of the brightest stars in the early days of Hollywood, Marie Prevost is usually remembered, when she is remembered at all, because of her tragic death and gruesome end.
Also see: Marie Prevost’s Filmography
Also See: About Me, an article written by Marie Prevost published in October 1921.
All of the images on this page were scanned from originals in the The Northernstars Collection.This biography is Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without prior written consent. For more information about copyright, click here.