Honoring Marie Prevost

Actress Marie Prevost from her early screen career as a Mack Sennett bathing beauty.

I can remember the first time I ever heard of Marie Prevost. It was while I was reading Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon back in 1975. For a book loaded with salacious and unsubstantiated stories about many famous stars, the tiny entry on this actress was particularly unkind and disturbing. There was a coroner photograph of Prevost (supposedly) lying on her stomach in bed with what looked like abrasions on her skin with the photo caption “Doggie’s Dinner.”

Anger compares her to another actor – John Gilbert – who had “voice” trouble during the dawn of the talkies, writing “Her romantic looks didn’t fit her Bronx honk, and blonde Marie tried to drown her heartbreak in bourbon. Jack [John Gilbert] and Marie staged a drink-to-death race which Jack “won” in 1936. Marie dragged on until 1937 when her half-eaten corpse was discovered in her seedy apartment on Cahuenga Boulevard. Her dachshund had survived by making mincemeat of his mistress.”

Silent era actress Marie Prevost in a photo circa 1927.

As you can see, Anger’s catty approach to his subject tends toward exaggeration and it is easy to think some readers might actually have believed that Gilbert and Prevost had a “drink-to-death race” or that the actress’s body was “half-eaten.”

Although almost any biographical film reference such as Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia have listed malnutrition (due to extreme alcoholism) as the cause of Prevost’s death, the “Doggie’s Dinner” reference took on an urban myth life of its own, inspiring rock ‘n’ roller Nick Lowe to pen the song “Marie Provost” (the last name is incorrectly spelled – intentional?). The song is included on his 1978 album, “Pure Pop for Now People.” It’s an undeniably catchy tune but it’s also a flippant kiss-off to an actress who didn’t deserve to be remembered as a sick joke. Here is a sample of the lyrics:

Mary Provost did not look her best
The day the cops bust into her lonely nest
In the cheap hotel up
On Hollywood West July 29
She’d been lyin’ there
For two or three weeks
The neighbors said
They never heard a squeak
For hungry eyes that could not speak
Said even little doggie’s have got to eat

She was winner
The became the doggie’s dinner
She never meant that much to me
(But now I see) Oh poor Mary

The worst part about all of this is that, thanks to Anger’s book, younger movie lovers unfamiliar with Prevost’s career and films are left with this one sordid little tidbit and nothing else. What an epitaph for an actress who was one of the most popular stars of the early silent era, starting out as one of Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties in 1915. Her success helped build studios like Paramount and Universal, where she was groomed as a rising star by Irving Thalberg before he moved to MGM.

Prevost’s first breakout role and one that led to bigger parts is generally considered Love, Honor and Behave (1920), a Mack Sennett comedy in which she played a naïve newlywed. She would soon come to epitomize the jazz age party girl in box office hits like Moonlight Follies, The Dangerous Little Demon and The Married Flapper (all released in 1922). It wasn’t long before she was working with some of the best directors in Hollywood such as Sidney Franklin (1922’s The Beautiful and Damned based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel), Ernst Lubitsch (a collaboration of three films beginning with 1924’s The Marriage Circle), John M. Stahl (The Wanters, 1923), Alan Crosland (Bobbed Hair, 1925) and James Cruze (On to Rio, 1928).

Marie Prevost stars in THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE (1924), the first of three movies she made with director Ernst Lubitsch.

My own curiosity about how someone could climb so high and fall so low encouraged me to seek out some of Prevost’s films. Unfortunately, not many of her silent films made during her peak years (1921-1928), are available but occasionally TCM runs The Racket (1928), a crime melodrama directed by Lewis Milestone which features Prevost as a gold-digging nightclub singer. She’s perfect in that film as a calculating, streetwise character (It was remade in 1951 by director John Cromwell) but Prevost is even better at comedies such as Up in Mabel’s Room (1926) and Getting Gertie’s Garter (1927). And as you can see from some of her early film portraits and publicity photos she was a total knockout – her playful naughtiness accented by her come-hither eyes and a sensuous mouth.

Shortly after her appearance in The Godless Girl (1929), Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent film which was a box office flop, Prevost’s career began to falter at the dawn of the sound era but rumors about her voice being unacceptable or grating to audiences are completely unfounded. Anger refers to her “Bronx honk” but Prevost was from Canada and her accent was closer to a New Englander.

Marie Prevost as a blonde (left) co-stars with Lina Basquette in THE GODLESS GIRL (1928), directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

Take a look at her in Paid, a 1930 Joan Crawford melodrama in which she received third billing and it is obvious her voice was not a problem. She plays Joan’s prison pal who introduces her to a gang of crooks after they are both paroled. She’s also the one bright spot in the movie and welcome comic relief from Joan’s overwrought emoting as the revenge-driven heroine, constantly plagued by her guilty conscience. Marie, on the other hand, is a fun-loving, carefree den mother. In one scene we are introduced to her from the floor up as the camera travels up her legs under the piano, dancing in time to the music she is playing. Smoking like a chimney while taking a swig of liquor and banging away on the keys at the same time, she is the quinessential devil-may-care gangster moll.

Marie Prevost (left) and Joan Crawford star in the Pre-Code melodrama PAID (1930).

More telling is her appearance in Ladies of Leisure (1930) as the self-deprecating pal of call girl Barbara Stanwyck. Although the film, directed by Frank Capra, is a standard soap opera, Prevost brings a touch of high comedy to her role as the constantly dieting, weight-conscious Dot. Whether playing with a reducing vibrator or racing up twenty flights of stairs, she practically steals the film in her few scenes. Ironically, Prevost was having real issues with her weight in real-life due to studio pressure to diet and remain svelte. This was what ultimately led to her heavy drinking and depression which increased after the death of her mother. By today’s standards, Prevost is not overweight and isn’t even pleasingly plump. Yet the struggle with weight became her undoing as she slipped into minor character roles.

Barbara Stanwyck and Marie Prevost in the 1930 Pre-Code drama LADIES OF LEISURE, directed by Frank Capra.

Nevertheless, Prevost continued to shine in these smaller parts. And she’s completely delightful in one of her last films, Hands Across the Table (1935), as Carole Lombard’s sweet but scatterbrained coworker at a manicurist saloon. Although most of the movie is devoted to Lombard’s screwball romance with both wealthy Fred MacMurray and wheelchair-bound tycoon Ralph Bellamy (Could he win the heroine?), the best parts are when Lombard, shop manager Ruth Donnelly and Prevost get together to sling wisecracks about their clients or potential male suitors.

Ruth Donnelly (left), Marie Prevost (center) and Carole Lombard gossip about their manicure costumes in HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE (1935).

Prevost’s character is depicted as a numerology nut but so hopeless in calculating figures that she has to count on her fingers, causing Donnelly to sarcastically comment, “What’s a matter? Can’t find your thumb?” Prevost also gets one short but hilarious scene with MacMurray, flashing him a look of intense hatred when she’s replaced by Lombard as his manicurist. She also matches Lombard scene for scene in comic timing, calling out to her, “Don’t forget to be refined” as Lombard departs on a date.

It’s quite strange watching this and realizing that Prevost would be dead in less than two years, forgotten and alone in her final days. I prefer to remember her as she was in her films. A gifted character actress in her “talkies” and a bewitching beauty in her silent pictures, rivaling Clara Bow in sexiness.

Hollywood actress Marie Prevost, 1896-1937.

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