Fallen Star: The Story of Marie Prevost

by Mrs. Parker 

Copyright 2004 by Michele Gouveia.  All Rights Reserved.

Marie Prevost. Michele Gouveia Collection.

She was a winner

That became a doggie's dinner.

She never meant that much to me.

Oh, poor Marie.

—Nick Lowe in "Marie Provost"

 Poor Marie Prevost. Reduced to a misspelled title of a 80s pop song. Remembered primarily for her gruesome death, most histories of silent film ignore her. But for a time in the 1920s, Prevost was a big box-office draw, a good comedienne whose looks epitomized jazz-age babies and eventually led to her demise.

One of the many incorrect stories about Prevost is that she was a Brooklyn-bred girl with a nasal whine. She was actually born Mary Bickford Dunn in Ontario, Canada, on November 8, 1898, and educated in a Catholic convent school. When her father died, Prevost moved to Los Angeles with her mother and sister, where she found work as a stenographer. Prevost was a looker, and she soon found herself knocking at Mack Sennett's door. Sennett dubbed her "the exotic French girl," and rechristened her "Marie Prevost." Prevost joined his gang of infamous Sennett Bathing Beauties. They were, in effect, a bunch of pretty young things who braved the California sun and surf to strike various provocative poses. Prevost was in good company. Other Sennett Beauties included Gloria Swanson, Mabel Normand, and Carole Lombard.

Prevost had the perfect look for the time. With a mane of dark curls cropped into a pleasing bob, large eyes, pouting bee-stung lips, and wide oval face, the petite star was the picture of an ideal flapper, and the devil-may-care attitude that she reflected on screen reflected the flapper philosophy.

Marie Prevost appeared on the cover of the first issue of The Flapper magazine, May 1922. Inside, readers were asked: "How do you like our girl on the cover? Some fascinating little minx, Marie Prevost, isn't she? And who but she could assume such a fascinating pose?...What does the picture represent to you? For the best description in less than fifty words, of the idea suggested by the scene, a $5 prize will be awarded. The 24 next best will each receive an autographed photgraph from Marie Prevost herself."

But after playing numerous ingénues for Sennett, she did what so many other Sennett stars did, "start with Sennett, get rich somewhere else."[1]  She left in 1921 to sign with Universal Studios. There, she portrayed flappers in a string of films, including Moonlight Follies (1921) and The Married Flapper (1922) before leaving for Warner Brothers.

With her move, Prevost finally began receiving juicy roles, starting with the lead in The Beautiful and the Damned (1923). Although F. Scott Fitzgerald thought the film adaptation of his novel was “by far the worst movie I've ever seen in my life—cheap, vulgar, ill-constructed and shoddy,"[2]  critics and audiences seemed to enjoy it. Perhaps it was due to the chemistry between Prevost and her leading man, Kenneth Harlan. A popular star who played the romantic lead in countless films throughout the 1920s, he and Prevost hit it off and were married the following year.

Marie Prevost. Michele Gouveia Collection.

Prevost's star was rising fast. She was showing the studio heads that she was more than just a pretty face and was given roles that allowed her to display her smart, comic timing. Often playing roles just short of risqué, her characters always turned out to be good girls by the end of the pictures. One of the best of these was Ernst Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle (1924). In it, Prevost plays Mizzi, a bored Austrian housewife married to a professor played by Adolph Menjou. The film opens with Menjou's morning routine being delayed by an obviously piqued wife. Friction is afoot in this marriage and since it's a Lubitsch film, viewers know that mischief is just around the corner. After bumping into an old friend (Florence Vidor), Mizzi begins a flirtation with Vidor's husband, played by Monte Blue. The film is filled with the "Lubitsch touch," from the costumes to the timing, and Prevost is marvelous in it. When she gets into an argument with Menjou it doesn't matter that you are watching a silent film—you know exactly what she's telling him. Again in this film, as in many of her others, she plays the part of the flapper perfectly, a fitting contrast to Vidor's prim and proper wife. This was just one of three films Prevost would film with Lubitsch and one of ten with co-star Monte Blue—the two were quite a popular pair in the mid-twenties.

Lubitsch was not the only director to note Prevost's skill. Prevost worked with some of the greatest directors of her age, including Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Mervyn LeRoy, and Malcolm St. Clair.

Prevost was on top but as with many jazz babies, the bubble was about to burst. In 1926, while traveling in Florida with screenwriter Al Christie, Prevost's mother was killed in a car accident. Prevost, who had left Warner to sign with Producers Distributing Corporation by this time, was busy starring opposite the original Harrison Ford (they would make six films together). Her mother's death hit her hard. Prevost's marriage was also starting to crack (she and Harlan would divorce the following year with Prevost siting "Harlan furnished her no amusement; stayed out late at night; and was unreasonably jealous"[3] ), and so she did what many do when combating depression: she took to the bottle.

Marie Prevost. Michele Gouveia Collection.

Prevost continued working but the alcohol started to affect her already curvy frame, and she began putting on weight. By 1929, sound was all the rage and studios were able to play hardball with their stars. Prevost, whose voice recorded fine (contrary to rumors), was without a contract, had lost her flapper figure, and her film, The Godless Girl (1929), directed by DeMille, was a flop. She found herself sliding down the Hollywood ladder.

In the 1930s she was able to find work, often portraying the wisecracking best friend, and even acted alongside some of the biggest stars of the decade—Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford. But her weight problems made the good roles far and few between. The girl who had once been a major player was reduced to bit roles with few lines. 

Prevost tried losing weight with a modicum of success. In a 1936 article called "Sometimes They Do Come Back" in the New York Times, Prevost warrants a pitiful appearance:

"In the studio restaurant at Warners there is an "Old-Timers Tables" that is reserved, in tacit arrangement, for the group of former stars who like to talk over together their halcyon days. A few weeks ago, Marie Prevost sat down at the table. The siren of Mack Sennett days had been successful with a reducing course and had got herself a job as a contract player. She was put to work almost immediately, in a small part in The Bengal Tiger....Miss Prevost is unbilled in The Bengal Tiger: She has only three lines to say, and those short ones. But she is back at work, skipping arc-light cables and dodging camera dollies on the set once more. ...A few more parts of a few lines each and the studio may find bigger and better things for her to do."[4]

But it was wishful thinking. Prevost's "reducing course" consisted of drinking alcohol and not eating. A star just a decade earlier was now, in her mid-thirties, an "old-timer" and a has-been who was killing herself.

On January 23, 1937, police were called to a rundown apartment building in Los Angeles after neighbors complained of a dog barking. Inside, they found Prevost dead on her bed. The cause was a combination of alcoholism and malnutrition—she had basically starved herself to death.

In the end, it was Prevost's pet dachshund who helped place his mistress in the halls of Hollywood notoriety. The police report stated that the dog "had chewed up her arms and legs in a futile attempt to awaken her." Hence the Nick Lowe song, and Prevost's unfortunate obituary.

When she died, Prevost left $300 to a half sister and a friend[5]. Without the funds to pay for a proper funeral, Prevost was buried in a pauper's grave, whose exact location is unknown. All that remains is a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame to remind visitors of the vivacious star who once graced the silver screen. Poor Marie.

To get the dope on Marie Prevost, click here.

[1] Louvish, Simon. Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett. New York: Faber & Faber, 2004, page 165.

[2] Mellow, James R. Invented Lives: F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984, page 169.

[3] "Marie Prevost Sues Harlan For Divorce," New York Times,  16 October 1927.

[4] "Sometimes They Do Come Back," New York Times, 26 July 1936.

[5] "Marie Prevost Left Only $300," New York Times, 20 February 1937.