Now that I’m practically Canadian, I couldn’t let an opportunity pass me by to participate in the 2016 O, Canada Blogathon, hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina at Speakeasy. So here’s my look back at the life and career of Marie Prevost, a Canadian gone Hollywood.
It’s a shame that when you say the name of Marie Prevost these days, most people remember her death more than her life, but when you feature heavily in one of Kenneth Anger’s books, you can only expect your life to be blown up and dissected in an unpleasant, completely unfactual way.
But sit back, and we’ll discuss the life and career of Marie before the Hollywood Babylon stories got so out of control.
Now, everyone says she was born in 1898, but just one look at the 1900 census where Marie appears as a 4-year old disproves that right off the bat. That she was born in Sarnia, Ontario is undisputed. Marie’s father worked for the railroad, and he was killed when one of the trains separated in the St. Clair Tunnel between Sarnia and Port Huron, Michigan.
At some point, her mother, Hughina, met Frank Prevost (he was from Michigan, so someone probably crossed the border for provisions, or sightseeing, or whatnot), and they eventually married. I haven’t been able to find the marriage in multiple collections of records in Familysearch or Ancestry yet.
The family struck out for parts west, and somehow ended up in Ouray City, Colorado of all places. Frank ended up as a saloonkeeper (check the 1900 census for this info…), and while there, Hughina and Frank had another daughter, Marjorie (called Peg), Marie’s stepsister.
It’s not definite when the family arrived in California, but it was most certainly by 1916, and possibly earlier. Marie’s first part (although unconfirmed) is listed as His Father’s Footsteps (1915) in imdb.com. One account says that she was to bring some sort of contract for Mack Sennett to sign, and she was duped into appearing in a scene. But however it happened, she ended up becoming one of Sennett’s Bathing Beauties. (Since this is the O, Canada blogathon, it’s worth mentioning here that Mack Sennett was also Canadian, born Michael Sinnott, originally from Danville, Québec.)
The Bathing Beauties were a group of eye candy girls, who appeared in Sennett’s features (other co-stars included Phyllis Haver, Teddy the Dog, Pepper the Cat, and even Gloria Swanson). At a time when a glimpse of a lady’s ankle was considered shocking, and bloomers had to be worn at the shore, their beachwear was utterly scandalous. They combined maillot type suits with boxing boots or slippers with ribbons criss-crossing their ankles, flirty scarves in their hair, and one stocking up, the other rolled coquettishly down. They frolicked on the beach, playing with lobsters, pointing at faraway promontories, and playing in the waves.
Her first lead role was in 1919’s Yankee Doodle in Berlin, where she played a Belgian girl who helps an American aviator behind German lines. the flyer dressed as a woman to fool the Germans and steal a crucial map. Since the war had just ended, it was the perfect time to make fun of the Germans.
Two shots of Marie in her stylin’ beachwear. That’s Teddy the dog at the steering wheel of the boat
After several years with Sennett, Marie understandably wanted to broaden her repertoire. In 1921, she signed with Universal. At the time, Irving Thalberg was there, and to increase interest in her features, he suggested a symbolic burning of her swimsuit to signify moving on from her Bathing Beauty days. Marie lit it up on Coney Island, one of the biggest summertime audiences she could get for such an event.
Her first film for Universal was Moonlight Follies (1921), directed by King Baggot. Other with equally frothy names and themes followed, such as Kissed, A Parisian Scandal, and Her Night of Nights followed. When he contract at Universal ended, she signed with Warner Brothers, which while a plum contract and more attention, would eventually put her at odds with management.
Arguably, her first big break came with 1922’s The Beautiful and Damned. The smash novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald was ripe pickins for a studio to grab, and they wanted a perfect flapper to play the part of Gloria, Anthony Patch’s love interest. Enter Marie, and enter Kenneth Harlan as Anthony.
The co-starring duo fell in love, which was their consolation after Fitzgerald commented, “Its by far the worst movie I’ve ever seen in my life-cheap, vulgar, ill-constructed and shoddy. We were utterly ashamed of it.”
Ashamed or not, the movie still raked in the profits. In the heady, gin-soaked days of uninhibited flappers, prohibition and a booming stock market, how could it not be a success?
Fitzgerald was not amused…but the picture was still a hit
Marie and Harlan continued their relationship, and when the studio caught wind and wanted to capitalize on it, the news soon broke that they were getting married (a publicity ploy thought up by Jack Warner. However, a wrinkle arose when the scandal broke: Marie was already married! In 1918, she’d hooked up with spoiled rich boy Sonny Gerke, and they’d eloped. Marie had never gotten around to filing for divorce, and sensing money to be had, Sonny ran to the papers. Warner was furious with her, despite the fact that he’d been the one to publicize the Prevost/Harlan marriage without checking with Marie first. Warner didn’t forgive and forget easily.
Jack Warner, never one to forget a slight
Marie continued to play flappers and light comedy, and that would be her usual type for future films, a natural offshoot of her Bathing Beauty persona (films with names like The Married Flapper and The Dangerous Little Demon). Alternately, her roles could be wives who worked a little flappery-y magic to liven up their marriages in films like The Marriage Circle or Blonde for a Night. Because of his notable “Lubitsch touch,” it is often said that her best work was with Ernst Lubitsch in works like Three Women, Kiss Me Again, and The Marriage Circle.
An ad for Kiss Me Again in Moving Picture World, 1925. Monte, lay off the eye shadow, man
Marie and Ken finally married in October of 1924, and lived in a beautiful home at 810 N. Camden.
They had their problems like any couple, but in 1926, things began to go wrong for Marie. First, there was the loss of her beloved mother. Hughina Prevost had been in a car with Marie’s friend Vera Steadman (from the Bathing Beauties) and director Al Christie when they were in a car accident in New Mexico. The back axle fell off the car, and Hughina was killed.
Marie was devastated, and the sadness consumed her. For those of us who have experienced such a deep and profound loss, you know the grief can overwhelm everything else in your life. With Harlan gone much of the time shooting, and her good friend Phyllis Haver from the Bathing Beauties now married and living her own life, Marie didn’t have much of a support system.
She drank to help herself cope, but the problem was that drinking (and face it, too much eating too) helped to pack on the pounds– not an ideal situation for a woman who’d made her career with frothy, flapper-y parts. the drinking caused other problems too. She and Harlan began arguing, and looked like they were headed for divorce court. They reconciled for a while, then decided to divorce for good. Her looks (not just her waistline) began to show the effects of the drinking. Life became little more than the bottom of a bottle for poor Marie.
One of her better roles during this time was in 1929’s The Godless Girl with Lina Basquette.
A harder, heavier Marie in a feature article for The Godless Girl (1929)
The talkie revolution was making Hollywood nervous too at the time. Marie had the voice, and she could act, so she was able to fend off the worst by taking whatever parts she could get. Many times, she played the mouthy best friend and had to swallow her pride. Her life was reduced to one long starvation diet to keep the pounds off, but drinking to cope. As time went on, even those parts began drying up and she was reduced to bit parts.
We all know what happened and how things played out for her, so I won’t give it more attention here. Too much attention is paid to her death rather than her life and her work.
For a TRULY enlightening look at Marie Prevost, her parts, and her life, make sure to check out Stacia Jones’ blog at She Blogged By Night.