The Gone Too Soon Blogathon: Marie Prevost

Edit 07/06/2013: For anyone interested in doing their own project on Marie Prevost, please make sure to read the note at the bottom of the page. Thank you.

This post originally appeared at http://www.shebloggedbynight.com/2012/03/gone-too-soon-blogathon-marie-prevost.html and a copy can be found on the Internet Archive here.

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Almost exactly one year ago, I posted my latest Marie Prevost Project article and then promptly scarpered. In the interim I managed a brief post on Nana (1926), a film Marie is not actually in, but otherwise the Project has lain dormant. Thanks to the Gone Too Soon Blogathon hosted by Comet Over Hollywood, however, Marie is back on SBBN where she belongs, and it’s time for a little history about her life.

It’s 1919 and Marie Prevost has been a Bathing Beauty with Mack Sennett’s studio for four years. Her first appearance was probably in “Those Bitter Sweets,” (1915), where she can be seen, probably, as an extra in the ice cream parlor. For a while I was hesitant to commit to Marie being in “Those Bitter Sweets” because of her sister Peggy’s description of Marie’s role — she claimed Marie’s chair was a prop that busted when she sat down, and that does not happen in the film — but after discovering Peggy had a tendency to exaggerate, I’m back to believing Marie was indeed the extra in “TBS” and there was never any prop chair in the first place.

In those early Sennett years, Marie appeared in plenty of sexy sexy Bathing Beauties promotional photos, their semi-scandalous nature garnering Sennett’s studio just as much attention as the shorts. Often the Beauties who played incidental characters in a short would appear at a theater before a showing, and of course they drew the crowds. Popular Beauties would be featured on magazine covers, too, and Marie had a flapper style that magazine readers flipped for. In the late 1910s, her visibility increased along with her popularity, though her name was not well known. Sennett once told an interviewer that, since the girls were rarely credited by name, they would often get fan mail at the studio for Marie that would be directed to “that dark haired Bathing Beauty who jumped off the pier” or something similar.

Marie circa 1916. It’s often difficult for me to recognize her in photos because I have a mild case of prosopagnosia, and my usual coping method is to focus on landmarks on the face, which helps me confirm who I’m looking at. It’s because of the landmark technique that I often accidentally stumble across celebrities who unofficially had nose jobs early in their careers. Marie is one such celeb, having had work done, I speculate sometime around 1917.

 

After appearing in nine shorts in just under three years, Marie got her first starring role in a Sennett short, “His Hidden Purpose.” It’s a wacky comedy about mistaken identity, really just an excuse to put everyone in drag and have them run around in super fast motion. From this short on, Marie appeared as the lead female in about half of the Sennett shorts she was in and as a background Beauty in the other half, until her lead female role in her first feature film, Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919), coming up next at an SBBN near you. To get a feel for where Marie was in 1919, you can read one of the Project posts from last year about Marie appearing in the Los Angeles Times and other news sources.

The Beauties are notoriously difficult to identify, and even Sennett Studios couldn’t always get it right. This is Mary Thurman, not Marie.

 

Part of the reason this project stalled was due to the immense amount of research I did on Marie, at least as much as one can do while sitting in an office in the middle of Kansas. I felt now would be a good time to go into a brief history of Marie’s life that is not, for once, based on the faulty info that is online. I don’t mean to be rude with that; simply put, very little exists about Marie Prevost, and much of it is in error or an outright lie. Online and published information on Marie is sketchy at best.

Marie was born Marie (Vacford?) Dunn on November 8, 1896 in Sarnia, Ontario. This is two years earlier than the given date of 1898, but merely means Marie shaved two years off her age. She was the only daughter of Hughina McDonald Dunn, daughter of recent Scottish immigrants, and Arthur Dunn, a railway worker. The couple had married in September of 1895.

While Marie’s middle name is usually given as Bickford, the handwriting in the ledger that records her birth does not match this at all. I believe that faulty genealogical research along with this handwriting issue has caused this confusion. Marie’s mother Hughina McDonald was born June, 1879 in Ontario. Around the same time, also in Ontario, a Mary Hughina Bickford was born. Hughina and Mary Hughina have been confused in genealogical records, but finding Hughina’s birth record confirmed her parents were Archibald and Mary, while Mary Hughina’s parents were Charles and Adaline. This means Mary Hughina Bickford is likely no relation to our Marie Prevost, thus Marie’s middle name is probably not Bickford. Confirming (or possibly confusing) the issue is the fact that nothing in Marie’s lifetime, at least nothing I have found, lists her birth name as Mary/Marie Bickford Dunn.

Update 5/31/2013: I have recently found a magazine from 1928 which does indeed list Marie’s middle name as Bickford! The mystery deepens.


Copy of the 1896 birth record for Sarnia, Ontario.

 

Honestly, I don’t know what Marie’s middle name is. The person who filled out the ledger made very clear B’s throughout and, as far as I can tell, spelled every other name on the page correctly. Whatever her middle name is, it does not start with a B. That’s an R, V, or possibly W or T. I can’t decipher it, personally. My best guess is Vacford, but I would love to hear your guesses. (And, as my update on 5/31/2013 above shows, it’s possible it is just an example of poor handwriting, though I personally cannot get over how clear this person wrote “B” everywhere else on the ledger, and how perfectly everything else was spelled. It seems unlikely they accidentally wrote a “V” through misspelling or poor handwriting.)

The only halfway lengthy resource on Marie Prevost sadly has many errors in it, apparently due to lies Peggy related in a 1950s interview. (Note that as of now, I cannot find a copy of this interview and thus have not seen the primary source of this info, I can only report what was quoted in the book Stardust and Shadows.) Basically, the entire story of Marie’s life and family as told by Peggy Prevost is almost completely untrue.

The truth is that Hughina left Ontario after Arthur died in a freak accident while working with the Grand Trunk Railroad in 1897, just after Marie’s first birthday. By 1899, according to census records, the young widow Hughina Dunn had moved to Colorado and married Frank Prevost, and in 1900, Hughina and Frank had a daughter Marjorie (Peggy). In that 1900 census, Marie listed as Frank’s stepdaughter. Marie’s and Peggy’s fathers are not the same; Marie and Peggy were half sisters, not full sisters. This was later verified when the Los Angeles Times printed a brief article about Marie’s will. For some reason, Peggy as late as the 1950s was still claiming her father was Marie’s father Arthur. Peggy was apparently the kind of person who would claim her father was a man who died in an accident reported in the national news in 1897 while also saying she was born in 1904.

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When all these photos and this information winds up all over the internet, I hope someone remembers that I’m the one who posted it first.

 

This is one of only two photos of Marie from her childhood that I have ever found, and of course I bought them both when given the opportunity. These are both photographs taken of the original pictures, copies made for a news article published January 5, 1929, but sadly there is no indication as to where it was published. (The seller was a jerk when I asked where he got the photos. How they ended up in Kansas City is beyond me.) The blurbs on the back state she was four years old at the time of this photo. The other picture is a baby photo from when she was 10 months, just before her father died. It has been painted and edited so heavily that I won’t bother to post it because it looks hideous, but you can click here if you’re curious.


Marie Prevost in a 1915 Mack Sennett promotional photo.

 

The Prevost family, including Frank, moved from Denver to Los Angeles in the early 1900s. Denver showed up in contemporaneous bios of Marie, but always as some place she was sent as a girl to attend the finest schools. After moving to Los Angeles, Hughina and Frank divorced at some point before 1915. The family kept Frank’s last name but when Marie became popular in film, they changed the story of their lives, claiming that Mrs. Prevost had been married to an Eric Prevost who died unexpectedly two weeks after Marie was discovered by Mack Sennett, necessitating her entry into the movie biz to support the family. But the real husband, Frank, was alive during this whole thing, living in boarding houses as late as 1930. Both he and Hughina are listed as divorced in official census records from 1920 on, not widowed.

For whatever reason, Frank never said a peep about the deception. Someone, however, did spill the beans on Marie having been secretly married to a man named Sonny Gerke in either 1918 or 1919, depending on which source you read. Gerke was reportedly an automobile dealer per Time and is often described as a socialite, a rich kid who had been forbidden by his family to associate with a low-class actress like Marie, and who kept his marriage secret. After a few months he ran off and Marie never got a divorce, which became a very silly situation when she announced her engagement in 1924 to actor Kenneth Harlan.

Marie and Chester Conklin in a 1918 film, possibly “His Smothered Love.”

 

Lies were just part of her career, apparently. Marie certainly lied about having a privileged upbringing in the finest schools and career on Broadway, often thanks to Mack Sennett’s propensity to exaggerate the pasts of his Bathing Beauties. Further, Marie likely felt it necessary, because of social constraints of the day, to make her mother out as a widow rather than divorcee, and claim Peggy as a full sister with the same father as her own. And we all know why Marie and Peggy lied about their ages. Yet ultimately, the mistakes and lies confuse almost everything about Marie’s life.

It was in the midst of untangling these lies that I temporarily stopped my research in 2011, because frankly, it’s exhausting. Primary research is extremely difficult and sometimes expensive, worse when everything is a lie, and even when people (including myself) mean well, mistakes are legion. Sources are lost over time, websites go under, books go out of print. And I can’t tell you how many times I would ask a question of someone whose specific job was to help people like me doing research, only to have them email me the URL of a webpage that said Marie Prevost committed suicide in 1983 after starring in Fried Green Tomatoes, then pat themselves on the back for a job well done. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

There is so much about Marie’s life that should be known, simply because of her popularity in the 1920s and the cultural impact she had beyond her untimely death. She was a human being — all celebrities are, but we forget that. We all forget that, even me, even when I’m railing against society’s unfair demands on celebs. Pressure from starstruck fans, society-conscious Hollywood stars, a tabloid press eager to jump on even minor transgressions, and a need to remain publicity-worthy to keep your career intact can easily lead to a star living a life that never truly existed. The cost of fame is, far too often, a loss of self for the sake of marketable celebrity product. Marie paid that price heavily, losing her own past for the sake of a career that never fully formed, finally crashing spectacularly in 1927 after personal tragedy, a changing culture, private demons, and talking films arrived in her life in one fell swoop. By the time the Great Depression hit less than two years later, it was all over for Marie. She didn’t stand a chance.

Many silent film stars did not make it into talkies, and Marie, having been the epitome of a carefree Bathing Beauty in the late 1910s and fun-loving flapper in the 1920s, found herself deemed old-fashioned and silly in a world desperate for young, hard-edged, fast-talking dames. By all rights she should have had a career as a character actress; she had the voice, the talent, and the looks to play supporting parts, but her roles frequently were humiliating on an almost personal level. Studios knew a former celebrated beauty playing a fat, stupid typist in hideous clothes attracted audiences for the trainwreck factor. For a woman sinking deeper into alcoholism, with no personal support system and no experience in any career other than acting, Marie was trapped in a life that must have felt cruel, even surreal.

Marie Prevost may not have appeared in any must-see classics. She may not have been a powerhouse actress or an ageless, sublime beauty. But she deserves a hell of a lot better than she ever got in life, and I hope to give her the reputation she deserves rather than the one that has been forced upon her.

If you’re doing research on Marie, please note the following:
1) You can use my blog posts for sources, but they must be credited in footnotes or bibliography (as should any book, blog, magazine, or other source). You cannot just cut and paste sections of my blog into your own work. Please know that I will not just ignore copyright infringement, should it occur.
2) There may be errors in my blog posts. You’re responsible for doing your own research and verifying anything you read.
3) I will not help you with your Marie Prevost research. Please don’t ask.
4) I own some memorabilia, photos, archival docs, etc., but I do not lend them out for any reason. Please don’t ask.
5) Despite any claim you may have heard to the contrary, I have not assisted nor collaborated with anyone in their book or article on Marie Prevost.

For more details, read here.

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16 Comments

  1. Great post! Love Marie Prevost! Enjoyed your article very, very much!

  2. Brilliantly presented. Half a score of forgotten silent stars should be as lucky to receive such sympathetic attention in 2012.

  3. When I saw Marie Prevost would be covered I had a feeling I knew where it would be done!Isn't amazing how much inaccurate info is out there on some of these early stars? This case seems especially complicated since untruths were started by what should have been a reputable source (Peggy) … which makes your work all the more spectacular!Hah, the last time I got in a batch of those Sennett Postcards I made the mistake of trusting the names on the cards–oh, it took about 3 collectors to correct me leaving me in the end unwilling to deal with those again anytime soon!And PS, never has a photo caption so perfectly captured how I often feel: "When all these photos and this information winds up all over the internet, I hope someone remembers that I'm the one who posted it first."

  4. A fascinating and sympathetic portrayal of Marie Prevost, one of my favorite silent film actresses. I have only seen her in “The Marriage Circle”, “The Godless Girl” and “Three Smart Women”, but she was much like Mabel Normand and Lina Basquette, heartbreaking and irresistible. I have encountered the same problem with photos incorrectly identifying silent era actresses: Marie identified as Gloria Swanson, Sue Carol identified as Clara Bow, etc. I have also encountered the maddening insistence on perpetuating the false information regarding Marie’s life and death. I was watching a travel-related program set in Hollywood, and the host was miffed to learn that Marie had not died under the circumstances that have now become part of that city’s mythology. I’m a huge fan of Gloria Swanson, in part, because she remembers Marie with such fondness in “Sunset Boulevard,” personal memories that required no acting.

  5. I think it's Vicford.

  6. I love your post! The pictures especially are amazing. I'm not nearly as well-versed in silent movie stars like I should be but Marie Provost is gorgeous, actually I think it was hard to look bad in the silent era (they were all beauties). Amazing work! I did the Gone Too Soon blogathon too on Maggie McNamara if you want to check it out!

  7. Thanks everyone!Cliff, you of all people DESERVE to feel that sentiment. And I'm guilty of using your pictures, sometimes without knowing it. Years ago I would collect pictures on my work computer, but when I transferred them to my home computer I lost all the file names which I used to record the sources of the photo — lord knows how many of yours I've used without crediting. Just know I appreciate it and, if you ever see something that's yours, tell me and I'll happily credit. I don't know why Peggy was not a reliable source, but I'm in the middle of researching one particular area of Marie's life and I think it will shed some light on Peggy's behavior. We shall see.Oh Whistlinggypsy, I know one of the examples you're referring to: The picture that was on the Silent Movie calendar that identified Marie as Gloria Swanson! Van, you might be right. I wish I could find out what the original source for "Bickford" was. Was it studio records, a census somewhere, a genealogy book? Did an interviewer just hear her incorrectly or misspell it? Ugh, all the stuff we will NEVER know…

  8. Kristen, I can't wait to read your article! All the blogs look great. I'm SOOOO behind on everything thanks to a sinus infection from hell and a couple of deadlines, but I hope to catch up on blogs in 2-3 days.

  9. Thanks for this superb post that shows the value of your primary research and determination! It really makes me want to find out more about the under-valued Marie P. I do have The Marriage Circle though and plan to cure my Prevost-ignorance as soon as.And that was Marie being driven on the motor boat by the dog and not Gloria! An iconic and bonkers shot but done with style!

  10. Stacia, First off! Thanks for sharing your treasured photos of Marie. What a gorgeous little girl she was who grew into a stunning young lady. Secondly, You've done so much research that ended in a beautiful and complete bio on her. You deserve a standing ovation for this write up.It's sad but all too common for actresses to fall on hard times then turn to the bottle. She went through so much, such unfair things that stalled then ruined her promising career. I'm quote fond of our silent actresses so this bio was a real treat!Thanks for investing so much time into Marie's tribute.

  11. I love it that you are fascinated with this actress I have never heard of. I am beginning to catch your fascination, which is what great journalism is all about.

  12. Marie on a boat driven by a dog was the epitome of "bonkers." What's hilarious is how strongly critics hated Teddy the Wonder Dog. In Sennett shorts without any animals, critics would often say "You'll like this one because Teddy the Wonder Dog isn't in it."Thank you Page, I appreciate your kind words. As I do yours, Mykal. It's easy to overlook Marie because much of her stuff is simply not interesting, and by "stuff" I mean movies, interviews, magazine shoots, the whole bit. There was something decidedly uninspired about most of the publicity around her, but when something interesting happened, it was VERY interesting.

  13. I just want to say what a marvelous job you've done on all the history and background. I came across your blog a few months back while searching for a biography on Marie. It really is amazing what little info there is on her. Someone needs to do a documentary on her. She's the perfect subject for one.One thing I would be interested in knowing is if you ever come across any addresses related to her. I've seen the 810 North Camden Drive home and The Aftonian. I did come across another home said to be hers and Harlan's. It looks different then the Camden Drive one. Note sure how many homes they had together.Did you come across the name of the the hospital she was born at? Or was she even born in a hospital? I'm in the Detroit area and Sarnia is but a short drive. I would assume her parents home is long gone. I'll have a plan a day trip there and see the sights. No idea how historic Sarnia is.Keep up the good work, I'm just devouring it.

  14. Hi Heron! I am going to assume Marie was born at home, given that it was 1896. There was a doctor at least consulted if not there for the birth itself, because he's named in that registration page I posted.I don't know the address of the Sarnia home, it wasn't listed in any of the official records which I can get to online. What's the address of the other house besides the Camden one? Do you have it? I'd love to know.The Camden home of Marie and Harlan is the one that got the most publicity; there are pictures of her there after the divorce, so she must have gotten it in the settlement.Marie lived with her mother and Peggy for quite some time, but their addresses aren't listed in the census. Motion picture registries are a good place to look, and her address in 1921 was 451 South Hampshire, LA. It's probably supposed to be New Hampshire, and there are apt buildings there which look Spanish Colonial Revival and may have been where she lived. The building next to that block of flats is a gorgeous large single-family home of the type people with money had back in the 1920s, though, so it's possible the original home she was in was torn down and replaced.Also, I've heard but haven't confirmed she lived in the gorgeous La Leyenda apartments at 1737 Whitley Avehttp://www.flickr.com/photos/vokoban/2668496806/That's it for the addresses I know of.

  15. Thanks for the info. Unfortunately I don't know the address of the other house, but here is a link to a picture of it. http://www.silentsaregolden.com/homes/homeprevostharlan.htmlClearly different then the Camden house. I actually like this one better. Over summer I think I'm going to drive up to Sarnia and check it out. Who knows,hopefully there will still be a few homes from that period.

  16. Thanks Heron! I had forgotten about that house, it's lovely.Author Charles Foster says in his book Stardust and Shadows that the Sarnia newspaper archives are in the library, and though it would take forever, you might be able to find an address for the Dunn family listed there. Or even call the library before you go, because I'll bet there is someone in Sarnia who is the go-to expert on Marie and the library will know who it is.Keep us posted on what you see! Sounds like a fun trip!

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