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 https://www.shebloggedbynight.com/2012/03/gone-too-soon-blogathon-marie-prevost.html and a copy can be found on the Internet Archive here.
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.
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.