From Mary Dunn to Marie Prevost
Mary Bickford Dunn, later known as Marie Prevost, was born in Sarnia, Ontario in 1896. Her father was a railroad conductor and died when Marie was just an infant. He drove his train into a tunnel that was filled with noxious gas. Marie’s mother remarried to Frank Prevost and the family moved often while Frank looked for work. They eventually settled down in Los Angeles. Marie she got a job in 1915 working as a secretary at a law firm that represented the Keystone Film Company.
The story goes that Marie went to Keystone Studios one day on an errand and was asked to act a bit part in “His Father’s Footsteps”. She caught Mack Sennett’s eye and he offered her a contract making $15/week. Thrilled at making so much money, Marie signed and her name was changed to Marie Prevost.
Marie became one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties and was given small parts in a series of films playing a sexy comedic role. She met and married socialite Sonny Gerke in 1918 although they both kept the marriage a secret. He from his parents and she from the studios in fear it would jeopardize her career. The relationship didn’t last long and they separated shortly thereafter.
Marie was given her first lead in “Yankee Doodle in Berlin” in 1919. This was followed by “Love, Honor and Behave” in 1920. In 1921 she left Keystone Studios citing Mack Sennett’s prioritizing money over creativity as her reason.
Marie was signed to Universal for $1,000/week. Producer Irving Thalberg had his eyes on her as his next project to become a big star. He made sure she had plenty of publicity and staged events like her symbolic burning of a bathing suit- forever leaving her Bathing Beauty days behind her.
Marie Moves to WB
Marie Prevost continued her roles in light comedies until her contact expired. She was signed to Warner Brothers in 1922 at $1,500/week. While at Warner Brothers, she began dating fellow WB actor Kenneth Harlan. They were both cast in Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned”. The studios worked hard to create a big media storm surrounding the film.
It was decided that Marie and Kenneth were to be married on set. They received thousands of letters of congratulations and gifts in anticipation of the event. A snag in the plan occurred when Marie’s first husband happened to mention that they were technically still married. He filed for divorce and newspapers got a hold of the story. It was a huge controversy that left Warner less than pleased. Although it was not her idea to have a public wedding in the first place, she failed to mention that she was already married. That was not a good look for the studio.
Once her divorce was finalized in 1923, Marie and Kenneth were quietly married without any fanfare. “The Beautiful and Damned” still did well (although despised by Fitzgerald) as did her following films “The Marriage Circle” and “Three Women” in 1924.
Despite her successes, Marie and Kenneth’s contracts were not renewed in 1926. It is said that it was the vindictive studio head, Jack Warner, that intentionally sabotaged Marie’s career when he felt she was getting too successful. This was the beginning of Marie’s personal problems that would eventually bleed into her professional life.
A Slippery Slope
The disappointment of not having their Warner Brothers contracts renewed put stress on Marie Prevost and Kenneth Harlan’s marriage. He would stay out late partying and signing her name to checks to pay for his debts and she began drinking at home.
Things got even worse when Marie’s mother was killed in a car accident after traveling cross country with studio owner Al Christie and actress Vera Steadman. While the two got away with some injuries, Marie’s mother was crushed to death by the overturned vehicle.
Marie’s drinking developed into a lifelong habit and she started working as much as she could to both distract her from her depression and her alcoholism. She and Kenneth separated in 1927 because, according to Marie he was not supportive in her time of need and according to him because of her drinking.
In 1928 Howard Hughes cast Marie as the lead in “The Racket”. This would be her last leading role. Marie and Hughes had a brief affair and she spiraled into a deeper depression when it ended. She began gaining weight rapidly due to her excessive drinking and binge eating and she developed a cycle of gaining weight and then starving herself to lose the weight for a new role.
In 1929 she was cast by Cecil B. DeMille in “The Godless Girl” in a dramatic role which garnered her favorable reviews and a paycheck of $2,000/week. She and Harlan finalized their divorce that year after briefly reconciling. She continued to work but her roles steadily became smaller and less lucrative. In 1930 she was signed by MGM, although she was relegated to secondary roles, often playing the friend of the lead. Her weight continued to be an issue and she was ridiculed in the press.
Struggling with her finances after her divorce, Marie sold the house she had shared with Harlan. She moved to a small apartment building in Los Angeles. Although never the lead again, she worked with some of the biggest stars of the time. These included Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra’s 1930 film “Ladies of Leisure” and Joan Crawford in “Paid”, both films receiving good reviews.
In 1931 she continued with “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” with Helen Hayes, “Sporting Blood” with Clark Gable and “Carnival Boat” with Ginger Rogers”. In 1932 Marie was one of the three leads in “Three Wise Girls” with Jean Harlow and Mae Clarke”. However, her roles became fewer and far between and by 1933 she was barely in any films at all. Her drinking and weight was completely taking over her life by now.
The Bad Luck Continues
By 1934 Marie Prevost’s luck had run out. Her roles became so minor she was cast in almost-background work such as “Chubby Saloon Girl” and in 1935 was in two uncredited roles and a comedy short.
She had to rely on friends for assistance. Her crash dieting and heavy drinking had essentially ruined her life at this point. Former friend and silent film actress Phyllis Haver said she hadn’t been in contact since marrying and moving to New York but she sent letters in 1936 and only received very brief replies.
Her final correspondence was a Christmas card from Marie telling her to see her new film “13 Hours by Air”. Phyllis was surprised when she went to see it that Marie had a tiny role as a waitress in one scene. She had decided to visit Marie in the new year.
Unfortunately she wouldn’t have the chance. On January 23rd, 1937 police were called to Marie Prevost’s apartment after neighbors complained of incessant barking coming from within.
Marie was found deceased, face down with scratches from her dog’s attempts to wake her up. She was not half eaten like “Hollywood Babylon” indicated. Coroners determined Marie had been dead since the 21st of acute alcoholism and starvation. Next to her bed were empty bottles of alcohol and an IOU for $110 for Joan Crawford dated the 21st. Marie had only $300 to her name. She was 40 years old.
Feeling tremendous guilt and sadness at Marie’s tragic ending, Joan Crawford paid for her funeral. She and former co stars Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Wallace Beery, Barbara Stanwyck and Mack Sennett were in attendance. Apparently after Joan Crawford’s death, she had 30 IOUs from Marie totaling $3,000 in her possession.