OUR HOLLYWOOD HISTORY (8/10)
There is an oft repeated tale that those who run afoul of the Rich and Powerful in Hollywood are "Blacklisted" or become "Gossip Fodder" or are otherwise driven from the community. The sad truth is that these stories are not always fiction and the practice began with a stunningly talented actress named Marie Prevost.
She was born Mary Bickford Dunn in Sarnia, Ontario on November 8, 1898. At the age of six, her father, a train conductor, was killed in a railroad accident and her mother took she and her sister to live with relatives in Alameda, CA. Not long after, mom married an LA banker and Mary changed her name to Marie to match his French surname of Prevost.
A bubbly girl with a wise-cracking sense of humor, Marie graduated from high school at the age of 14 and went to work as a legal secretary. She had no show biz ambitions whatsoever. But that would all change after a chance encounter in 1917.
The firm for which she worked represented Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios and one day Marie was asked to deliver Sennett a contract that needed signing. As she waited outside Sennett's office building, a man ran up to in a panic. "Quick, paste on a smile and run over to that table and sit down!"
Unaware the man was a director who'd mistaken her for an extra, Marie did what she was told. The chair collapsed and Marie did a perfect pratfall, then burst out laughing. Without a word of thanks, the director grabbed his cameraman and cast and hurried off to the next set up.
Marie took the incident in stride, collected Sennett's contract and went back to her office.
Next morning, her boss was waiting when she arrived. He was solemn and concerned, telling her Sennett had demanded she be sent back to Keystone immediately. Marie was sure she'd done something that would get her fired. But instead, Sennett was waiting with a contract to make one of his "Bathing Beauties". He'd seen her scene and wasn't taking "No" for an answer. Since he was offering almost double what she was earning as a legal secretary, Marie didn't hesitate.
As a Sennett "Bathing Beauty" Marie was expected to do little more than stand around in a swimsuit and look pretty. But now and then Sennett had the girls play small parts in his comedies.
One day, while shooting on the Venice Pier, Sennett learned Marie could actually swim and worked up a gag where he'd knock her into the water. That didn't seem all that funny to Marie, so when the camera rolled, she knocked Sennett into the water instead. Surfacing to find his cast and crew helpless with laughter, Sennett doubled her salary on the spot and made her one of his Studio's comic foils.
Over the next two years, the size of Marie's roles increased as did her audience popularity. Other studios began offering her contracts. But she felt she could learn more about comedy working at Keystone and turned them all down. In his autobiography, Sennett referred to her as, "The most talented actress I ever discovered".
But in 1920, Universal made an offer Marie couldn't refuse and she left Keystone. Her first film for the new studio, "Kissed" was a massive success and established her as a star. She had so many admirers, Universal had to hire a full time secretary just to answer her fan mail.
She made two more films for the company in 1921 that made so much money they literally saved the struggling studio from bankruptcy.
Keeping a close eye on Marie's career was Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner, who made a pre-emptive bid when her Universal contract came up for renewal. In addition to a huge increase in salary, Warner promised her script approval, co-star approval and the right to turn down any studio that might ask that she be loaned to them for a picture. No actress had ever been offered so much control over their own career.
And that's when things started to go wrong…
Ever on the prowl for ways to promote his studio and his stars, Warner noticed a budding romance between Prevost and actor Kenneth Harlan. Without consulting them, Warner went to the newspapers to announce that they would be wed on the set of their next picture, "The Beautiful and the Damned".
The only problem was -- Marie was already married.
A few years earlier, she'd become involved with a wealthy LA socialite named Sonny Gerke and they had eloped because Gerke was afraid to tell his mother she was no longer the most important woman in his life. Sonny and Marie didn't even live together and every night he went home to Mommy.
One afternoon, Mom was out shopping and saw Marie being dragged out of a bank by a bunch of policemen. She was so shocked she failed to see the camera crew filming the incident. All the same, she went home and told Sonny in no uncertain terms that Marie was no longer welcome in their home.
Instead of telling his mother that Marie was an actress, Sonny phoned his wife and informed her the marriage was over and she was not to contact him again. By the time she went to work for Warner Brothers, Marie didn't even know where Sonny was.
Warner was still outraged and threatened to fire both Marie and Harlan. But his lawyers talked him out of that since the wedding announcement had been his own stupid mistake.
But Jack Warner didn't like looking stupid and even though "The Beautiful and the Damned" broke box-office records and Marie soon got her divorce and married Harlan, the studio boss began the long, deliberate process of making Marie Prevost pay for his mistake.
She quickly discovered that she no longer had script and co-star approval, nor any choice in where she was loaned out. And if she complained Warner was happy to make her sit at home until her contract expired.
But Marie loved doing comedy, so Warner first loaned her to William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Studio to make a film called "Red Lights" he thought had bomb written all over it. The picture became such a hit, however, that Warner's had to hire two secretaries to make a dent in Marie's fan mail.
By that time, Jack Warner had already sent her to Louis Mayer's First National to film another sure-fire disaster entitled "The Wanters". It too was a smash.
Pressured by his brothers to get their own contracted actress making money for them, Warner demanded that his top director, Ernst Lubitsch "put her in something that won't cause such a fuss".
But Lubitsch was acutely aware of Marie's comic talents, so to placate Warner and still direct a successful film, he gave her a supporting role to Adolphe Menjou, Florence Vidor and Monte Blue in "The Marriage Circle".
Under Lubitsch's direction Marie shone in every frame in which she appeared. And the director made a point of telling the world at the film's Premiere, infuriating Warner when he said, "It is unforgivable she is not billed as the number one star. She stole every scene!". The first night audience howled its agreement.
Menjou and Vidor were scandalized but Monte Blue agreed, stating he couldn't wait to work with Marie again.
Instead of swallowing his pride and realizing he was wrong and Marie was a potential goldmine for his studio, Warner redoubled his efforts to ruin her. He put Monte Blue on his shit list as well, burying him in such crummy movies that the man ended his career as a circus clown.
By now, others in the film community were realizing that Warner's vendetta was getting the better of him. Sam Goldwyn sent over a terrible script called "Tarnish" and requesting the loan of Marie's services. Warner jumped at the opportunity. But once signed, Goldwyn revealed the real script, penned by his top writer Frances Marion. Warner was livid. And Marie had another huge hit.
Meanwhile, Lubitsch set up his next two features, "Three Women" and "Kiss Me Again" both written specifically for Marie. When Warner refused to cast her, Lubitsch pointed to a clause in his own contract granting him the use of any Warner contract player he wanted and Marie headlined two more successful films.
Still, in 1926, Warner refused to renew her contract, then quietly put the word out that any actor or director who worked with her could forget about ever working for Warner Brothers.
By now, the stress of the constant conflict was taking its toll on Marie. During the last two Lubitsch pictures, Jack Warner had been on set for all her scenes demanding additional takes. And while Lubitsch always used her best performances, the long hours caused her to start drinking heavily.
Her marriage began to crumble with Harlan additionally blaming her for the downturn in his own career. To top everything off, her mother was killed in a car accident.
It looked like Warner would finally push Marie out of the business.
Other Hollywood friends tried to help as best they could. Cecil B. DeMille shepherded Marie into the Sound Era with his first talkie, "The Godless Girl", and Frank Capra gave her a juicy supporting role in one of his first comedies "Ladies of Leisure".
But more often than not, Marie's opportunities evaporated as others turned her aside in order to avoid Warner's wrath.
By 1936 she was existing on handouts, living alone in a small apartment with her pet terrier. And on January 23, 1937, she became a grotesque symbol of what happens when you cross a studio boss, when her emaciated body was found many days dead and partially eaten by her dog.
As a further indignity, it was revealed that Marie Prevost had died of starvation.
Shamed by what had been allowed to happen to one of their own, many in the Hollywood community banded together to create the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital to provide medical care for those in the industry who had fallen on hard times.
But after that she was largely forgotten until her death was immortalized in Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon". That lurid chapter inspired Nick Lowe to write a song about her in 1978. But to date, none of her Warner Brothers films have been made available on either video or DVD. Even after death, Jack Warner's vendetta continues.
Here's Marie Prevost in Frank Kapra's "Ladies of Leisure", her comic skills sparkling at 10:25 as Barbara Stanwyck's roommate and almost making you forget the much bigger star who might have been.