Marie Prevost was born Mary Bickford Dunn on November 8, 1898 in Sarnia, Ontario. Prevost was still a child when her family moved first to Denver, Colorado and then later to Los Angeles. While working as a secretary, she applied for and obtained an acting job at the Hollywood studio owned by Mack Sennett. Sennett dubbed her as the exotic “French girl”, adding Dunn to his collection of bathing beauties under the stage name of Marie Prevost. One of her first successful film roles came in the 1920 romantic film “Love, Honor, and Behave”, opposite another newcomer and Sennett protégé, George O’Hara. Initially cast in numerous minor comedic roles as the sexy, innocent young girl, she worked in several films for Sennett’s studio until 1921 when she signed with Universal. At Universal, Irving Thalberg took an interest in Prevost and ensured that she received a great deal of publicity and staged numerous publicity events. After announcing that he had selected two films for Prevost to star in, “The Moonlight Follies” (1921) and “Kissed” (1922), Thalberg sent Prevost to Coney Island where she publicly burned her bathing suit to symbolize the end of her bathing beauty days. While at Universal, despite the Thalberg produced publicity, Prevost was still relegated to light comedies. So after her contract expired, Prevost signed a two year contract with Jack Warner for $1500 a week at Warner Brothers in 1922.
Prevost was dating actor Kenneth Harlan who Jack Warner had also signed Harlan to a contract and Warner cast the couple in the lead roles in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned.” To publicize the film, Warner announced that the couple would marry on the film’s set. The publicity stunt worked and thousands of fans sent gifts and letters to the couple. But unknown to Warner and the admiring public, Prevost was married to socialite Sonny Gerke. Prevost had secretly married Gerke in 1919 and after six months Gerke had left her. Gerke’s mother had forbidden him to associate with Prevost because she was an actress, so he was scared to tell his mother of the marriage and he couldn’t get a divorce without revealing that he was married. Prevost, fearful of the bad publicity a divorce would cause, also didn’t seek a divorce and the couple were still secretly married. The Los Angeles Mirror got wind that Prevost was still married to Sonny Gerke and ran a story with the headline “Marie Prevost Will be a Bigamist if She Marries Kenneth Harlan”. Warner was livid over the negative publicity and Prevost’s failure to disclose her first marriage despite the fact that the publicity stunt was his idea. Warner quickly arranged an annullment and, when the publicity surrounding the scandal died down, Prevost and Harlan were quietly married.
In spite of the bad publicity, Prevost’s performance in “The Beautiful and Damned” brought good reviews. Director Ernst Lubitsch then chose her for a major role opposite Adolphe Menjou in 1924’s “The Marriage Circle”. Of her performance as the beautiful seductress, Ernst Lubitsch said that she was one of the few actresses in Hollywood who knew how to underplay comedy to achieve the maximum effect. This performance, praised by The New York Times, resulted in Lubitsch casting her in “Three Women” in 1924 and in “Kiss Me Again” (1925).
Just as her acting career was blossoming, Prevost’s personal life started to fall apart. Her mother was killed in an automobile accident while traveling in Florida with actress Vera Steadman, another Canadian friend, and Hollywood studio owner, Al Christie in 1926. Devastated by the loss of her only remaining parent, Prevost began drinking heavily and developed an addiction to alcohol. Her marriage to Harlan ended in a 1927 divorce. Prevost tried to rise above her problems by burying herself in her work taking on many roles over the next couple years. After seeing Prevost in “The Beautiful and Damned”, Howard Hughes cast her as the lead in “The Racket” (1928). During filming, Hughes and Prevost had a brief affair but Hughes quickly broke off the relationship, leaving Prevost heartbroken and furthering her depression. After playing the lead in “The Racket” (1928), Prevost’s days as a leading lady declined sharply. Still deeply depressed and drinking heavily, Prevost also began to have significant weight gain. By the 1930s, she was working less and being offered only secondary parts. One notable exception was “Paid” (1930), in which she garnered very good reviews while starring secondary to Joan Crawford. Despite the success of “Paid” Prevost continued her downward spiral, her weight problems forcing her into repeated crash dieting in order to keep whatever bit part a movie studio offered. By the early to mid 1930’s she had little or no work at all and her financial situation had deteriorated dramatically.
On January 23, 1937, Marie Prevost was found dead in her apartment, lying face down on her bed after neighbors had complained about her dog’s incessant barking. Prevost had died two days earlier on January 21, 1937 from heart failure brought on by acute alcoholism and malnutrition. She was 38 years old.
Her funeral (which was paid for by Joan Crawford) at the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery was attended by Crawford, Clark Gable, Wallace Beery, and Barbara Stanwyck among others.
In February 1937, it was discovered that Prevost’s estate was valued at only $300 prompting the Hollywood community to create the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital to provide medical care for employees of the television and motion picture industry.
Despite her problems with alcoholism and depression she was popular and well liked among her peers as attested to by the stars who attended her funeral. During her twenty year career Prevost had made 121 silent and talking movies. Some of them of note are: “The Wanters”(1923) with Robert Ellis and Norma Shearer; “Three Women”(1924) with Pauline Frederick and May McAvoy ; “Daughters of Pleasure”(1924) with Clara Bow and Monte Blue; “Kiss Me Again”(1925) also with Clara Bow and Monte Blue; “Bobbed Hair”(1925) with Kenneth Harlan; “The Caveman”(1926) with Matt Moore, Hedda Hopper, and Phyllis Haver; “Man Bait(1927) with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; “The Racket”(1928) with Thomas Meighan and Louis Wolheim ; “Getting Gertie’s Garter”(1927) with Charles Ray, Harry Myers, and Sally Rand; “The Sideshow”(1928) with Little Billy Rhodes; “The Godless Girl”(1929) with Lina Basquette, Tom Keene, Noah Beery, and Eddie Quillan; Frank Capra’s “Ladies of Leisure”(1930) with Barbara Stanwyck; “Paid”(1930) with Joan Crawford; and “Three Wise Girls”(1932) with Jean Harlow. Her last role was a bit part in “Ten Laps to Go” which wasn’t released until after her death in 1937.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Marie Prevost has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6201 Hollywood Boulevard.