“She was a winner, Who became a doggie’s dinner…” — Nick Lowe
Memorialized in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and in the eponymous pop song, Marie Prevost is best-known today as a overly-nasal actress who killed herself without anticipating that her pet dachshund would get hungry after days of not being fed.
It’s a memorable Hollywood fairytale, the falling movie star who killed herself in despair and ended up being consumed by her starving if reluctant pup. But is it true?
At the end of the 19th century, Mary Dunn was born in Canada and later moved to Hollywood with her family. As a young teen, the beautiful girl found success as a Sennett Bathing Beauty. (Other Sennett Bathing Beauties include Gloria Swanson, Mabel Normand, and Carole Lombard.) Mack Sennett changed her last name to the fancier, French-ier Prevost, and she went on to star in movies as an unflappable flapper and later a charming comedienne at Universal and Warner Bros. Her career spanned 21 years, during which she not only survived the transition to sound, but managed to make over 120 films!
Marie had the requisite bee-stung lips and perfect pouty insouciance to embody the 20s female ideal. She was featured on the first cover of The Flapper magazine, which asked readers:
“How do you like our girl on the cover? Some fascinating little minx, Marie Prevost, isn’t she? And who but she could assume such a fascinating pose?”
Prevost flappered it up in lots of films, occasionally scoring a juicy lead, as she did in an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned (1923) where she had sufficient chemistry with her leading man to merit their marrying Kenneth Harlan the next year. She made three films with Ernest Lubitsch where his infamous “Lubitsch touch” was in full-effect in mischievous movies like The Marriage Circle (1924), where Marie once again got to play an impish, slightly risqué jazz baby who turns out to be a “good girl” in the end. She made films with other famous directors as well, including Frank Capra, Mervyn LeRoy and Cecil B. DeMille.
But in 1926, while starring in one of her six films with the original movie star Harrison Ford (you didn’t know there were two, did ya?), Marie’s mother died in a car accident. It hit Prevost pretty hard, and that, coupled with her divorce from Harlan, sent Marie straight to the bottle – and the fridge.
Her drinking and eating made her put on the pounds, and roles became harder to get. Too curvy to represent slim, flat-chested flapperdom (a trope that was losing steam, and steaminess, anyway), she was now primarily playing “blowsy tough dames” or the wisecracking sidekick to stars like Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. She tried all kinds of crash diets with hopes of getting back in the game. In a 1936 New York Times article, “Sometimes They Do Come Back”, Prevost ‘s slide is evident:
“In the studio restaurant at Warners there is an “Old-Timers Tables” that is reserved, in tacit arrangement, for the group of former stars who like to talk over together their halcyon days. A few weeks ago, Marie Prevost sat down at the table. The siren of Mack Sennett days had been successful with a reducing course and had got herself a job as a contract player…She was put to work almost immediately, in a small part in The Bengal Tiger…Miss Prevost is unbilled in The Bengal Tiger: She has only three lines to say, and those short ones.”
Prevost’s “reducing course” consisted of drinking and not eating. A star just a few years before, Marie was now an “old-timer” and a has-been who was subsisting almost solely on booze –and hope.
On January 23, 1937, neighbors in her rundown apartment building called police to complain about a dog ‘s non-stop barking. Inside, they found Marie dead. Initially diagnosed as having died of acute alcoholism, the major cause of death was actually severe malnutrition.
To get back into pictures once again, Marie had basically starved herself to death. She was only 38.
Though she ate one too many hot dogs, today it’s the appetite of a different kind of weiner dog that has put poor Marie into the Hollywood Hall of Infamy. Despite Nick Lowe and Hollywood Babylon, the truth is that her poor distressed pet was only trying to rouse his sleeping mistress. The police report clearly states that the dog “had chewed up her arms and legs in a futile attempt to awaken her.” In her obituary in the Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1937, the paper details the more poignant than putrid scene:
“Whining at the-bedside was her pet dachshund, Maxie, and teeth marks on the actress’ body indicated animal had tugged at his mistress in ant attempt to arouse her.”
In fact, one can plainly see from the photo in Anger’s book that Marie’s corpse is intact. (And as far as the accuracy of Nick Lowe’s song, he even misspells Marie’s name in title!)
Prevost died a pauper, with only $300 and a few IOUs made out to Joan Crawford, a pal from silent days who’d lent her some money. Marie was also remembered by other luminaries; stars attending her funeral included Barbara Stanwyck, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Clark Gable, and her old boss Mack Sennett, and her destitution prompted Hollywood to form the Motion Picture Relief Fund and the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital.
Marie was a lovely, talented woman who died not of despair but from the hope that fueled her starving for stardom. Her end is sad, not sickening, both for poor Marie — and poor Maxie.