Music History #14: "Marie Provost"

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“Marie Provost”
Written by Nick Lowe (1978)
Performed by Nick Lowe

The Music

“She was a winner that became a doggie’s dinner ...” went the opening line of the chorus of Nick Lowe’s song “Marie Provost.” Lowe was inspired to write the song after reading Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. The book, first published in the U.S. in 1965, detailed many sordid scandals of famous actors and actresses. One such story concerned the silent film star Marie Prevost (Lowe changed the spelling of her last name for his song) and how, when she was found dead, her hungry Dachshund had left her “a half-eaten corpse.” Like much in Anger’s book, it wasn’t true. But it made for a good story, and a good song too. Here’s Nick.

The History

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For every Joan Crawford or Clark Gable, there are at least fifty lesser stars whose big screen shine has faded over the years until they’ve been all but forgotten. Marie Prevost is one of the unlucky ones.

The Canadian actress, born Mary Bickford Dunn in 1898, moved to Los Angeles when she was a teenager. While working as a secretary, she was discovered by famed silent comedy director Mack Sennett, who added her to his stable of ingénues, dubbed “Sennett’s Bathing Beauties.” Impressed by Dunn’s bedroom-eyed, beestung-lipped appeal, Sennett rechristened her Marie Prevost, “the exotic French girl.”

After a few small roles in Sennett pictures, Prevost signed a deal with Universal Studios in 1922. There, she was regularly cast as the flapper—the sassy, jazz age babe. Prevost even appeared on the cover of the first issue of a long-gone publication called Flapper magazine, where she was described as “a fascinating little minx.” As the decade went on, Prevost began to work with big directors like Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch, proving herself as a versatile actress with sharp comic timing and understated charm.

Then just as she was poised to make the leap to leading lady, the bottom dropped out.

In the space of a few months in 1926, her mother was killed in a car accident, and her marriage fell apart. Prevost started to hit the bottle. She continued to work, but the drinking soon took its toll. She gained weight. She forgot her lines. And she started to lose her siren looks. In 1928, she had a brief affair with millionaire director Howard Hughes, but Hughes broke it off, sending Prevost into deeper depression. Her career hit the skids.

By the mid-1930s, she was valiantly trying to recapture her momentum. In a New York Times article from 1936, titled “Sometimes They Do Come Back,” she was described as a “former star who had been successful with a reducing course.” But the comeback wasn’t to be.

On January 23, 1937, police were called to a Los Angeles apartment building after neighbors complained about the incessant barking of a dog in Prevost’s apartment. They found the actress lying face down on her bed. She had been dead for three days. The cause of death was acute alcoholism and malnutrition. Prevost’s legs were indeed bloody from where her dog had been nipping at her, presumably trying to wake her up.

Prevost’s funeral was paid for by her friend and fellow actress Joan Crawford. The fact that Prevost had only $300 to her name was one of the examples that eventually led to the community of actors establishing the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in the 1940s.

Today, Prevost has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.