Marie Prevost

This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Marie Prevost (née Mary Bickford Dunn) (8 November 1898-23 January 1937) was born in Sarnia, Ontario, to Hughlina Marion Bickford and Arthur “Teddy” Dunn. Sadly, her railway conductor dad died when she was an infant, from gas seeping into the St. Clair Tunnel.

As a toddler, Mary acquired a stepfather, Frank Prevost. In 1900, her halfsister Marjorie was born.

Frank moved the family to Denver soon after the marriage. He was a surveyor and miner who frequently forced them to move in pursuit of get rich quick schemes. Eventually, they settled in L.A., and Hughlina and Frank divorced.

Marie attended Manual Arts High School, which was then a vo-tech school. In 1915, she became a secretary for a law firm representing Keystone Film Company. It was through this job she scored a bit part in a Keystone film.

Mack Sennett was so impressed by her, he demanded she be brought to his office, and signed her to a $15 a week contract.

Marie initially played minor comedic roles as a sexy innocent, and became one of Mack Sennett’s famed Bathing Beauties in 1916.

Marie’s first lead role came in 1919, with WWI propaganda film Yankee Doodle in Berlin. Her popularity was immediate, so much so she soon desired to change studios to make the most of her potential. She felt Sennett only cared about making money, not quality and creativity.

Keystone released her, and she signed a $1,000 a week contract with Universal in 1921. Wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg, pre-MGM, helped to make her a star by giving her lots of publicity.

Among the publicity stunts he arranged was sending her to Coney Island to publicly burn her bathing suit, symbolising the end of her Bathing Beauty days.

Marie starred in light comedies during her time at Universal. When her contract expired in 1922, she signed to Warner Brothers for two years, $1,500 a week. Her future second husband, Kenneth Harlan, was also signed to Warner, and they co-starred as the lead roles of The Beautiful and Damned.

Jack Warner drummed up publicity by saying they’d marry on-set. In response, thousands of fans sent letters and gifts.

A less positive response came from The Los Angeles Times, who discovered Marie’s first husband, Sonny Gerke, had just filed for divorce. They ran the damning headline “Marie Prevost Will be a Bigamist if She Marries Kenneth Harlan.”

Jack Warner was furious Marie hadn’t told him she was legally married to someone else, though the publicity stunt was his idea.

The scandal didn’t sink Marie’s rising career at all. She gained great reviews for The Beautiful and Damned, and legendary director Ernst Lubitsch chose her for a starring role in The Marriage Circle, opposite Adolphe Menjou.

The New York Times highly praised her acting, inspiring Lubitsch to cast her in two more of his films.

Marie and Kenneth Harlan quietly married in 1924, after her divorce was finalised. Warner Brothers chose not to renew their contracts in 1926.

Tragedy struck when Marie’s mother was killed in a car accident on 5 February 1926. To try to cope with her great emotional anguish, Marie turned to alcohol and took on a grueling work schedule.

Her melancholia increased when she and Kenneth separated in 1927. A 1928 affair with Howard Hughes ended in another breakup, which compounded Marie’s depression even further.

Marie’s depression began manifesting in overeating as well as excess drinking, and she gained a lot of weight. This led to being cast only in secondary roles.

She signed to MGM in 1930, but wasn’t given any leading roles. However, she still received good reviews, and transitioned well to sound.

Marie made her last MGM film in 1933. Struggling with finances, she jumped at any film she was offered by other studios, no matter how small the role. To keep these jobs, she crash-dieted.

Her final film was in 1936.

Marie died of acute alcoholism at age forty. Her death was discovered two days later, after neighbours started complaining about her Dachshund’s excessive barking. Joan Crawford paid for her funeral at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.

When Marie’s estate was found to be all of $300, her fellow actors were inspired to create the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. They were also motivated by several other sad fates of former stars.

Thomas Meighan

This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Thomas Meighan (9 April 1879-8 July 1936), one of the top sheiks of the silent screen, was a fellow Pittsburgher. His father, John, was president of Pittsburgh Facing Mills, which made foundry facings. His mother, Mary, was a homemaker. The Meighans were fairly well-off.

When 15-year-old Tommy refused to go to college, his dad put him to work shovelling coal in the mill. After a single week, he realised he didn’t want to do such hard, thankless work for the rest of his life, and resolved to pursue higher education after all.

Tommy set to work studying pharmacology at med school, but came to feel he was made for different things, and lost interest in medicine. Tommy began working for $35 a week in a stock company.

Tommy eventually made it to Broadway, where he scored leading roles and big successes. It was here he met fellow actor Frances Ring (4 July 1882–15 January 1951), sister of popular singer Blanche Ring. They quickly became inseparable, and married not long after they met.

Their marriage was one of Hollywood’s longest, happiest, and most successful, though they sadly never had any children.

In spite of what an established name he made for himself, Tommy decided to switch to film acting in 1914. His first film, Dandy Donovan, the Gentleman Cracksman, was made in London, and earned him a contract with Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount).

Though Tommy was 36 when he began making U.S. films, he quickly became popular. Both he and Lon Chaney, Sr., hit true stardom with The Miracle Man (1919), of which only three minutes now survives.

Tommy’s star continued rising through the Twenties, and he co-starred with leading ladies including Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Leatrice Joy, Norma Talmadge, Lois Wilson, Bebe Daniels, Louise Brooks, Lila Lee, and Renée Adorée.

Through most of his film career, Tommy earned $5,000 a week. At his peak of popularity, he earned $10,000 weekly.

When Rudy Valentino was arrested for bigamy in 1922 (having married Natacha Rambova less than a full year after his divorce from Jean Acker), Tommy was one of the people who came to the rescue with raising bail money. Though he barely knew Rudy, he nevertheless sold his gold coin collection.

Tommy’s talking debut, The Argyle Case (1929), was a huge success, but at fifty years old, he worried about future popularity. He preoccupied himself with Florida real estate until returning to the screen in 1931. Tommy played fatherly figures in his final films.

During the Great Depression, his successful, eponymous Meighan Theatre in New Port Richey, Florida, was forced to close. This theatre has since reopened, and now bears the name Richey Suncoast Theatre.

Around the time of Tommy’s final film in 1934, he was diagnosed with cancer. The next year, he had surgery at the now-razed Doctors Hospital of Manhattan, which had a reputation as a “fashionable treatment center for the well-to-do.” It was also the main Manhattan maternity hospital for uptown mothers.

At 7 PM on 8 July 1936, at his home in Great Neck, NY, Tommy lapsed into a coma. At 9:10, he passed away with his dear Frances, his brother James, his sister May, and family friend Stella Errol by his side. He was 57.

Tommy was always very generous with his money, regularly donating nice chunks of change to the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies and Catholic charities alike.

 

Marie Dressler

This is an edited, expanded version of an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Marie Dressler (née Leila Marie Koerber) (9 November 1868-28 July 1934), one of the preeminent female comedians of the late silent and early sound era, was born in Cobourg, Ontario. Her mother, Anna Henderson, was a musician, and her dad, Alexander Rudolph Koerber (born 13 April 1826 in Germany), was an officer in the Crimean War.

As a child, Leila sang and helped with operating the organ at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, where her dad worked as a music teacher and organist. At age five, she played Cupid in a church performance in Lindsay, Ontario.

The Koerber family frequently moved from place to place. They’d moved to the U.S. by the late 1870s, living in Michigan and Ohio. Throughout her travels, Leila acted in many amateur shows, which annoyed her parents.

Leila left home at fourteen and joined the Nevada Stock Company, claiming to be eighteen. She sent half of her weekly $6 or $8 salary to her mother. Because her dad didn’t approve of her using the Koerber family name, she adopted the stage name Marie Dressler, after an aunt.

Marie professionally débuted in the play Under Two Flags, as a chorus girl named Cigarette. Her older sister Bonita also joined the troupe around the same time, but left after three years when she married playwright Richard Ganthony.

Marie’s star continued rising, and she débuted on Broadway in 1892, at the Fifth Avenue Theatre (razed in 1939). Though she hoped to make a name for herself as a tragedian or operatic diva, playwright Maurice Barrymore (father of John, Lionel, and Ethel) convinced her she’d be a natural fit with comedy.

Marie went from strength to strength, and supported her parents with her $50 weekly salary. Eventually, she bought them a house on Long Island.

She formed her own troupe in 1900, though their first show was a bust, forcing her to declare bankruptcy. After that setback, her career went back on the upswing, even after having to declare bankruptcy again in 1909. She had more hits than misses.

Marie appeared as herself in two shorts in 1909 and 1910, but her first official film was the 1914 Keystone picture Tillie’s Punctured Romance (also starring Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand). It was based on her 1910 hit Tillie’s Nightmare, a play she rescued from failure by editing it without the authors’ permission.

She acted in six more films during the 1910s, including two Tillie sequels, though her primary mode of acting remained the stage.

Her career was on the wane by 1920, and she preoccupied herself with visiting veterans’ hospitals after returning from a long trip to Europe. Her final Broadway appearance was in 1926.

Marie was said to be suicidal when director Allan Dwan offered her a bit part in The Joy Girl (1927), a two-strip Technicolor film. Later that year, venerable screenwriter Frances Marion, remembering Marie’s great kindness to her during the filming of Tillie Wakes Up (1917), talked MGM wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg into giving her a chance as an actor.

This was the start of a slow but steady comeback, but she didn’t truly come into her own as a comedian till sound came along. Her first sound role, Marthy in Greta Garbo’s Anna Christie (1930), earned her a $500 weekly contract with MGM.

Marie got a Best Actress Academy for Min and Bill (1930), and was nominated for Emma (1932). By 1933, she was America’s most popular moviestar. She was incredibly beloved and popular throughout Hollywood too.

Marie once said, “I’m too homely for a prima donna and too ugly for a soubrette.” She knew she wasn’t the world’s skinniest, most beautiful, or youngest woman, but she used her unconventional appearance and voice to great comedic advantage.

After Marie died of cancer at 65, her funeral was attended by huge crowds. Even the notoriously awful Louis B. Mayer had great respect and affection for her.

Eric Campbell and Charley Chase

This post is edited and expanded from entries in the “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire page, written around 2005–07.

My IWSG post is here.

Alfred Eric Campbell (26 April 1879-20 December 1917) was formerly believed to have been born in Dunoon, Scotland, home of the Campbell clan, but today his true birthplace is believed to be Cheshire, England. It’s unclear if Eric, his longtime co-star Charlie Chaplin, or the press invented this myth.

He began acting in melodramas in local theatres in Wales and Scotland. At one of these shows, famed English theatre impresario Fred Karno discovered him and was quite impressed by his baritone and hefty build. Fred took him to London, where Eric became a slapstick actor.

In 1914, Eric moved to New York and became an established stage actor. Luck smiled on him in 1916 when Chaplin, in town to sign his Mutual contract, saw Eric in a Broadway play and invited him to work together.

Eric played the heavy (i.e., villain) in all twelve of Chaplin’s Mutual two-reelers (the last of which was unreleased). Big, tall, and imposing, with his walrus moustache and intimidating facial expressions, he was the perfect foil for the Little Tramp, someone you want to see him humiliate and defeat.

Don’t let his appearance fool you; off-camera, Eric was a true gentle giant, a very kind, sweet, shy, generous person.

Thankfully, none of Eric’s films are lost, because he made them with Chaplin, who owned the rights to all his films. The survival rate of films from people who owned their films is much better than that of most stars who didn’t.

Chaplin signed with First National after his Mutual contract ended, and planned to take Eric with him. Sadly, this never came to pass. Eric’s wife Fanny died of a heart attack on 9 July 1917, and when his 16-year-old daughter Una was walking to a store to buy a mourning dress, she was hit by a car and seriously hurt.

Eric met notorious gold-digger Pearl Gilman on 12 September, and married her five days later. Una, still recovering from her injuries, didn’t know about this for a few weeks. Less than two months after the wedding, Pearl sued Eric for divorce.

Eric moved into a room next to Chaplin at the L.A. Athletic Club. Shortly afterwards, Eric got drunk at a cast party, crashed his car on the way home, and was killed at age 39. Una was taken in by family in Nottingham.

Eric’s ashes were unclaimed for over 30 years, but finally have a home in L.A.’s Rosedale Cemetery.

Charley Chase (né Charles Joseph Parrott) (20 October 1893–20 June 1940) was born in Baltimore and began acting in vaudeville as a teen. His career as a film actor began with the Christie Film Company in 1912.

Charley later moved to Keystone, where he was both actor and director. People from other studios were very impressed with his work, and invited him to direct for them too. In 1920, he joined Hal Roach Studios, and in late 1921, he rose to director-general.

When Charley began acting again in 1923, he took the stage surname Chase. Charley excelled at situational comedies of embarrassment, often playing befuddled husbands, suitors, and businessmen. Like Harold Lloyd, his character was a regular guy.

Charley was a quadruple threat, writing, directing, producing, and acting. When sound came along, he became a quintuple threat with his lovely singing voice. Hal Roach often called him the funniest guy he’d ever known

Sadly, Charley’s planned début starring feature, Neighborhood House (1936), was plagued by problems, and ultimately edited down to two reels. After being dismissed from Hal Roach Studios, he starred in another series of shorts for Columbia. Charley also continued directing, most notably for the Three Stooges.

Charley’s longtime alcohol problems got worse after his little brother James died in 1939. Thirteen months later, Charley passed away of a heart attack at age 46.

Today, Charley’s comedic genius has been rediscovered by a new generation.

My 2019 A to Z themes revealed

I’m taking somewhat of a detour regarding my A to Z theme on my main blog this year. Instead of choosing something related to my writing, I finally moved a long-planned theme out of my queue. I began putting this list together in late 2015, but kept pushing it off every year, thinking I’d get around to it eventually.

My 2019 theme will be actors, writers, directors, and producers of the silent era. To make it original, my focus is on lesser-known stars (at least, outside the community of people already passionate about silent cinema). Most people know names like Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, and John Barrymore, but I doubt the average non-fan knows about someone like:

Raymond Griffith, a dapper comedian in a silk hat whose voice was severely damaged as a boy. He spoke at the level of a hoarse whisper, but was able to use that to deliver an incredibly moving, unforgettable swan song performance in his only talkie.

June Mathis, one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, the mystic-minded screenwriter who sought to elevate movies into a serious artform. She gave Rudy Valentino his big break and lovingly mentored him when no one else believed in him.

Larry Semon, a brilliant comedian who burnt out early after getting far too big for his britches with over the top special effects and budgets, and is now almost exclusively remembered for his dreadful 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz. He also thought it’d be hilarious to credit an African-American co-star as G. Howe Black.

Anna May Wong, one of the first Chinese-American moviestars, who became very frustrated with the stereotypical roles offered to her, and was barred from being a romantic lead due to strict anti-miscegenation laws.

Xuan Jinglin, one of China’s most important female actors of the silent era, who was sold into a brothel by her mother due to extreme poverty. One of the founding fathers of Chinese cinema saved her by giving her a bit part in a film and buying her freedom when her acting deeply impressed him.

Fred Thomson, a very popular cowboy actor who was a Presbyterian minister and WWI Army chaplain before becoming involved in acting. His second wife, screenwriter Frances Marion, was one of Hollywood’s most powerful women. Fred died of tetanus on the eve of making his first talkie.

Olive Thomas, a fellow Pittsburgher who was poised for superstardom when she fell victim to accidental mercury bichloride poisoning while on her second honeymoon with husband Jack Pickford.

Wallace Reid, a matinée idol destroyed by greedy studio executives and doctors. Instead of letting him recover after a serious train accident, they got him addicted to morphine and kept overworking him, forcing him to crank out one film after another without any breaks. Wally could barely stand up by his final film.

Marie Prevost, one of Mack Sennett’s famed Bathing Beauties, who became a huge star working for several studios, until several personal tragedies plunged her into depression, drinking, and an eating disorder. Hers was one of several tragic deaths which inspired the acting community to create the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital.

Ernest Torrence, a big, bulky character actor who specialized in villains and tough guys, but played nice guys once in a rare while. His touching, sweet performance as Peter in the original King of Kings is one of the film’s highlights.

Though many of these posts originated in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07, they’ve all been significantly edited and expanded. Most of them read like entirely new posts!

Miraculously, I found the long-missing Part II of this six-part series through a recent cache search of archive.org. That was one of the pages I was most upset about not recovering after my Angelfire site was deleted without warning in September 2010.

My names blog will feature Slavic names, from languages including Czech, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Belarusian, and Bosnian.