Classic film book challenge: Desperately Seeking Marie Prevost

June 23, 2017

For my first book in Raquel's summer reading challenge, I read Desperately Seeking Marie Prevost by Richard Kirby.

I couldn't stand this book. And while I'd normally try to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they were well-meaning even if their final product fell short, I honestly can't do that for Mr. Kirby. He admits himself in the text that he couldn't even put in the effort to watch all but ONE of silent film star Marie Prevost's silent films.

Not an awful lot is known about Prevost, as the author readily acknowledges multiple times. You would think that when approaching a subject about whom most public records are a confection of studio system publicity departments, the least you could do (actually, literally, THE VERY LEAST) would be to watch the star's films. But 57 pages into this 93 page volume -- and 13 years into Prevost's career -- Kirby admits, "Movie number three from 1928 gives me the perfect opportunity for a review of a Marie Prevost film I've actually seen." *record scratch*


Let's rewind a bit to page 48, where Kirby mentions that IMDB lists Prevost in the credits of the 1926 Jean Renoir film Nana. He debates this credit because "This movie was filmed in France, but so regular were press mentions of Marie's comings and goings in America, that it seems unfeasible that she would have had the time travel [sic] to Europe for a starring role, let alone the minor part of Gaga." This gave me pause. Couldn't one easily just watch the movie to see if Prevost was in it? So I googled. Not only is the movie available on youtube and the internet archive, but apparently MoMA has a 35mm print. It took me one minute to find this. Surely even if the digital streaming copies weren't around in 2014 when the book was published, a serious researcher could have approached MoMA to see if they could view, or at the very least obtain information about the film. But it seems from this book that Kirby chose instead to base his assumption on her travel schedule.

Stacia from She Blogged By Night had an ongoing Marie Prevost series from 2010-2012, and her coverage of Nana indicates that Prevost was, indeed, not in the movie. But her references to the travel schedule are supplemental to *actually watching the film.* I don't want to get gossipy but I'm pretty sure that this post here is referencing the author/book that I'm reviewing today. I haven't read any other Prevost biographies but if ever there was one where the author just borrowed all of his research from online blogs (Kirby even references SBBN on the first page of the typo-ridden book) I'd say it's probably the same guy who couldn't even put in the effort to watch some of the silent movies that his silent film subject had starred in. Sheesh!

Anyway, when I got to the Nana anecdote I started to get suspicious that this guy hadn't actually watched any of Marie's films. He'd often mention a movie and base his own conclusions on the reviews or the plot descriptions (probably from IMDB) without providing any information that would show he had seen the movies. And if you doubt at all the level of his laziness, take this quote from the book, preceding an excerpt from a magazine article, "I'm going to reproduce the two paragraphs using the pretense of interest and appeal to distract from what is little more than laziness on my part."

When page 57 finally rolled around, and we got to that Marie Prevost movie he had "actually seen" he dedicated a whole chapter to describing each plot point in detail. It was like The Movie Spoiler edition of The Racket. Kirby must have been proud of himself, since he admits it was "the first full-length silent film that I have ever watched." A big accomplishment for the author of a book about -- (say it with me now) A SILENT FILM STAR. At the end of the chapter-long review he adds "I have to admit that I really enjoyed this movie. I wasn't sure what to expect as a silent film virgin" (FACEPALM) "but I actually found the plot easy to follow; characters and storylines perhaps need a little more substance given the lack of dialogue" (omg) "but the pivotal figures in the movie were definitely well realized. I apologize in advance if, at any point, I try to sound even vaguely like a film critic -- my knowledge is far too limited" (no kidding) "but hopefully a subjective opinion is of some passing interest." Yes, because a subjective opinion about whether or not silent movies suffer from a lack of dialogue was EXACTLY what I was looking for when I bought a book about a silent movie star. Exactly.

With the exception of some film magazine excerpts (which, I suspect, were probably lifted from blog posts online and not from the author's personal collection as he asserts a few times in the text) this book was very poorly researched, meandering, interjected way too often with personal asides, seemingly unedited, and, at times, downright odd. Take for instance the part where Kirby flips a coin to decide whether to tell us about Prevost's film The Godless Girl or Prevost's opinions about love (the "coin" chose love, if you're curious) or when Kirby detours from Ernst Lubitsch for a brief anecdote about Marie's hatred of monkeys. He concludes by saying "Probably best to return to the big screen now." Yes, probably best.

Towards the end of the book things take a skeevy turn when the author fawns over Jean Harlow. He even includes a screenshot from Three Wise Girls with both stars sharing the frame and captions it "Marie (as Dot) and la belle Ms. Harlow as Cassie." Why he didn't just write a book about the star he obviously prefers, I have no idea. And don't get me started on the time he referred to a 1928 movie as a pre-code.

I'd be remiss though if I didn't at least give Kirby credit for treating Prevost's last days with the respect that has been denied her in pretty much every other printed account of her life. He calls out Kenneth Anger for the gross gossipy story concocted in Hollywood Babylon (although he mistakenly refers to it as Hotel Babylon.) He gets points for that. But Marie Prevost deserves so much more than what Mr. Kirby could give her here.

Ideally, I hope that Stacia from She Blogged by Night will come out with the definitive biography someday. Her articles are way more informed than Mr. Kirby's book, and she is clearly much more passionate about her subject. She even watches Marie Prevost movies! But seriously, I would love to read a well-written, edited, informative, heavily researched, heartfelt biography and I hope that Marie gets one soon.

Update: Stacia has confirmed that Mr. Kirby is the author referenced in the She Blogged by Night article. I would not recommend buying this book under any circumstances. If you're interested in learning more about Marie Prevost, you can read Stacia's SBBN Marie Prevost Project archive here. I'm sad that I purchased this book without knowing the backstory, but hopefully my folly can save someone else the trouble of reading a poorly written biography by a shady author.

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