May 14th, 2008

carole lombard 03
  • vp19

A song's Lowe blow: Poor Marie

The above is the cover of an album that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, Nick Lowe's "Pure Pop For Now People." (Actually, that was its American title; in Great Britain it was known as "Jesus Of Cool," and Columbia, Lowe's U.S. label, understandably thought that moniker might not be well-received in some segments of the American market.) Perhaps some of you recall Lowe's lone Top 40 hit, "Cruel To Be Kind," but that didn't come until 1979. He was also a member of the splendid band Rockpile with Dave Edmunds, and produced a few of Elvis Costello's early punk-new wave albums.

Anyway, "Pure Pop" is one of the best albums of the late 1970s, a tour de force of all sorts of pop/rock styles, 12 songs, all delivered with Lowe's rather puckish sense of humor and plenty of wonderful pop hooks. Like so much of what came out of England from 1977 on, it was sort of a wry antithesis to the increasing pretentiousness of rock in that era.

So where's the tie-in with Carole Lombard, you ask? Well, one of the songs deals with the life of someone Lombard worked with, and here she is, alongside Carole in "Hands Across The Table." This scene opens the film, as their characters exit the subway at Grand Central station to head for work, and I've long wondered where this was filmed (

Her name was Marie Prevost, but Lowe's song is titled "Marie Provost," a name she also used, according to the Internet Movie Database. But one wonders if Lowe knew that then, or whether he was trying to avoid lawsuits. Not from Marie, mind you; she had been gone for more than four decades when this song was released. In fact, the lyrics deal with her rather tragic demise:

"Marie Provost did not look her best
The day the cops bust into her lonely nest
in the cheap hotel up on Hollywood west
July 29

She'd been lyin' there for two or three weeks
The neighbors said they never heard a squeak
While hungry eyes that could not speak
said even little doggies have got to eat

chorus: She was a winner that became a doggie's dinner
She never meant that much to me
Whoa oh poor Marie"

On the surface, that doesn't sound very cheerful, but Lowe's sprightly hooks, plus some comedic vocal backing from Rockpile, belie the misery.

One guesses Lowe had been reading Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon," because this was one of its stories: In 1937, Marie Prevost was indeed found dead in Hollywood, and apparently her dog, desperate for food, had been nibbling on the decaying corpse.

However, Lowe and/or Anger apparently took some liberties with the facts. Prevost didn't die on July 29, but Jan. 23, and she resided in an apartment, not a hotel.

Lowe's lyric continues:

"Marie Provost was a movie queen
mysterious angel of the silent screen
And run like the wind the nation's young men steamed
When Marie crossed the silent screen

Whoa she came out west from New York
but when the talkies came Marie just couldn't cope
The public said Marie take a walk
All the way back to New York"

(repeat chorus)

Marie was indeed popular for much of the 1920s; she was never a top-rank star, but had plenty of work and appeared in many good films, mostly light comedies. Her silent-era credits include Ernst Lubitsch's "The Marriage Circle" (1924) and Cecil B. De Mille's "The Godless Girl" (1929). Like Lombard, she worked as a Mack Sennett bathing beauty, though her time with Sennett came in the late teens.

However, Marie was not a New Yorker, nor was she even a native of the U.S. -- she was born Mary Bickford Dunn in Sarnia, Ontario in November 1898. Moreover, she wasn't really a victim of talkies a la the popular perception of John Gilbert; she got more than her share of work in sound films, including Frank Capra's "Ladies Of Leisure" (1930), which put Barbara Stanwyck on the map, and a supporting role in "The Sin Of Madelon Claudet" (1931), the film for which Helen Hayes won a best actress Oscar.

What did Marie's career in wasn't really her voice, but her weight. It was increasing during the early sound era, first relegating her to character roles, then to lesser parts in lesser films. In fact, in 1934 she made no movie appearances. "Hands Across The Table" would be her last notable role -- most of her subsequent roles were uncredited, including a turn in the Marion Davies-Clark Gable film "Cain And Mabel."

"Those quaalude bombs didn't help her sleep
As her nights grew long and her days grew bleak
It's all downhill once you've passed your peak
Marie got ready for that last big sleep

The cops came in and they looked around
Throwin' up everywhere over what they found
The handiwork of Marie's little dachshund
That hungry little dachshund"

(repeat chorus)

Were quaaludes even around in 1937?

The lyric makes it sound as if Marie committed suicide, but her apparent cause of death was extreme malnutrition in an attempt to lose weight (the same fate that befell Laird Cregar a decade later) compounded with alcoholism.

One of the lines of the chorus reads, "She never meant that much to me." If only Nick (who still performs and tours today and puts out well-received solo albums) had been more of a silent movie fan...
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