Sunday, 18 March 2012

Marie Prevost in Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle (1924)

The Marriage Circle is slick and lovely Lubitsch. It’s one of the first of his films when I can clearly see his famous “touch” in effect throughout a wittily-directed story of sexual politics in early 20’s Vienna. There are surprisingly few intertitles but lots of cleverly composed shots that help the actors reveal the plot.

There are also some superbly-relaxed performances from a very strong cast who looked like they were having an absolute ball throughout.

Adolphe Menjou plays Professor Josef Stock, almost improbably married to the very earthy-looking Mizzi played by Marie Prevost. The two are at each other’s throats with the lust that brought them together long-ago replaced by irritation and disdain. The Professor would just love to find grounds for divorce whilst Mizzi would just love to find another man.

Their opening scenes are a hoot as they swap the soured indignities of a marriage encircled by familiarity and contempt. Their quick fire exchanges almost make you hear what they’re saying and would have worked very well in sound: think Doris Day and Tony Randall. But Marie is no Doris Day; it’s pretty clear what she’s really after and she’s full of raw expression and bright-eyed, restless energy.

Her attention turns to the husband of her best friend, Charlotte Braun played by an excellent Florence Vidor who reminded me a little of Eleanor Boardman...King Vidor certainly had a "type"! Charlotte's husband is Dr. Franz Braun, the marvellously visaged Monte Blue. Being that kind of girl, Mizzi wants the one she can’t have and sets off in pursuit of mischief.

Seeing his chance, Professor Stock hires a private eye to follow Mizzi and get him the evidence he needs to gain separation. Mizzi doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction but she can’t help herself.

Entertaining chaos ensues as Mizzi tries to manoeuvre Franz away from Charlotte and into her arms. There are near misses aplenty and various cases of mistaken identity as Franz’s colleague, Dr. Gustav Mueller (Creighton Hale) senses his chance may come with Charlotte…who is largely oblivious.

It’s all a bit grown up and very daring, no wonder they were Viennese and not American, even pre-code this was pushing the sexual boat out.

There’s a superbly subtle moment at breakfast when Franz moves towards his wife’s embrace, she is stirring her coffee and he is cracking his boiled egg; Lubitsch focuses just on the two breakfast items as the spoons stop moving and the lovers engage off-shot, above the table.

Masterful stuff and timeless technique.

Lubitsch makes us care about all of the characters though even Mizzi who, as she cries out to Josef, just wants love… The professor himself almost relents but he’s smart enough to know that they’ll never be for the long term.

Of course, we really don’t want Franz and Charlotte to split apart and for their marriage circle to be broken. They’re as right for each other as Mizzi and the Prof are wrong.

Throughout Prevost steals most scenes she’s in, even against the mighty Menjou and this high quality cast. Just why she wants to spoil her friend’s relationship isn’t clear but maybe she’s lost and still looking for the thing that Charlotte has found.

Her openness and physicality is a provocation to the men and audience alike. She's like a prototype Clara Bow: running wild and worldly. She had, after all, been one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties, during which time she took part in one of the most amusing photo shoots being driven on a motor boat by a dog. This picture, often attributed to Gloria Swanson, is always worth reproducing…credit to the copyright holder and about time you released more Prevost-era Sennett comedies I think!

Prevost signalled her shift in career focus by burning her swimming gear before her first major features for Universal in 1921. This film shows how successful the transition from eye candy to actress was for her. She not only had the looks but the talent: natural and quick witted. In Lubitsch's opinion she was one of the few actresses in Hollywood who knew how to underplay comedy to make it funnier.

The Marriage Circle is available from and is recommended as a showcase of the skill of its director but also, this unfairly remembered actress. Yes it ended badly but she had a life and she had talent and we should salute what she did achieve and not how she came to die.

What is more; I bet she had fun! We certainly did watching her in 2012!

I was partly moved to watch this film by Stacia’s excellent Marie Prevost Project over at shebloggedbynight. She's put in much serious research and righted the wrongs done to Marie's reputation by cheap shots from Kenneth Anger and others.


  1. This is one of those films that is on my "must see" list. I promise myself that in 2012 I will. Of course, Marie is forever memorialized by Norma Desmond, who remembered that she and Marie and Mabel Normand were Sennett beauties (but Mabel was always stepping on her toes. Apparently, Marie had better footwork!).

  2. Marie's certainly wearing a paid of ballet shoes on that boat! Never though Mabel had such big feet though!

    It's a funny film and full of genuine, unforced playing. One of those when the family stops, slows down and watches along too!

  3. I love Marie in everything I've ever seen her in -- definitely adding this to the list. :)

    1. It's a fun film with good performances all round but Marie's a real force of nature!