Marian Marsh

Star of early sound films - Trilby to John Barrymore's Svengali - who faded in 1933 and retired at 29
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Violet Ethelred Krauth (Marian Marsh), actress: born 17 October 1913; married 1938 Albert Scott (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1960 Clifford Henderson (died 1984); died Palm Desert, California 9 November 2006.

One of the most glamorous film stars of the early sound years, Marian Marsh played Trilby to John Barrymore's Svengali in 1931, and later the same year co-starred with him again in The Mad Genius. The delicately doll-faced blonde beauty (often compared with Jean Harlow) won particular acclaim for her portrayal four years later of the prostitute Sonya in Josef von Sternberg's Crime and Punishment, though her career as a top star had been surprisingly brief. Most of her films from 1933 on were "B" movies, and she retired in 1942 at the age of 29.

She was born Violet Krauth in Trinidad in 1913, one of four children of a German chocolate-maker and a British mother. After their business collapsed during the First World War the family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where the children developed an interest in the performing arts. When Marsh's older sister Jean won a Hollywood contract, the family moved to California, where Marsh attended Hollywood High School and later studied voice and acting. Her sister helped her get started in movies and, as Marilyn Morgan, she made her screen début in Leo McCarey's amusing collegiate comedy The Sophomore (1929).

She then had a small role as "the girl who sells kisses" in Hell's Angels (1930), allegedly dating its director, Howard Hughes, and followed this with a part in Samuel Goldwyn's lavish colour musical Whoopee (1930), starring Eddie Cantor. Gaining experience in two-reelers, she was signed by Warners and given the leading female role in Svengali (1931) after several tests - the final decision was reputedly made by Barrymore, who said that Marsh looked like his wife, the actress Dolores Costello.

Based on George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby, the film (as reflected in its title) changed the story's emphasis from the milkmaid heroine to the hypnotist whose powers make her a famous diva, but Marsh gave a touching performance, particularly haunting in her faltering rendition of the music-hall ballad "Don't You Remember Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?"

She starred with Barrymore again in The Mad Genius (1931). Again playing the title character, Barrymore was a club-footed puppeteer who adopts a young dancer (Frankie Darro) that he moulds into a famous ballet star. When the young man falls in love with a pretty ballerina (Marsh), his mentor sabotages his career. Beautifully directed as the finest sort of grand guignol by Michael Curtiz, on expressionistic sets designed by Anton Grot, it was one of Marsh's best films, but lost money due to Barrymore's huge salary - it was to end his contract with the studio.

Marsh appeared in two more films released in 1931 - The Road to Singapore, co-starring William Powell, and Five Star Final. The latter was the more noteworthy, a hard-hitting Oscar-nominated exposé of yellow journalism in the studio's tradition of social consciousness, starring Edward G. Robinson as a newspaper editor pressurised by his publisher to boost circulation by any means. He rebels when their muck-raking leads to the suicide of a harmless elderly couple whose daughter (Marsh) nearly shoots Robinson and, in a memorable tirade, denounces the guilty tabloid.

She starred in Nearly Eighteen (1932) as a girl from the slums who almost allows herself to be seduced in order to win a role on Broadway. She was given top billing, and the studio publicised both film and star heavily (a collector of film magazines of the time recalls that she was on "more covers than Greta Garbo") but Nearly Eighteen received lukewarm response from the public.

Marsh played the girlfriend of a self-sacrificing surgeon (Richard Barthelmess) in Alias the Doctor (1932), a film notable only because British censors found some of the medical scenes too gruesome and refused to approve the film without re-shooting. Like Marsh's previous two films, it fared weakly at the box office, and Warners let her go, only a few months after advertising her as "The first new star of 1932".

She seems to have swiftly accepted new status as a star of "B" movies, and was one of the most prolific, making over 30, including two made in the UK, Over the Garden Wall (1934), a musical with Bobby Howes, and Love at Second Sight (1934), a romantic comedy with Anthony Bushell and Claude Hulbert.

Two of her films made in 1935 were, though, far better than most of the "programme fillers" she was gracing. Roy William Neil's The Black Room was a finely pitched Gothic drama with a superb star performance by Boris Karloff as twin brothers, one good and one evil, with Marsh the heroine who almost weds the wrong one. Crime and Punishment was Josef von Sternberg's moody and stylised version of Dostoevsky, with another great central performance - by Peter Lorre as the guilt-ridden student Raskolnikov. Marsh was profoundly moving as Sonya, the prostitute he loves, who persuades him to go with her to the police and confess his crime. Sonya is generally considered to be Marsh's finest performance.

Her final film, made in 1942, was House of Errors, a sad comedy starring the former silent comedian Harry Langdon, far past his peak. Perhaps with his example in mind, Marsh announced her retirement.

In 1938 she had married a stockbroker, Albert Scott (formerly married to the silent star Colleen Moore). After their divorce Marsh made a tentative return to acting in an episode of television's Schlitz Playhouse (1957), her last performance. Three years later she married the aviation pioneer Clifford Henderson, one of the founders of the town Palm Desert in California. Between playing golf and travelling, the Hendersons founded the non-profit Desert Beautiful conservation group to promote environmental programmes.

She was particularly proud of her achievement in planting palm trees, commenting, "If you want to leave something behind, plant a tree!"

Tom Vallance

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