'30s Movie Heroine Marian Marsh; Played Opposite Barrymore, Karloff

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

Marian Marsh, 93, a film star of the 1930s, died of respiratory arrest Nov. 9 at her home in Palm Desert, Calif. In her heyday, she was described as "the perfect story-book heroine [whose] innocence, delicate beauty and vulnerability made an audience want to protect her from the lascivious, lustful fiends who were drawn to her."

Onscreen, Ms. Marsh convincingly portrayed victims of the great leading men of the period. Edward G. Robinson, playing a tabloid editor, makes her life miserable in "Five Star Final," and John Barrymore as the title character in "Svengali" hypnotizes her Trilby (both 1931).

Barrymore, as a club-footed puppeteer, went after her again in "The Mad Genius" (1931), and Boris Karloff, playing good and evil twins, had a yen for her in "The Black Room" (1935). The actress portraying her backwoods mother menaced her in "A Girl of the Limberlost" (1934), which Ms. Marsh regarded as her favorite picture.

With her fragile, almost doll-like appearance, Ms. Marsh had a harder time making the transition to more demanding parts. Reviewers found her portrayal of the streetwalker Sonya, opposite Peter Lorre, in "Crime and Punishment" (1935) too Americanized and glamorized. Ms. Marsh said director Josef von Sternberg had hoped to turn her into another Marlene Dietrich.

The qualities that made her in one critic's eyes "bewitching" as Trilby were increasingly absent in the more than 40 films she made until her retirement in 1942.

Violet Ethelred Krauth was born Oct. 17, 1913, in Trinidad, in the West Indies, where her German-born father was a chocolate manufacturer. "When World War I knocked the bottom out of his market, my father moved us to Boston," she later said, adding that he helped create a recipe for a chocolate bar that did not melt in your hands.

An older sister won a beauty contest that led to screen acting roles, and the family settled in Southern California. Before finishing high school, Ms. Marsh's own dazzling appearance led to film offers. She and Carole Lombard played sisters in a short film sponsored by Palmolive soap that taught girls how to apply makeup.

Ms. Marsh had two lines in Samuel Goldwyn's Technicolor musical "Whoopee!" with Eddie Cantor and won a bit role as a girl selling kisses in Howard Hughes' aerial epic "Hell's Angels" (1930). This led to a friendship with Hughes; she denied there was a romantic attachment.

"He'd drive me in his beautiful white Cord, which broke down frequently," she told interviewer William M. Drew. "I'd have to call my brothers, who would come with one of our jalopies and tow us out."

Newly minted as Marian Marsh, she starred in the West Coast stage production of "Young Sinners," which received terrific reviews. Soon after, Barrymore personally selected her as Trilby, a nude model hypnotized by Svengali and remade into an opera singer. She said her much-remembered nude scene was doubled by another actress in skin-colored tights.

Director Mervyn LeRoy's "Five Star Final," one of the finest newspaper films made, also gave Ms. Marsh a memorable scene confronting the scandal-seeking newspaper editor whose irresponsibility led to her parents' suicide.

Her career was otherwise erratic. Amid many pictures of middling quality, she showed some flair as a precocious love interest of seducer William Powell in "The Road to Singapore" (1931) and the efficient secretary to Warren William in "Beauty and the Boss" (1932).

In 1934, she made films in England and Germany. The most intriguing was "The Prodigal Son" as the love interest of mountaineer Luis Trenker. The film was distinguished mostly by its location shooting in the Alps.

Although she ended her career at Republic and PRC studios -- her last picture was "House of Errors" with sad-faced comedian Harry Langdon -- Ms. Marsh remained a vibrant fixture on Hollywood's social scene. At parties, she said, composers Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin sought her advice on how their lyrics would appeal to young music-buyers.

In the late 1930s, she married stockbroker Albert P. Scott, the ex-husband of screen star Colleen Moore, and had two children before divorcing. In 1960, she married Clifford W. Henderson, a developer and founder of the National Air Races. They settled in Palm Desert, a community 12 miles east of Palm Springs, where she founded a conservation program called Desert Beautiful.

Henderson died in 1984.

Ms. Marsh's two children survive, along with eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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