The Misfortunes of Marvel Rea

Silent screen cutie Marvel Rea (1901-1937) had a little good luck, and much terrible fortune to offset it. Today she is sadly best known for the latter, but there is some good stuff to tell before it.

Rea was originally reared on a Nebraska farm, though the the family moved to Southern California when she was nine, her father working as a laborer. She was only 16 when she was hired to be a Mack Sennett Bathing Girl in 1917. Over the next four years she was in close to 30 comedy shorts and one feature, A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919), usually as a Bathing Girl or in small walk on roles. In 1920 she signed with Fox and began to get decent roles (usually second or third billed) alongside the likes of Jack Cooper, Edgar Kennedy, Lige Conley, JImmie Adams, Lloyd Hamilton, Monty Banks, and Otto Fries, and directed by guys like Jack White, Roy Del Ruth and Mal St. Clair. Her last film was For Land’s Sake (1921).

Rea’s career ends abruptly after this without explanation, although it likely had something to do with her personal life. In 1918 she married a bookkeeper named Henry Page Wells, though she left him two weeks later due to his mistreatment of her and abuse of narcotics. The pair were officially divorced in 1922 or 1923.

After this, Marvel continued to live with her extended family (mother, siblings, their spouses, etc.) and was well enough off (probably from the divorce settlement) that she didn’t have to work, and she actually owned the house they lived in. The other members of her family toiled at a variety of humble occupations, e.g., waitress, bricklayer, etc. (See here for lots of detail about the private side of her life).

Then, beginning in 1936, a great deal of incident and resulting publicity — too much. In September of that year she was kidnapped, brutally beaten, and gang raped by three lowlifes in the Compton neighborhood. They left her in an empty lot, unconscious, but she came to, managed to get herself to a police station, and was able to give descriptions. The three men were apprehended and given stiff prison sentences (although they were later let off on a technicality). A month after the attack, she married a gent named Edwin Wilkinson, who was the brother of her sister-in-law. But this nice gesture plainly didn’t bring her happiness. She committed suicide a year later by eating ant paste, then a common insect poison.

No lesson to be drawn, no words of wisdom. Just — sometimes events coalesce to remind us that it’s a jungle out there.

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