Author Christina Rice on ‘Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel’

Rice FLibrarian-archivist Christina Rice has just penned Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, the first major biography of this star who has been forgotten by the public but still beloved by movie lovers. She was kind enough to let me interview her about the book, which will be TCM’s Book Corner Selection for November. Evidently, we Morlocks like to hobnob with the literary set, as evidenced by Greg Ferrara’s recent interview with Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and a previous interview with Ms. Rice by Richard Harlan Smith about her expertise on Dvorak.

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel will be officially released on November 4 via the University Press of Kentucky. If you live in Los Angeles, drop by the release party on November 12 at the Central Library on West 6th Street. Please read on for expert insights into Dvorak’s life and recommendations for her best films.

SD:  Can you briefly summarize the scope of Ann Dvorak’s career for those who may only know her from her most well-known films, Scarface and Three on a Match? And, what type of role/character was her forte?

CR: Ann had an unusual career path in that she went from chorus dancer/extra at MGM straight to a second-billed role in Scarface, which was a very high profile film. After some early issues with Warner Bros., she was mainly reduced to bland leading lady roles. When her contract at Warner Bros. ended, she became a freelancer for the rest of her career and would sometimes land starring roles in mainly B-pictures. She finished out her career primarily in small supporting roles but was usually a standout even if her screen time was limited.

Ann excelled in heavy dramatic roles, which is evident in early films like Scarface and Three on a Match, or later ones such has Private Affairs of Bel Ami and A Life of Her Own. Unfortunately, she was usually relegated to those leading lady roles in films like Crooner or Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, which gave her little to do besides propping up the male star. When she was under contract to Howard Hughes in the early half of 1932, he tried very hard to get Rain for Ann, which ultimately went to Joan Crawford. And while I personally love Crawford in the role, I can only begin to imagine what Ann would have done with Sadie Thompson!

DVORAK AS CESCA IN 'SCARFACE.' THE TELL-TALE "X" IN THE SET DESIGN TELEGRAPHS HER FATE.

DVORAK AS CESCA IN ‘SCARFACE.’ THE TELL-TALE “X” IN THE SET DESIGN TELEGRAPHS HER FATE.

SD: Given the type of characters that she played, what value do her films have for us today? Does she represent a type of woman still relevant ?

CR: Some of Ann’s most memorable characters came during the pre-Code era, and she definitely embodied the independent and sexually empowered female characters so often found in films of that time. However, unlike say Jean Harlow in Red Headed Woman or Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living, Ann’s characters tended to pay the price for their “sins” and were frequently doomed. She was almost like a model for clean living: “Watch out girls or you’ll end up suffering like Ann at the end of a film!” Even later on in 1950′s A Life of Her Own, her character serves as a warning sign for Lana Turner to mind her ways in the world of fashion modeling. While the fate of her characters may sometimes seem melodramatic or outdated on the surface, Ann was able to bring such passion and sincerity to the roles that they actually have a contemporary feel when viewing them today.

'THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA LOUVAIN'

‘THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN’ (photo: Christina Rice)

SD: What was her approach to acting? In other words, did she have a “method” for creating a role?

CR: I don’t know if Ann had a specific approach to acting, and I do think she had a lot of natural raw talent. However, she did feel that her early roles, which happen to be the ones she is most well- known for, suffered because she lacked life experience. In July 1932, after completing Three on a Match, she walked out on her Warner Bros. contract to go on an eight-month honeymoon abroad with Leslie Fenton. There were many reasons that played into her decision, but after she returned she frequently stated how the experiences she gained traveling were going to benefit her acting tremendously. She would add that her previous performances were sub-par because she had been a mere ingenue. Personally, I don’t agree with her self-assessment, and I think she was marvelous in those early performances.

SD: Most classic-movie lovers have seen her in Scarface, Three on a Match, and maybe even G-Men. Which of her lesser-known films would you recommend and why?  

CR: Those three were actually the first movies I saw and are a great introduction to Ann Dvorak. The Strange Love of Molly Louvain is not the strongest pre-Code, but it’s worthwhile as it’s one of the few starring roles of Ann’s career and she gets to carry the film. Also, she fell in love with co-star Leslie Fenton during production, and I think that comes across in their scenes together, even the ones where she is spitting venom at him. I highly recommend Heat Lightning, another great pre-Code. Even though Ann’s role is supporting, the character has more depth than many of the post-honeymoon roles Warner Bros. cast her in, and the relationship between Ann and Aline MacMahon as her older sister is believable. From later in her career, Ann’s performances in A Life of Her Own and Our Very Own dominate those films even, though I personally find both movies a bit difficult to get through. I’m also partial to The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, which is one of the few period films Ann did and is set in 1890s Paris. Her character is intelligent, poised, demands respect and her appearance and acting reflect a subtle maturity following her experiences in England during World War II.

SD: Dvorak’s career stalled, and she never became the star she might have. Would you say that she did not take advantage of the studio system’s star-making machine like she could have, or would you say she was a victim of the dark side of the star system?

CR: I think you could say it was a bit of both. Warner Bros. purchased Ann’s contract from Howard Hughes for $40,000 in 1932, and while she probably would not have been immune to being cast in some of  the studio’s many quickie programmers, I would imagine they would have also given her some substantial roles in order to make the most of their investment. Walking out on her contract for the extended honeymoon wasn’t a great move at that point, and it didn’t help that she went to the press at the same time to complain about how underpaid she was. This was in the midst of the Depression, so a twenty year old balking about her weekly salary of $250 didn’t go over well with the studio or the media. Her later lawsuit against Warner Bros. didn’t help her reputation and while she usually didn’t have trouble finding work as a freelancer, I don’t think any of the studios wanted to take a big chance on her with an A List starring role.

WITH ALINE MacMAHON IN 'HEAT LIGHTNING'

WITH ALINE MacMAHON IN ‘HEAT LIGHTNING’ (photo: Christina Rice)

SD: What was the most challenging part of producing this book? Was it researching an actress who had been forgotten? Or, was it writing the story of someone whose life and career did not come to a good end?

CR: I first conceived of writing Ann’s story back in 1998, so the research was initially very difficult. Ultimately, I uncovered way more information on Ann Dvorak than I thought possible, but it really took 15 years of researching and collecting memorabilia to get to that point. Finding individuals who knew Ann was a miserable process, not only because I loathe cold calling people, but because no one I found really knew her that well. Fortunately, I located a lot of primary source documents, many of which allowed Ann to speak for herself which are a powerful source of information.

Once I really got into the writing, I enjoyed it. After 15 years of accumulating so much material, it was exciting to see it all come together and to make connections within the text that were not evident when I was in the gathering stage. Her time in England during the War was especially fascinating. But yes, writing those last couple of chapters, which were not a particularly happy period in Ann’s life was much more difficult and emotionally draining than composing the rest of the book.

ON HER HONEYMOON IN EUROPE

ON HER HONEYMOON IN EUROPE (photo: Christina Rice)

SD: What was the most valuable piece of research that you unearthed, and how did it come about?

CR: There were many valuable pieces of information that I accessed, but one of the most interesting collections appeared just a few months ago. Three weeks after I turned in my completed draft, I received a cryptic message from someone claiming to have some of Ann’s personal items. Two months later and after much haggling I received the box with letters from friends, receipts, bank statements and other assorted documents which tied up a lot of the loose ends from Ann’s final years. There was also a journal with one entry where Ann summed up her feelings about her life and career which was an absolute gift. Finally, the collection also included the scrapbook of photos from that 1932 honeymoon. To gain possession of something that was so precious to Ann is truly special.

Fortunately, the University Press of Kentucky was committed to producing the best book possible, so even though these items arrived in the 11th hour, Kentucky allowed me to revise the manuscript and swap out some of the previously selected photos. The book really and truly took as long as it needed to.

SD: Is there an Ann Dvorak movie that you have not seen that you are hoping to see? Why this one?

CR: Of the 50+ films where she is credited as Ann Dvorak (that is, not including the films she made in the silent era as a child, and the uncredited MGM titles), there are two I have not seen because they are considered lost. Squadron Leader X and Escape to Danger were both made in England during the War and distributed by RKO. Both were released here in the States, so it’s interesting that they are both missing titles. Squadron Leader X seems to be the most sought after of the two and has shown up on the British Film Institute’s most wanted list. However, I think Escape to Danger sounds like the more Ann-centric of the two and with a tag line of “Super Spy, Glamour Girl,” how could I not want to see that?!

Also, in the early 1950s, Ann was on The Broadway Television Theater, which aired live performances of the same show on five consecutive nights. Ann starred in a version of “The Trial of Mary Dugan,” which must have been a wonderfully dramatic role for her, but since the gimmick of the show was that it was live every night, it wasn’t recorded.

DVORAK WITH BETTE DAVIS IN 'HOUSEWIFE.' DVORAK'S TROUBLED CAREER IS OFTEN COMPARED TO DAVIS'S SUCCESSFUL ONE.

DVORAK COSTARRED WITH BETTE DAVIS IN ‘HOUSEWIFE.’ DVORAK’S TROUBLED CAREER IS OFTEN COMPARED TO DAVIS’S SUCCESSFUL ONE. (photo: Christina Rice)

SD: What other actor/actress would you consider researching and writing about, and why?

CR: There are a few people I encountered while researching Ann who I might be interested in exploring. Glenda Farrell is so damn likable in everything I have seen her in and was a much more agreeable Warner workhorse than Ann, so her story would be a nice contrast. Karen Morley would also be a worthwhile subject because of what she went through with blacklisting. Aline MacMahon is another actress who I find fascinating. She wasn’t a classic beauty, but she had an amazing screen presence and was very versatile. However, I’m going to wait until this first book comes out before diving into the next one!

 

15 Responses Author Christina Rice on ‘Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel’
Posted By More Ann Dvorak Love – Christina Interviewed By A TCM Movie Morlock | Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel : October 14, 2013 7:58 pm

[…] post is going up a bit later than usual, but I knew this interview would be popping up on the TCM Movie Morlocks blog and wanted to hold off and feature […]

Posted By Debbie A-H : October 14, 2013 8:58 pm

Interesting story, and now I want to watch some of her films. Sounds like a very interesting book. Nice interview, Dr. Doll.

Posted By Lisa W. : October 14, 2013 8:59 pm

Ooh! This looks so great— putting this title on my must-read list. Thanks Susan and Christina for the interview!

Posted By george : October 14, 2013 9:21 pm

I want to read it, too. Anyone who’s seen THREE ON A MATCH and THE CROWD ROARS (and even a minor but fascinating film like LOVE IS A RACKET) knows Dvorak was a special talent who should have been a bigger star.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 14, 2013 10:27 pm

Am glad for the nice response to the book and to the actress. For those of you who are going to track down THREE ON A MATCH or the original SCARFACE, keep in mind that she was only 20 years old when she made those films.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 14, 2013 10:35 pm

I’ve grown to really like Ann Dvork in recent years so I’m looking forward to reading this. It’s a shame that there’s so little info about her available but I’m glad writers like Christina Rice are helping to fill that void.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : October 14, 2013 11:21 pm

Great interview and a terrific look not only at the actress but at the process Ms. Rice went through to put out a book that is clearly worth the wait. That treasure trove of late-arriving material must have been so exciting and gratifying to utilize.

Of course I had to find out how to correctly pronounce Dvorak, too!

Posted By george : October 15, 2013 1:18 am

William A. Wellman’s LOVE IS A RACKET (1932), in which the hero (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) helps cover up a “justified” homicide, is the kind of morally ambiguous movie that would be verboten when the Code was imposed two years later.

Posted By Christine in GA : October 15, 2013 9:11 am

Great interview. Ann Dvorak was a very talented actress and had the prettiest, biggest eyes.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 15, 2013 3:16 pm

George: One of my columns in the future is going to be a list of lesser-known but interesting pre-Code films. I inherited copies of several hundred movies recently, and I think I may have a copy of LOVE IS A RACKET. If so, I will watch it for potential inclusion on the list.

Posted By george : October 15, 2013 8:30 pm

Sounds good, Susan. I finally got around to seeing KONGO (1932), which is pretty much the ultimate in pre-Code depravity and politically incorrect behavior and language.

Other pre-Codes deserving more attention: the ultra-intense TWO SECONDS (1932), the fact-based THE FINGER POINTS (1931, an early Gable gangster performance), and DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931, interesting for having two Asians — Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa — in the leads).

In the meantime, here’s a 1932 Paul Whiteman recording of the song “Three on a Match,” which regulars here will recognize from the movie:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrPLvgqkvTU

Posted By swac44 : October 15, 2013 9:46 pm

Great to hear that Ann Dvorak is getting the attention she deserves after all these years. I’d love to read more about Aline MacMahon, an actress I’ve only become aware of in recent years, but find utterly captivating in the handful of films I’ve seen her in.

Posted By Emgee : October 16, 2013 12:53 pm

I could never figure out why James Cagney went for Margaret Lindsay in “G-Men” instead of the much more vivacious and appealing Ann Dvorak. I’m sure that in real life it would have been another matter.
Such a memorable actress,and such a shame she never became the star that she should have been.

Posted By kingrat : October 16, 2013 10:08 pm

Susan, thank you so much for interviewing Christina Rice. Here’s hoping Santa will bring me her book for Christmas. I’m glad Ms. Rice commented on the little-seen THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI, a fine film by the little-known but gifted auteur, Albert Lewin. Ann plays an intellectual woman who is clearly the equal if not the superior of George Sanders, and her intelligence is seen as a good thing.

I wish Christina Rice had mentioned another of the unsung masterpieces of the 1940s, THE LONG NIGHT, Anatole Litvak’s remake of LE JOUR SE LEVE, with Ann taking Arletty’s role. American censorship means that it can’t be openly said that her character has slept with Henry Fonda in the past, though Ann makes this clear, whereas in the French original Jean Gabin and Arletty are still sleeping together, even though he’s in love with Jacqueline Laurent. Arletty is wonderful, but so is Ann.

Ann certainly deserved an Oscar nod for THE LONG NIGHT and A LIFE OF HER OWN, at the very least, but she wouldn’t have had the support of a studio.

Posted By george : March 24, 2015 10:41 pm

She did a nice rendition of “The Wreck of the Old 97,” too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n__zOO9AEa8

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