ANN DVORAK BIOGRAPHY

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After interviewing Christina Rice recently,I have very much enjoyed reading Christina’s new biography of Ann Dvorak, “ANN DVORAK HOLLYWOOD’S FORGOTTEN REBEL” (2013. University Press of Kentucky.)

Ann Dvorak’s career seems to be a case of “If only….”

As Christina says, “If Ann had only played by the rules for a couple of years, who knows what she and Warner Bros could have accomplished together.”

Columnist Louella Parsons also saw the talent, “….Too bad really that Ann and Warners had to have that trouble at the time of her marriage to Leslie Fenton. She was one of the biggest bets on the screen when she chose to kick up her heels and walk out on one of the best opportunities any young player ever had.”

Even Jack Warner in his memoirs mentioned Ann….”She had a dazzling future.”

So who is Ann Dvorak, who may be remembered for playing Paul Muni’s sister,’Cesca’ in Scarface and for co-starring with Bette Davis and Joan Blondell in Three on a Match.

Christina Rice has spent many years researching Ann’s life and career, and has skilfully put together a comprehensive study which is honest and brimming full of facts and pertinent observations, and rare photos from Ann’s life and films. Christina is probably Ann’s biggest fan and I applaud her ability to detach herself and look objectively at Ann’s life choices.

We are taken through the stages of Ann’s life,from childhood to her later years living in Hawaii.

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With no formal training, in acting,singing or dancing, Ann came to Hollywood and became adept at all three. She worked hard at MGM, appearing in nearly 30 films in 1929/30. Always in the chorus,she did become choreographer Sammy Lee’s assistant. Ann was even assigned to instruct Joan Crawford in two dance numbers for Dance Fools Dance. Ann said, “Joan did everything she could to get me my chance.” Unfortunately those who mattered at MGM didn’t spot Ann’s potential.

It was Karen Morley  (whom Ann had become friends with at MGM) who was instrumental in helping Ann get the part in Scarface. Howard Hughes signed Ann to a contract just after her 20th birthday. Hughes being Hughes, Ann’s contract was quickly sold to Warners  for $40,000.

Christina points out,”If there was ever a crossroads in the career of Ann Dvorak, it was in early July 1932. After 3 years of hard work and dogged determination, she seemed to be on the precipice of a phenomenal career as a dramatic film actress. This was the exact moment she chose to walk out on her contract and leave the country,essentially killing her chances of becoming a major star at Warner Bros.”

Ann had married Leslie Fenton in 1932 and Fenton had an acting job in Europe.In July ’32, Ann sent word to the studio she’d be out of town for a few weeks. She ended up staying away for 8 months, enjoying a very extended honeymoon in Europe and Africa, not returning to Hollywood till February,1933. Ann also criticised Warners to the press and was put on suspension.

This was the action of a 20 year old  who was not well advised either by her new husband or her agent. Warner Brothers, like all the big studios,expected their contractees to do exactly as they were told.Ann’s actions really were the end of any hope of a major career.

Having spent $40,000 to obtain her services, Warners weren’t about to let her go, but when they finally did put her to work late in 1933, it was on loan-out to Paramount. For the next year, Ann had to put up with small parts.

Christina comments, “One newspaper even reported that,following her prolongued absence, Warner Bros had made a conscious decision not to star her in anything.”

The ‘rebel’ image became even more apparent when Ann and her husband took Warners to court in December 1935, over Warners’ refusal to give Ann work or take her off suspension after illness. She lost the case.

It was another year before Ann made her final Warners film – The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937), as ‘Della Street’ alongside Donald Woods as Perry Mason.

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Warners then released her ,though they could have kept her at the studio till 1938.

Girls of the Road at Columbia in 1940 was Ann’s last Hollywood film for 4 years. She followed her husband to England when Leslie Fenton joined the Royal Navy. She adapted to this very different life, driving ambulances, joining the Womens Land Army and entertaining the troops.

In 1941  she even made a film for Warners in England, This was Paris. Two other films she made in England have escaped even Christina – Squadron Leader X and Escape to Danger.

After Leslie Fenton was invalided out of the navy, they finally returned to the States.

Nine months later,Ann had a 3 picture deal with Republic,one of which was Flame of the Barbary  Coast with John Wayne.

Another twist in Ann’s life – after 12 years of marriage, her marriage was over. No amount of digging by Christina can establish the reasons for the divorce – was it simply two people growing apart, casuality of the war? Ann herself said, “A thousand reasons.”

Two more failed marriages followed, a fraught relationship with her mother and a few more good roles – Abilene Town,The Private affairs of Bel Ami,The Long Night,I was an American Spy, A Life of her Own. Then Ann’s film career was over by 1951 when she was only 39.

Her later years were spent in Hawaii,living on Social Security and a Screen Actors Guild pension. She was an avid reader and a keen gardener.

Cancer took her in 1979.

This is an absorbing story put together so well by Christina Rice. Even if you don’t know Ann Dvorak, her story is fascinating and Christina’s research really brings this actress to life. Ann had many happy periods in her life,   but in the end, I think she did regret the film career that might have been.

Personally I became aware of Ann Dvorak when I first saw Abilene Town.- her performance was so much more than I expected . Then I saw Three On a Match,stunning in a dramatic role. Then Blind Alley, The Long Night,Girls of the Road, I was an American Spy.The Private Affairs of Bel Ami and so funny in Out of the Blue. She could sing and dance too!

This book is so worth reading as it shows in great detail the trajectory of a Hollywood life which derailed when life became more important than career.I have so many Dvorak films to catch up on,and Christina’s complete  Filmography is another useful tool.

Ann and Leslie Fenton

Ann and Leslie Fenton

4 responses »

    • It’s an interesting commentary on the studio system. Warners recognised Ann’s talent but even the fact that she could have made a lot of money for the studio didn’t seem to matter. She didn’t toe the line and she dared to criticise the studio.

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