The daughter of silent film actress Anna Lehr and director Edward McKim, Ann Dvorak began her film career at the dawn of the sound era. The pretty, wide-eyed Dvorak was one of those performers who not only could but should have become major stars – yet, thanks to studio politics, didn’t. Those unfamiliar with Dvorak’s name and/or work will be able to check her out all day Tuesday, Aug. 9, on Turner Classic Movies. TCM will be presenting 16 of her films. (See further below TCM’s Ann Dvorak Movie Schedule.)
Considering that TCM generally picks the usual suspects for their “Summer Under the Stars” film series – people like Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Bette Davis – I find it refreshing when they select someone like Ann Dvorak. Of course, as a Warner Bros. player in the 1930s, most of Dvorak’s best work has been frequently available on TCM; but to have a whole day devoted to an actress most people alive today have never heard of is a good thing. Next time Ann Dvorak is on TCM, I guarantee you more TV viewers will be tuning in.
The only TCM premiere is the 1951 spy thriller I Was an American Spy, with Dvorak as the “I” of the title. I’ve never watched it, but author James Robert Parish makes it sound fascinating: “I love Ann Dvorak! I still remember her in I Was an American Spy, when the Japanese villains stick a hose down her throat. I never forgot that!” Clearly, I Was an American Spy is not to be missed.
TCM is also showing a number of little-known, little-seen Dvorak efforts, mostly programmers and B movies she made during her years at Warners. Dvorak’s presence alone would make those worthwhile, but most of them have other enticing qualities as well.
Directed by the reliable Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street), Crooner (1932) features the ultra-handsome David Manners as an untalented singing star. Manners can also be seen opposite Dvorak in the perfectly watchable Stranger in Town (1932).
Best known for playing the romantic lead in Dracula, Manners was a highly likable, intelligent-looking actor whose career, like Dvorak’s, never quite took off. I tried contacting him while working on my book about MGM star Ramon Novarro – since both were gay and in Hollywood at the same time, I figured they might have met. Much to my chagrin, by then Manners was in poor health and refused to discuss his film career. In fact, after leaving Hollywood in the mid-1930s, Manners turned to spiritualism and esoterism, writing several books on the subject. That was his passion. [Check out davidmanners.com.]
Though released in 1934, Gentlemen Are Born is a timely drama, as it portrays the difficulties faced by college graduates entering the job market during the height (or rather, depths) of the Great Depression. Since sociopathic American politicians seem intent on repeating the same blunders that led to economic disaster eight decades ago, Gentlemen Are Born should be quite illuminating. Franchot Tone and Jean Muir, both of whom held liberal/left-leaning political views, are Dvorak’s co-stars.
Massacre (1934) is of interest as it stars silent film veteran Richard Barthelmess as a college-educated Sioux who goes to Washington to fight for the rights of Native Americans. Though reportedly a Republican, Barthelmess usually associated himself with films that portrayed with compassion and understanding the poor, the disenfranchised, and ethnic minorities, e.g., Broken Blossoms, Young Nowheres, Heroes for Sale. Massacre was directed by Alan Crosland, best known for the first (part-)talkie feature, The Jazz Singer.
William Keighley’s G-Men (1935) is a weak Warners actioner in which the heroes are the good guys. Personally, I enjoyed much more the Warners flicks in which we were supposed to root for the villains. James Cagney stars.
Dvorak plays the little sister of an Al Capone-esque Paul Muni in Howard Hawks/Howard Hughes’ Scarface (1932). Though quite dated, this classic crime melodrama is worth a look chiefly because of Dvorak: watching her “little sister” grow into a sexy woman makes you understand why her bro was so eager to, ahem, protect her. Note: Despite its Warner Bros. look and feel, Scarface was a United Artists release.
Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Three on a Match
Another cool Ann Dvorak performance is her drug addict in Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match (1932), which features a great cast that includes Warren William, Joan Blondell, and a pre-stardom Bette Davis. Never, ever light three cigarettes using the same match, or you’ll end up like Ann Dvorak, delivering a harrowing performance without getting an Academy Award nomination for your efforts. As Three on a Match‘s young Ann Dvorak, future Oscar nominee Anne Shirley is billed as Dawn O’Day. (And for those who believe that remakes is something new: Three on a Mach was remade a mere six years later as Broadway Musketeers: John Farrow directed; Ann Sheridan, Marie Wilson, and Margaret Lindsay starred.)
I’ve never watched David Miller’s family drama Our Very Own (1950), but its cast is promising: in addition to Dvorak, there’s Ann Blyth, Farley Granger, and Jane Wyatt – though Joan Evans was a Samuel Goldwyn discovery that didn’t go very far. Anatole Litvak’s noirish The Long Night (1947) is another Tuesday option, as it stars Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes.
Schedule (ET) and synopses from the TCM website:
6:00 AM CROONER (1932) A saxophone player rises to fame as a singing star. Dir.: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: David Manners, Ann Dvorak, Ken Murray. Black and white. 67 min.
9:00 AM STRANGER IN TOWN (1932) A Supreme Court justice on vacation takes on crooked small-town politicians. Dir.: Erle C. Kenton. Cast: Charles “Chic” Sale, Ann Dvorak, David Manners. Black and white. 65 min.
10:15 AM SIDE STREETS (1934) A lady furrier marries a lovesick sailor then has to deal with his checkered past. Dir.: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Aline MacMahon, Paul Kelly, Ann Dvorak. Black and white. 64 min.
11:30 AM GENTLEMEN ARE BORN (1934) Recent college graduates face the realities of the Great Depression. Dir.: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Franchot Tone, Jean Muir, Margaret Lindsay. Black and white. 74 min.
1:00 PM MASSACRE (1934) A college-educated Sioux goes to Washington to fight for his people’s rights. Dir.: Alan Crosland. Cast: Richard Barthelmess, Ann Dvorak, Dudley Digges. Black and white. 70 min.
2:15 PM FRIENDS OF MR. SWEENEY (1934) A mild-mannered reporter learns to stand up for himself. Dir.: Edward Ludwig. Cast: Charlie Ruggles, Ann Dvorak, Eugene Pallette. Black and white. 69 min.
5:00 PM THE CROWD ROARS (1932) A race-car driver tries to keep his brother from following in his footsteps. Dir.: Howard Hawks. Cast: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak. Black and white. 70 min.
6:30 PM G-MEN (1935) A mob protégé joins the FBI when a friend is gunned down. Dir.: William Keighley. Cast: James Cagney, Margaret Lindsay, Ann Dvorak. Black and white. 86 min.
8:00 PM SCARFACE (1932) A murderous thug shoots his way to the top of the mobs while trying to protect his sister from the criminal life. Dir.: Howard Hawks. Cast: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley. Black and white. 94 min.
9:45 PM THREE ON A MATCH (1932) A woman’s childhood friends try to rescue her from gangsters. Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Virginia Davis, Joan Blondell, Dawn O’Day [Anne Shirley]. Black and white. 63 min.
11:00 PM BLIND ALLEY (1939) When a gangster takes him hostage, a psychiatrist psychoanalyzes the criminal. Dir.: Charles Vidor. Cast: Chester Morris, Ralph Bellamy, Ann Dvorak. Black and white. 69 min.
12:15 AM THE LONG NIGHT (1947) A veteran tries to free his former love from a sadistic lover. Dir.: Anatole Litvak. Cast: Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price. Black and white. 97 min.
2:00 AM I WAS AN AMERICAN SPY (1951) A war widow spies for the U.S. in Japanese-occupied Manila. Dir.: Lesley Selander. Cast: Ann Dvorak, Gene Evans, Douglas Kennedy. Black and white. 85 min.
3:45 AM OUR VERY OWN (1950) The discovery that she’s adopted shakes a young girl’s sense of security. Dir.: Dave Miller. Cast: Farley Granger, Joan Evans, Ann Blyth. Black and white. 93 min.
Turner Classic Movies website.