See previous post: Ann Dvorak: Hollywood Rebel.
Ann Dvorak’s best-remembered film is probably the 1932 Scarface, starring Paul Muni, directed by Howard Hawks, produced by Howard Hughes, and released by United Artists. What was that experience like for her?
Making Scarface must have been a very exciting experience for Ann. I don’t think a lot of people realize this was Ann’s first real acting role and that she had just turned twenty when she made it. At the time she was signed to play Cesca Camonte, Ann had been working at MGM for over two years in the chorus and as an assistant choreographer to Sammy Lee. Despite being championed by Joan Crawford for more substantial parts, MGM did nothing more with Ann than give her extra work. It must have been a thrill for her to land a challenging role in such a significant film. Based on the strength of her performance, she was given prominent billing alongside Paul Muni, and Howard Hawks subsequently took her over to Warner Bros. for The Crowd Roars.
Ann Dvorak was a leading lady that almost became a major star. Considering her capable leading-lady work in Warner Bros. films of the early 1930s, why did her career stall by mid-decade?
Ann Dvorak’s career stalled mainly because she walked out on her contract in July of 1932 to honeymoon in Europe, and did not return until the following March. Most mini-bios state that her departure was in protest to her weekly salary being the same as Buster Phelps’, the child actor in Three on a Match, but it’s more complicated than that.
In less than a year, she had made eight movies, had gone from unknown chorus girl to “Hollywood’s New Cinderella,” as the press liked to call her, and had gotten married to a man she had only known for a couple of months. When her husband, actor Leslie Fenton, got the opportunity to film a movie in Germany, he decided it was a perfect chance to show his exhausted and overwhelmed bride the world, despite her contractual obligations.
Two weeks before the Fentons took off, the deal between Warner Bros. and Howard Hughes for the purchase of Dvorak’s contract was finalized, and Ann’s agent saw her departure as a way to gain leverage in negotiating her new Warner deal. The agent encouraged Ann to skip town and probably advised her to go to the press with her salary woes, which were not very effective in the midst of the Depression, resulting in a mild media backlash. When she finally returned to Los Angeles eight months later, her new contract included a raise in pay, but Warner Bros. ceased promoting a “star” career for her and were just trying to make some kind of return on their $40,000 investment, which is what they paid Howard Hughes.
She made fifteen more films for Warner Bros. before her contract was terminated, but they tended to be unimpressive leading-lady roles or inconsequential supporting parts. After she left the Burbank studio at the end of 1936, she always freelanced at various places, but never landed that great role to put her over the top as an A-list star.
The romantic in me empathizes with Ann’s decision to take off with her husband and see the world, which turned out to be a fantastically memorable adventure for her. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder what kind of career she would have had if she had just hung tight for a couple of years and played nice with Warner Bros. Then again, if she had done that, then I probably would not be writing about her now.
Ann Dvorak, Paul Muni, Dr. Socrates
Ann Dvorak played opposite most big names at Warner Bros. in the 1930s. In addition to the aforementioned Joan Blondell and Bette Davis, there were Warren William, Paul Muni, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., James Cagney, Dick Powell, Pat O’Brien, and Richard Barthelmess, among others. How did she get along with her leading men? Was she easy to work with?
As far as I can tell, Ann was very easy to work with. I got the chance to speak with both Jane Wyatt and Hugh O’Brian, who made movies with Ann, and while neither one had much to say, the phrase they both used to describe her was “very professional.” According to Warners’ production logs, she was always on time and for the most part did not miss work. Despite the headaches she caused the execs at the Burbank studio, she was extremely reliable once the cameras started rolling.
Of the Ann Dvorak films I’ve seen, the one in which she most impressed me was Three on a Match. Could you tell us a little about that film, and about Dvorak’s relationship with director Mervyn LeRoy, and fellow players Joan Blondell and Bette Davis?
Three on a Match is a compact and gritty pre-Code gem. At sixty-three minutes running time, I cannot think of another feature that packs so much into such little time. Bette Davis always dismissed the movie, though she probably would have felt different if she had been cast in Dvorak’s role as the drug-addicted negligent mother, rather than the thankless secretary she portrayed. Davis later said that she was always impressed with Ann’s work and thought she was a “smashingly nice person.”
This was the second and, unfortunately, last time Ann made a movie with Joan Blondell. They had done The Crowd Roars a couple of months before this one was shot and had great on-screen chemistry. Out of the three actresses, it was Blondell who Mervyn LeRoy figured would be the breakout star and that Dvorak had potential, but he thought little of Davis. I agree that this is one of Ann’s more impressive performances and her other picture with LeRoy, Heat Lightning, is also one of Dvorak’s better films and roles.
After Ann Dvorak’s film (and by then TV) career petered out in the early 1950s, what did she do?
Dvorak was finished with movies in 1951 and her television/radio career was over the following year. Ann and her third husband, Nicholas Wade, started their own production company with the hopes of creating TV shows and documentaries. When that venture failed, they relocated to Hawaii in 1959 and ran a chemical company for a while. In the 1960s, she continued traveling, and undertook a massive writing project, which I will talk about in my book.
While her marriage to Wade lasted almost twenty-five years, until his death in 1975, it does not appear to have been a particularly happy relationship and she tried to leave him on at least two occasions. After Ann’s death in 1979, the National Enquirer printed a horrible article that depicted Ann as living in complete squalor and practically out of her mind. While I think much of the piece was exaggerated, it is true that Wade squandered Ann’s money and she did have a drinking problem. Her final years were far from ideal, but I do not think her situation was quite as extreme as portrayed in the Enquirer. Still, it was a rather sad ending to a fascinating life.
What about Ann Dvorak’s relationship with Warner Bros. boss Jack Warner?
I think Jack Warner was fond of Ann and had a great deal of faith in her abilities as a dramatic actress. After Howard Hawks brought her to Warner Bros. for The Crowd Roars, the studio immediately negotiated a deal with Howard Hughes to borrow her exclusively for six months. As part of the deal, Hughes had script approval for any movie Ann was to make, which Warners agreed to, even though their lawyers advised them against it. Giving Dvorak the title role in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, and choosing her for the heaviest part in Three on a Match over two of their own contract players demonstrates how confident they were in her ability to carry a movie, even though she did not have a lot of experience.
While researching her career in the 1930s, I came across a great memo Jack Warner sent to staff after Ann returned from her extended honeymoon. The memo instructed them to treat Ann as if nothing had happened, but concluded with “however, if she wants to talk to you on the status of contract, refer her to me personally immediately.” I think this shows how Warner wanted Ann at the studio, but that he also meant business. Despite her troubles with Warner Bros. in the 1930s, Ann corresponded with Jack Warner when she was in England during the war and even made This Was Paris at their Teddington Studios.
I think it’s really interesting that when Warner’s autobiography was published in 1965, he failed to acknowledge the existence of [Warners’ producer] Hal B. Wallis or his own son, but discussed Ann Dvorak for a couple of paragraphs. In looking back, he seemed a little disappointed that events played as they did, and that Ann’s relationship with the studio was so strained. Ann’s natural talent to give intense but convincing performances, along with her unconventional but striking looks were a perfect fit for the types of films Warner Bros. was making in the early 1930s. So, it really is too bad they did not get along better.
And finally, do you have a favorite Ann Dvorak film and/or performance? Did Dvorak herself have a favorite?
As I already mentioned, Three on a Match is a personal favorite, as well as Heat Lightning. Scarface is required Dvorak viewing, and I honestly believe her performance in A Life of Her Own was worthy of a supporting actress Academy Award nomination. Ann was a naturally talented actress, but these films demonstrate that when she worked with really capable directors like Mervyn LeRoy, Howard Hawks, and George Cukor, she could really shine.
I also like Ann in Bright Lights, which was directed by Busby Berkeley. It’s not a great film, but Ann and Joe E. Brown play off each other nicely. Stronger Than Desire is an interesting role, because Ann was directed by her husband, Leslie Fenton. She is especially beautiful in this film, which I think has a lot to do with it being produced by MGM. No studio did Hollywood glamour like they did.
Ann’s personal favorite was I Was an American Spy, which was her second-to-last film. It was based on the true World War II story of a gal named Claire Phillips who, while posing as a nightclub singer in the Philippines, is captured and tortured by the Japanese when they discover she is a spy for the Allies. Ann prepared for the role by forging a personal relationship with Claire Phillips and was very proud of the end result. Unfortunately, this is a Dvorak film I have never seen, and in the six years I have been running www.anndvorak.com, dozens of people have contacted me looking for a copy. It was an Allied Artists production, so Time Warner now owns both the rights and a print, so hopefully they will make it available sometime in the near future.