The name Ann Dvorak wouldn’t ring even a faint bell for most people around at the beginning of the 21st century. Most people, I said – but definitely not everyone.
A while back, author James Robert Parish heard a loud gong when I told him during lunch at a West Hollywood restaurant that I had been working on a q&a with collector-turned-biographer Christina Rice (right), who has been writing Ann Dvorak’s life story.
“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!”
I haven’t watched I Was an American Spy (it will be on TCM at 11 p.m. tonight), but I remember being impressed by Ann Dvorak’s work in Mervyn LeRoy’s hard-hitting 1932 melodrama Three on a Match, in which she plays a beautiful woman whose life is destroyed by ambition, selfishness, rotten friends, and hardcore drug use. (Three on a Match offers some solid moral advice: If you’re going to be ambitious, selfish, have gangster friends, and do heavy-duty drugs, never, ever use the same match to light three cigarettes. Dvorak’s fellow smokers, by the way, were Joan Blondell and a surprisingly bland Bette Davis.)
From MGM chorus girl (she can be easily spotted in The Hollywood Revue of 1929) to Howard Hughes contract player (Scarface) to Warner Bros. star-in-the-making, Dvorak seemed destined to become a major Hollywood name. That never happened. Poor career choices – including a defiant honeymoon trip and a lawsuit against Warners – left the star-in-the-making stuck in leading-lady roles, mostly in programmers and B fare.
During her Warners stint, however, there were a few A (or at least “A-”) productions as well, among them Alfred E. Green’s 1934 melo Housewife, in which Dvorak and Bette Davis vie for George Brent (as in Three on a Match, Dvorak has a more interesting role than Davis); the gangster drama Dr. Socrates (1935), in which she was cast opposite Paul Muni; and William Keighley’s G Men (1935), starring James Cagney. At 20th Century Fox, she co-starred with Dick Powell in Roy Del Ruth’s wisecracking musical Thanks a Million (1935).
After her Warners contract expired in the mid-1930s, Dvorak freelanced around Hollywood. Though her roles tended to grow smaller, she continued working until 1951. Following a starring role in I Was an American Spy at the minor Allied Artists and a supporting one in the Glenn Ford-Gene Tierney Western drama The Secret of Convict Lake at Fox, her acting career came to an abrupt halt.
Back in August 2008, Christina Rice agreed to answer a few questions (via e-mail) about Ann Dvorak, whom Rice refers to as “Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel.” Please follow the link below – and make sure to check out Rice’s website dedicated to Ann Dvorak. [Note: A version of this post and the follow-up interview were initially published in August ’08.]
Photos: Courtesy of the Christina Rice Collection
Inevitably, my first question is, Why Ann Dvorak?
I’ve definitely been asked that more than once! I rented Three on a Match around 1995 and was blown away by Ann Dvorak in it. She projected so much nervous raw energy, and even though the film was made during the pre-Code era I was still caught off guard by how edgy her performance was. I subsequently watched Scarface and G Men, not realizing Ann was in either one, and was impressed enough to try to find out more about her.
I soon realized that no writer had really delved deep into her life or career, and that most of her films were not readily available. I also realized that since she was relatively obscure, I could afford to collect vintage posters from her films, even though I was a starving college student at the time. Two phrases that accurately describe my personality are “obsessive researcher” and “compulsive collector,” so Ann Dvorak has been a perfect outlet for both these traits. Still, I would have never thought that a dozen or so years after that initial viewing I would find myself running a tribute website, writing a biography, getting married on an estate she built, and amassing a memorabilia collection that includes over 150 vintage posters and close to 900 original photos.
I had no idea that Ann Dvorak was silent film actress Anna Lehr’s daughter – until I saw that info on your website. What was their relationship like?
I get the impression that like a lot of mother/daughter relationships, Ann and her mom tended to drive each other nuts, but were still very close. Anna Lehr strikes me as kind of melodramatic – she was a silent film actress after all – and a bit overbearing, which may at least partially explain why a 20-year-old Ann married a man she barely knew and got the heck out of her mother’s house. Later on, Dvorak supported Lehr financially until they became estranged when Ann’s third husband came into the picture. Ultimately, they were still very reliant on each other.
I was fortunate enough to acquire two separate collections of correspondence from the 1960s. One set is written by Lehr to a cousin, the other by Dvorak to a friend. They both talk about each other quite a bit and these letters paint a vivid picture of what their relationship was like, which I will be able to explore in greater detail in the biography. Anna Lehr has turned out to be such an interesting character that I also want to devote some space in the book to her vaudeville and silent film career.
Now, Ann Dvorak doesn’t sound “American” – I mean, unlike most easily pronounceable, Anglo-sounding star names of the studio era (e.g., Emmanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson, Margarita Cansino became Rita Hayworth, Melvyn Hesselberg became Melvyn Douglas, and so on). Where does that name come from (Ann Dvorak was born Anna McKim) – and how come she managed to keep it?
Ann supposedly got the name Dvorak from her mother’s side of the family. Some sources over the years have said that it was her mother’s maiden name, but Lehr was indeed Anna’s surname, though it was originally spelled Lajer. The name Dvorak is of Czech origin and the Lehr family did immigrate from that area, so it could exist somewhere on the family tree.
When Ann was hired by MGM in 1929, she actually worked under her mom’s name. As her days at Metro were winding down, she started going by “Ann Dvorak,” although the snipe on the back of a publicity photo in my collection spells it “Devorak.” When she signed with Howard Hughes’ Caddo Company, she signed the agreement “D’Vorak,” so she was still playing around with the spelling. I have some early clippings stating that Howard Hughes was going to change it to something less complicated, but he ultimately decided that she could keep it. The correct pronunciation is supposed to be vor-shak, but it has always been commonly pronounced da-vor-ak, in reference to Ann. She was always irritated by the mispronunciation.
Ann Dvorak, Lee Bowman in Leslie Fenton’s Stronger Than Desire
What sort of approach are you going for in your book? Are you focusing mostly on Ann Dvorak’s film work or on her private life – or both? Have you found many people who actually knew Dvorak?
I am focusing on both Ann’s professional work and her private life. Even though her career as a whole was not extremely notable, it lasted more than two decades and she appeared in over fifty films, not counting her work as an MGM chorus girl. She also made three films as a child, one of which was the 1916 version of Ramona, directed by Donald Crisp – so her body of work spans a period of over thirty-five years.
No matter how mediocre some of her movies may have been, she almost always gave strong performances that I think are worth discussing. Off screen, she pursued a lot of unexpected interests such as horticulture and bacteriology, was multilingual, collected rare manuscripts, composed songs, and wrote poetry. Her time spent in Great Britain during WWII is also fascinating. She endured the London Blitz just to be in closer proximity to her husband, Leslie Fenton, who had enlisted in the Royal Navy. As I got more involved in researching her personal life, I discovered a very interesting person, which I hope will be adequately reflected in my book.
To say that finding people who knew Dvorak has been challenging would be a gross understatement! Her last film was made in 1951, so most actors she worked with are no longer around. Between Laura Wagner (Classic Images book reviewer, who included a great chapter on Dvorak in her book Killer Tomatoes) and myself, we have attempted to contact anyone we could think of who appeared in a movie with Ann, but have had little luck. She tended to have smaller roles at the end of her career and the people I have been fortunate enough to speak with simply did not spend enough time with her, on screen or off, to have any strong recollections.
Ann did not have any children or siblings, so there is no family to speak to. I tried placing ads in newspapers in Honolulu and Los Angeles, looking for people who knew her, but that mainly resulted in a lot of collect calls from inmates at the county jail. I did find two gentlemen in Hawaii who knew Dvorak later on and they both have been a tremendous help. One of them even gave me a snapshot of Ann with his mother that was taken in the 1970s! I am saving that treasure for the book, so it is not currently posted on my website. I also interviewed a fellow who took Ann and her mother out to dinner in 1969, which is a fantastic story.
Basically, if anyone reading this so much as walked past Ann Dvorak on the street, please contact me. I want to speak with you! At the same time, after ten years of research, I honestly feel I have acquired enough information to give a well-rounded account of her life – but personal recollections are always a plus in biographies.
Your Ann Dvorak website is subtitled “Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel.” Why that moniker?
“Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel” is mainly in reference to her 1936 lawsuit against Warner Bros. when she sought to have her contract terminated for wrongful suspension. Ann actually filed her suit against the studio a couple of months ahead of James Cagney, and she faced off against Warners in a courtroom eight months before Bette Davis. Yet, her efforts are rarely acknowledged.
True, her name is not familiar like Cagney or Davis, but she still battled the studio system very early on and should get credit for her efforts, unsuccessful as they might have been. She also turned her back on Hollywood at a couple of points when her career had momentum, which I think could also be viewed as rebellious (or possibly, just foolish).