Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ann Dvorak: A Penthouse, Pre-Code and You

Second in a series about strong women in film. Strong women are independent, beautiful, sexy, feminine and just want everything in life that a man wants and believe that they have every right to have it!

Ann Dvorak was an ultra-feminine actress whose first finest hours occurred in the pre-code era of film. Unlike other strong women in film, there was nothing masculine about her. Her voice, her form, her inclinations were 100% female - not a drop of testosterone in sight. Bette Davis, and most of the other film women who are perceived as "strong" (many who will be spotlighted here in upcoming months), had masculine qualities that enabled them to stand toe to toe with men in a man's world, be it their will, determination or toughness. But not Ann. An unusual beauty, she was sleek, chic, feline and oozed femininity. She could be tough, but it was not the "in your face" grit that so many strong women have. Her toughness was all high-wire nerves. Any woman will tell you that a display of nervous ferocity will make even the strongest male cower in fear, and no one displayed frayed nerves like Ann Dvorak. She was all woman and wanted the best of a woman's world and no man was going to keep her from it! Only a script could intervene.

Two of Ann's best known roles are from the pre-code era of films made from  the late 1920s through 1934 when Hollywood let down its hair and loosened its tie, corset and tongue. It was a rough world during the Great Depression, inhabited by tough men and tougher women.

Pointing the gun at her brother,  she later
 relents and dies in his arms:
"I am you and you are me."
"Scarface" was Ann's first big break and she made an explosive impact. Playing Cesca, the sister of gangster Tony Camonte (played by Paul Muni) she is electrifying. One of the more scandalous aspects of the story is the incestuous attraction Tony has for Cesca. She allows Tony to adore her, happily accepting the money her gives her in exchange for not fooling with a casual beau. Her eyes light up with the prospect of pretty things as she happily anticipates a shopping spree. She later turns defiant and, in a nervy display of rebellion, seduces Tony's loyal right-hand man, Guino (played by a coin-flipping George Raft). Tragedy ensues, and Cesca, unable to break the bond with Tony, dies by his side, the only one loyal to him at the end. Her death scene is brilliant.While she is always edgy and emotional, she never overacts. Passionate and ferocious, Ann is never less than great and always in control.

Ann's finest pre-code moment came in 1932's "Three on a Match." If you have never seen this film, run now and find it. "Three on a Match" has it all: friendship, love, drugs, infidelity, violence and self-sacrifice. And all in 63 minutes!

Beautiful, restless and headstrong
Ann plays Vivian , a restless rich girl who, bored with husband Warren William, ditches him and her son for some excitement with bad boy gambler Lyle Talbot. Alcoholism and drug addiction (to cocaine, supplied by a really nasty Humphrey Bogart) follow, allowing Ann a wild, over-the-top finale that could only have come in Hollywood during those years. Hang in there for Ann's fabulous finish as a drug-wasted willful woman who, through her foolish, headstrong whims, has put the life of her son in jeopardy. This is the first of two films in which Ann co-starred with Bette Davis (the other being the 1934 "Housewife") and stole the show. Ann's role in this film was much flashier than Bette's, which indicates where she stood in the studio's pecking order at that time (but Bette looked very cute in a bathing suit and chemise).
Other early Ann Dvorak highlights are "The Strange Love of Molly Louvain" where she gets to sing a little of Penthouse Serenade (Ann had musical talents that were occasionally used) and "G-Men" where she gets to die in a phone booth (you just know when anyone walks into a phone booth in an early Warner Brothers film they were done for).

In 1932 she seemed ready to for super-stardom at Warner Brothers, but apparently Ann was just as willful in real life as in the movies. A marriage and her personal life took precedence over her career and, later, a legal battle with Warner Brothers over her contract (the first, before Cagney, Davis & De Havilland) put her on the back burners of non "A" films.

There were other fine performances in not so fine films, but one more moment of glory awaited - one more chance for her to wipe the floor with a bigger star. 1950's "A Life of Her Own" starred Lana Turner, but Ann, as an elegant, used-up and worn-out fashion model, stole the show in her 10 minutes or so on film. And - she gets to make another exit via a leap out of a window, bracketing her greatest early and late roles with suicides via high rise windows. When Ann is on screen, you barely know Lana is in the room, which is not surprising. If this gal could out-shine Bette Davis, what chance did poor Lana have?
Lana might look better out of clothes,
but Ann sure looked more like a fashion model in them!

Ann Dvorak - what a woman, what an actress. Once she gets under your skin, you'll never look back!

 A terrific site that is all about Ann is "Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel."


Freder said...

Wow -- I've never seen any of her movies. Must track down! Thank you, ChickFlick!

Anonymous said...

I'm another one whose never heard of Ann Dvorak but I'll definitely have to watch some of her work after reading your post.
Thank you ChickFlick:)

Jan Miner said...

Great post, FC. Very interesting read that made me want to go see a couple of her films. You're doing your job, girl!

FlickChick said...

If I inspire just one person to take the time to view Ann's work, I will rest easy.

ClassicBecky said...

Just pulled this up from your email to me --great article about Ann! I have always just loved her, and even I have never seen The Strange Loves of.... I'm going to try and find that! I love that naughty little pic of Ann in her bathing suit (at lesat half of it!) thanks for sending me the link. It's nice to meet someone else who appreciates this wonderful lady's work!