Ann Dvorak is one of my favorite actresses. Not a star of the magnitude of Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford or her Warner Brothers team mate, Bette Davis, she certainly deserves more than the usual “who”” or “I don’t know anything about her” that are the usual responses to my gushings about her. Her list of quality films is short (but her list of quality performances is not). She was not a household name or a world-class beauty and she lived a life largely out of the spotlight. Consequently, she has proved to be an elusive, even mysterious, idol.
When I got wind that Christina Rice was writing a bio of my darling Ann, I was over the moon. At last, I would have some insight into this lovely, magnetic woman who burned so brightly for a short time and then seemed to disappear in fits and starts in largely forgettable films. I have waited patiently for Ms. Rice to complete her work and I am thrilled to report that she did not disappoint this fan of Ann. Oh, it was a delicious feeling opening that Amazon package and at last holding the key to Ann Dvorak in my hands!
|Christmas came early this year!!|
And so now I know her story. The child of show business parents, Ann grew up on the sidelines but had the show business in her blood. Her father was a show biz entrepreneur of sorts and her mother was silent film star Anna Lehr. Anna who? Exactly. Anna Lehr was a reasonably successful silent film actress who was all but forgotten by the time Ann was breaking into films. She was always a cautionary figure to Ann of the ephemeral nature of fame.
|Ann gave an electric performance as Cesca in "Scarface" (1932)|
While the young Hollywood resident dreamed of a career as a journalist, practicality and financial circumstances dictated that Ann seek work in the town’s film studios. She eventually landed at MGM as a chorus performer, appearing in countless musicals as just one of the girls. She also had some teaching skills and served as a dance instructor. It was in this capacity that she was befriended by star Joan Crawford, who tried like the devil to get Ann some screen time. Sadly, MGM was just not interested. Another actress friend, Karen Morley, had better luck. It was through her that Ann eventually landed the Cinderella part of an inexperienced actress’ lifetime: that of Cesca in Howard Hughes’ 1932 film, “Scarface.” Ann is unforgettable and she seemed headed for the top. Warner Brothers wanted her badly and eventually she made that studio her home.
|As a young contract player, Ann was paired with the best|
But, it never was really home. Notorious for their slave-driver methods, Ann and Warner Brothers were never an easy fit. While her focus had always been on her career, that all changed when she met the man who would change her life (and not always for the better): Actor Leslie Fenton. It seems that it was love at first sight and it was a passion that endured much. Ann, almost a decade younger than Fenton, was bewitched by him as he assumed control of her life. Once she became Mrs. Fenton, her marriage took center stage and her career a back seat. Fenton was an actor/director with little respect for Hollywood, and under his guidance she abandoned her contract at Warner’s to take a year off and travel the world with her husband. No doubt with his encouragement, she spoke out to the press against her employer. As you can imagine, Warner’s were not pleased with their wayward star’s antics off screen.
Once Ann returned to the fold (after all, the couple needed the money) Ann was reduced to thankless parts in mostly supporting films as she continued to battle the studio. It is interesting to watch the paths of both hers and Bette Davis’ careers during these years. At one time they were on the same level at the studio. You might even say that Ann had a leg up, as she certainly got the meatier roles in both “Three on a Match” and “Housewife,” the 2 films in which they appeared together. But Davis was single minded about her career and Ann was not. She wanted to live, see the world, be with her husband and experience more than the movies had to offer. Sadly, her career suffered mightily. She went on to pick an enormous fight with Warner’s that left her career in shambles. While she might have paved the way for those other Warner rebels Cagney, Davis and DeHavilland, Ann’s case against the company was not strong and she paid the price dearly. The promise of the dark beauty who enthralled in “Scarface,” “Three on a Match” and other pre-code dramas never came to fruition and Ann Dvorak became another good actress competing for decent parts.
|Ann flashes her wedding ring with hubby Leslie Fenton|
Fenton, British by birth, went home to serve in the war. Ann accompanied him and did not sit home and knit booties. Our intrepid heroine joined the war effort as an ambulance driver. While London was being bombed, Ann chose not to wait at home in Hollywood, but to actually risk her own life to save others. When not driving an ambulance, she was entertaining the troops. During this time Ann changed from a dependent wife to an independent woman.
Sadly, her marriage to Fenton was a casualty of war, as well. Ann married 2 more times, both times not too well. Her fortunes waned over the years and, after her last film in 1951, she retired to Hawaii where she lived a life completely out of the spotlight. After the death of her beloved mother and her 3rd husband, Ann was alone and living on a very modest income. The life of a glamorous movie star was very far away when she died in Hawaii at age 68.
|Ann had many varied interests and always had a green thumb|
Christina Rice has produced a book of impeccable research. She writes with clarity and compassion and has given us a portrait of a woman whose life was filled with might-have-beens. While they do not look alike, Ann Dvorak has always reminded me a bit of Vivien Leigh. Perhaps it is their feline qualities. Both women followed their hearts and their men. But where Leigh followed the great Olivier, Ann followed men who did her little good.
|The unforgettable Ann Dvorak|
Lucky for us that Ann Dvorak’s finest performances are still with us. From her tragic Vivian Revere in 1932's “Three on a Match” to her pitiful Mary Ashlon in 1950's “A Life of Her Own” (films that bookend her career and, ironically, both end with her taking a swan dive out of a high rise window). Ann Dvorak might not have been the biggest star in Hollywood, but she was unlike anyone else. Once you see her, you never forget her.