New Book Shows How Actress Ann Dvorak Fought the Studio System (and Lost Her Career)
PHOTO BY ELMER FRYERAnn Dvorak
There was a ghost of honor at Christina Rice's wedding: actress Ann Dvorak, once a rising star in Hollywood but now remembered, if at all, for a few daring, pre-Code films from the early 1930s.
Many biographers identify with their subjects. But Rice, an L.A. native who spent 15 years researching and writing her first book, Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel, took it one step further: She got married at the Encino home that Dvorak and her first husband, Leslie Fenton, built in 1934 and lived in for 10 years — longer than the actress lived anywhere else before dying impoverished at the age of 68 in 1979.
It was a decision Rice made while touring the house at the invitation of its current owner, Arnold Scheibel. He knew all about Dvorak and was thrilled that someone was finally writing the life story of the actress who made it to the cusp of superstardom, only to get into a crippling contractual spat with Warner Bros. Although Dvorak continued to make lesser films for another 15 years, the former chorus girl never fully recovered — professionally, artistically or financially.
"I had a wonderful afternoon touring the property with him, seeing the fountain and the greenhouse and the pool that I heard about in my research," Rice, 38, tells the Weekly. "I had just met my husband two weeks before, and I said, 'I'm going to marry him here.' "
But Rice, who works in the L.A. Public Library's photo department, insists that she didn't overly identify with her subject.
"Ann and I really have nothing in common," she says. "I'm much more cautious than her. She was much more impulsive than me."
Indeed, Dvorak's impulsive decision to very publicly defy her studio, break her contract and leave on a 10-month honeymoon to Europe proved the pivotal moment in her life. She was coming off two of her best known roles — as the sexy sister of Tony Camonte in the original Scarface, and as doomed, unstable Vivian Revere in Three on a Match — when she married Fenton, who had played Nails Nathan in James Cagney's breakthrough film, The Public Enemy.
The book's marketing materials cast Dvorak, along with Cagney and Bette Davis, as a rebellious pioneer fighting the tyrannical studio system, which bound contract players — stars and small fry alike — to seven-year contracts. The contracts required them to take whatever roles the moguls assigned them and work from before dawn to after dusk six days a week, often pausing only days between films.
The book, though, makes it clear that Dvorak's break with the studio was motivated more by her obsessive romance with Fenton, which lasted 10 years before they surprised everyone with a sudden divorce, and the influence of his anti-studio philosophy than by any solidarity with labor.
"It's not accurate to say it was a grand gesture against the studios, when she really just wanted to go on a honeymoon," Rice says. "When she walked out and went to the press with her complaints, she came off like a spoiled brat." But, she adds, "I think she had some degree of influence over Cagney and Davis, and she should be mentioned in the same breath with them."
Fans of Hollywood's Golden Age will devour this richly detailed narrative about Dvorak's rise to stardom in the brief period known as the pre-Code era, which started with the transition to talking pictures in the late '20s and ended in 1934 with the industry's strict enforcement of the previously ignored Motion Picture Production Code.
Those five or six years were a cinematic free-for-all: Sexual innuendo, miscegenation, profanity, drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, even — gasp! — homosexuality were all over the screen. In particular, women's near-naked bodies were freely displayed in films like Female, Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman and Scarface, which contains more than a hint of an incestuous attraction between Dvorak's Cesca and her brother, Tony.
Scarface was Dvorak's most significant film, and Rice turns up evidence that she had an affair with producer Howard Hawks, who was known for his on-set affairs.
But it was the other film for which she is most remembered — Three on a Match — that was the catalyst for this biography. Dvorak played opposite Davis and Joan Blondell as a woman whose life is destroyed by ambition, selfishness, rotten friends and hard-core drug use.
"In 1995, I saw Three on a Match, and her performance blindsided me," Rice explains. "My interest grew when I learned how fascinating her off-screen life was. Finally, in 1998, I just said I'm going to write a book about Ann Dvorak."
Dvorak has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but few people today knew why it's there or even who she was. Now, thanks to Rice's epic effort to research and reconstruct her life, Dvorak will be much more than just a ghost of Old Hollywood.
Get the Arts Newsletter
Get the latest news and offers from the LA art scene sent directly to your email address. Exclusive events and art related sales you won't hear about anywhere else!