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Ann Dvorak

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel

Christina Rice
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Ann Dvorak
    Book Description:

    Possessing a unique beauty and refined acting skills, Ann Dvorak (1911--1979) found success in Hollywood at a time when many actors were still struggling to adapt to the era of talkies. Seemingly destined for A-list fame, critics touted her as "Hollywood's New Cinderella" after film mogul Howard Hughes cast her as Cesca in the gangster filmScarface(1932). Dvorak's journey to superstardom was derailed when she walked out on her contractual obligations to Warner Bros. for an extended honeymoon. Later, she initiated a legal dispute over her contract, an action that was unprecedented at a time when studios exercised complete control over actors' careers.

    As the first full-length biography of an often-overlooked actress,Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebelexplores the life and career of one of the first individuals who dared to challenge the studio system that ruled Tinseltown. The actress reached her pinnacle during the early 1930s, when the film industry was relatively uncensored and free to produce movies with more daring storylines. She played several female leads in films includingThe Strange Love of Molly Louvain(1932),Three on a Match(1932), andHeat Lightning(1934), but after her walk-out, Warner Bros retaliated by casting her in less significant roles.

    Following the casting conflicts and illness, Dvorak filed a lawsuit against the Warner Bros. studio, setting a precedent for other stars who eventually rebelled against the established Hollywood system. In this insightful memoir, Christina Rice explores the spirited rebellion of a talented actress whose promising career fell victim to the studio empire.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4440-5
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    April 4, 1936, was a typical sunny day in Southern California as Ann Dvorak made her way toward the all-too-familiar entrance of the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse. Here, over the past two months, she had endured pointed questions from Warner Bros.’ lawyers and watched as X-rays of her inner organs were put on display. The proceedings had not gone her way so far, and this last-ditch effort to get the judge to void her contract would probably fail. Still, maybe this time she would at least find out how long her servitude to Warner Bros. would continue. If nothing else,...

  5. 1 Vaudeville Days
    (pp. 7-12)

    The actress known to movie audiences as Ann Dvorak was born as the less exotic-sounding Anna McKim. Unlike many aspiring starlets who journeyed to Hollywood from small towns and humble beginnings, Ann Dvorak was born amid the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. At the time of her birth in 1911, New York City was the country’s epicenter of live entertainment and a burgeoning film industry. This was the exciting and unpredictable world into which her vaudevillian parents brought her.

    Dvorak’s father did not play a prominent role in her life—he was completely absent from it from her early childhood...

  6. 2 Child Actress
    (pp. 13-24)

    Most sources give Ann Dvorak’s birth date as August 2, 1912. However, the New York City Birth Index confirms that Anna McKim was born on August 2, 1911. Throughout her career, Ann would claim 1912 as the year of her birth, though in later years she would begin listing 1911. Shaving off a few years has always been a common practice in Hollywood, though the origin of this discrepancy is probably Anna Lehr. Dvorak’s mother frequently subtracted anywhere from four to fourteen years off her own age, even fudging the numbers on her application for a Social Security card. More...

  7. 3 Schoolgirl
    (pp. 25-32)

    Upon returning to New York in early 1922, Lehr did not obtain film work, though it is not clear if she was looking for such opportunities. She had always made her career her top priority since she was a teenager, and toward the end of her life she frequently expressed an interest in making a big comeback, so her sudden retirement remains a mystery. Perhaps she had finally become burned out after working nonstop for fifteen years. Or maybe, now that she was over thirty, roles were becoming harder to land. Lehr must have felt at least a little guilty...

  8. 4 Chorus Cutie
    (pp. 33-48)

    With her writing ambitions unrealized, at least for the moment, Ann turned to the business she had been surrounded by her entire life. She was banking on her mother to help her break through the studio doors. Always one to put Lehr on a pedestal, Ann reflected, “I’m lucky that’s all, in having a mother who knows these people personally.” Lehr was unofficially retired, but still had enough connections to arrange for her daughter to meet with Douglas Fairbanks, who would soon be entering production on his last silent film,The Iron Mask.Ann was excited to meet the swashbuckling...

  9. 5 Scarface
    (pp. 49-62)

    By 1931 the Hollywood film industry was getting over the growing pains brought on by sound films and had entered one of its most notorious periods, now known as the pre-Code era. As the country shifted from strict Victorian moral codes to the looser attitudes of the Jazz Age, the movies reflected these social changes and became increasingly more daring with the subject matter presented on the screen. The majority of film fans who flocked to the theaters reveled in these tales of crime, sex, drugs, and the like, but more vocal religious groups took exception to the lurid themes...

  10. 6 Hollywood’s New Cinderella
    (pp. 63-74)

    Warner Bros. had ushered in the era of talking pictures in 1927, and by 1932 had established itself as a studio to be reckoned with. The four Warner brothers had originally started out as film exhibitors and had moved into the distribution side of the business before deciding that creating their own movies was the way to go. They made a name for themselves in 1918 by producing the controversialMy Four Years in Germany, which depicted atrocities committed by the Germans during World War I. The production established the fledgling production company as an entity willing to take risks...

  11. 7 Mrs. Leslie Fenton
    (pp. 75-86)

    In the early hours of St. Patrick’s Day in 1932, Ann Dvorak and Leslie Fenton made their way to the United Airport in Burbank where they were scheduled to a catch a chartered flight to Yuma, Arizona, at 9:30 a.m. Arizona had become a popular place for Hollywood notables to elope, not only because it was far from the prying eyes of Tinseltown’s gossip columnists, but because amorous couples could thereby bypass California’s three-day waiting period. The day before, Ann had finished her scenes onLove Is a Racketearly but had to sit for a scheduled interview before leaving...

  12. 8 Sold Down the River
    (pp. 87-98)

    If there was ever a crossroads in the career of Ann Dvorak, it was in early July 1932. She had been making films nonstop for more than six months, was a darling of the Hollywood press, and seemed positioned to have a long and fruitful career with Warner Bros., the studio that had just forked over $40,000 to Howard Hughes for her contract. The Production Code was still largely ignored by filmmakers, and opportunities for Ann to appear in daring roles like Cesca Camonte and Vivian Revere were still possible. By July her films were regularly showing in theaters to...

  13. 9 Happy Vagabonds
    (pp. 99-110)

    When Ann Dvorak walked out on her contract in July 1932, she may have done irrevocable damage to her relationship with Warner Bros., but she also embarked on an incredible journey that exceeded even her wildest dreams. The couple was absent from Hollywood for over eight months and spent the majority of the time roaming around Europe, journeying as far as Africa. Ann would travel abroad many times during the course of her life, but none of the subsequent trips would hold the wonder and romance this first one did. The memory of her honeymoon with Leslie Fenton proved to...

  14. 10 Prodigal Daughter
    (pp. 111-120)

    Ann was not sent to see Jack Warner the next day because she did not show up at the studio. Rather than reporting for work, she consulted her agents, Myron Selznick and Frank Joyce. Even in the midst of her fairytale honeymoon, she had come to the realization that Charles Feldman had done a less than stellar job of handling Warner Bros. during her extended vacation, and had switched agencies while still abroad. She had her new representatives feel out the studio’s attitude toward her, and figuring transparency was the best route, had them turn over all the wires and...

  15. 11 Warner Workhorse
    (pp. 121-132)

    College Coachmarked the beginning of a productive run of filmmaking for Ann Dvorak, though the movies often left a lot to be desired, particularly in regard to the size of her roles. The main part Ann seemed to be playing in the mid-1930s was that of a Warner Bros. workhorse. No studio could churn out films quite like Warner Bros., and generally no one under contract was immune from appearing in his or her fair share of B films, made on the cheap and shot in less than a month or sometimes in a couple of weeks. As one...

  16. 12 Life Off Camera
    (pp. 133-150)

    If the mid-1930s were the most productive and stable years of Ann’s career, then the same could arguably be said of her personal life as well. During this time, Ann and Leslie Fenton seemed to have found a harmony between work and home life, which still included traveling and other personal hobbies. Many in the film community would question the couple’s social habits, or lack thereof, and would raise their eyebrows at the amount of influence husband had over wife, but Ann seemed genuinely happy during this time.

    After only five months of living at the Van Nuys ranch, Ann...

  17. 13 Suspended Contract Player
    (pp. 151-164)

    It appears that Jack Warner never fully got over Ann’s walkout and harsh statements to the press, though he was never outwardly nasty to her, nor did he speak ill of her publicly. In fact, he seemed to be quite fond of her, yet he possessed the type of personality and ego that did not allow him to completely let go of any perceived slight. Ann had been working nonstop since fall 1933, yet the parts tended to be minuscule and the movies mediocre. While she had once graced the posters advertising her films, she was no longer treated as...

  18. 14 Legal Eagle
    (pp. 165-182)

    The year 1936 would prove to be a litigious one for Warner Bros. James Cagney made good on his numerous threats of legal action and filed a lawsuit against the studio in early March. The actor claimed Warner Bros. had breached his contract by assigning him to more than four pictures a year and by failing to give him top billing in one of those films. The judge saw it Cagney’s way and he was released from studio servitude. In the fall of the same year, Bette Davis faced off against Jack Warner himself in the British courts. Her counsel...

  19. 15 Freelance Artist
    (pp. 183-194)

    After nearly eight years of working under the control of MGM, the Caddo Company, and Warner Bros., Ann Dvorak finally had the career freedom that her husband had been enjoying all along. Leslie Fenton had found steady work as a freelancer throughout the 1930s, with his acting career culminating in 1938 with a role in the much-heraldedBoys Town. The Fentons were about to enter a new phase in both their careers, with Ann choosing where she would work and Fenton giving up acting in favor of directing. Other actresses, most notably Barbara Stanwyck and Carole Lombard, had successfully maneuvered...

  20. 16 War
    (pp. 195-206)

    War had officially broken out in September 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland, and England was quickly drawn into the conflict. To many English actors residing in Hollywood, this would prove to be a call home to enlist in the service or to be near loved ones. Others remained in the United States, choosing to participate remotely through war-bond tours or by appearing in morale-boosting films. For Ann Dvorak, the wife of a Britishborn citizen, war would come to her doorstep much sooner than for most Americans. No matter how she may have felt about the situation, Leslie Fenton was still...

  21. 17 Ann of All Trades
    (pp. 207-216)

    In the spring of 1941, Leslie Fenton received the rank of lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). One year later he was commanding a ship in the now-legendary raid on St. Nazaire, known as Operation Chariot. St. Nazaire was a port town in German-occupied France that provided the Nazis with a dry dock for repairing their ships. In January 1942 the imposing battleshipTirpitzwas docked at St. Nazaire, and the Royal Navy and British commandos immediately launched a plan to prevent the battleship from entering Atlantic waters and to put the dry dock out of commission once...

  22. 18 Shell Shocked
    (pp. 217-228)

    After nearly three years of being submerged in the day-to-day trials of war, Ann Dvorak and Leslie Fenton were finally back in the United States. The experience of being on soil untouched by bombs was initially surreal for Ann; after arriving in New York, she “walked around just looking and wondering for four days. I was astonished to discover how completely I had forgotten the plenty and warmth of America.” She continued, “When I came west on the train, I was excited again by the spaciousness and richness of our country.”¹ 1 Even though the country was fully engaged in...

  23. 19 Career Girl
    (pp. 229-240)

    Without a marriage to concentrate on, Ann finally turned her attention to her film career. Now that she had some perspective over what had transpired during her Warner Bros. years, Ann’s outlook was much different than it had been in 1932 when, she admitted, “I was Mrs. Fenton first and Ann Dvorak second. When he wanted to take a trip around the world, we took a trip around the word. And to heck with the movie business.” She continued, “The only thing wrong with that was that I wasn’t an actress so much as I was a wife.”¹ To another...

  24. 20 Broadway Bound
    (pp. 241-252)

    Ann Dvorak’s career took a different turn in the late 1940s. In fact, 1948 would find her completely missing from cinema productions. She had appeared in forty-seven feature films in sixteen years, and had recently turned in strong supporting performances inOut of the Blue, The Long Night,andThe Walls of Jericho. Some gossip columnists claimed Ann was in demand, though it’s hard to tell if this was actually true as her film roles suddenly evaporated. Whether or not she actively sought a career change, Ann was about to start performing on the airwaves and for live theater crowds....

  25. 21 Seasoned Professional
    (pp. 253-264)

    At the dawn of the 1950s, Ann Dvorak had been making movies for more than twenty years. She had demonstrated the depths of her talents as an actress early on in her career with performances inScarfaceandThree on a Match,and in the postwar era had been establishing herself as a reliable supporting player. With television becoming more and more prominent in American homes, Ann would also begin testing these waters as another avenue of employment. Ann Dvorak seemed to be in a good position to advance her career in supporting roles and perhaps establish herself as a...

  26. 22 Enter Nick Wade
    (pp. 265-278)

    Of Ann Dvorak’s three husbands, Nicholas Wade was the most enigmatic. A Hungarian native, he was born Nicholai Harry Weiss in 1909 to Morris Weiss and Hermina Fried.¹ Wade’s father came alone to the United States in 1914, settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and opened a tailor shop. The rest of the family, which included an eldest son named George and a daughter, Juliet, joined him around 1920. A second daughter, Irene, was born in 1922.² Even though Nick, as most people called him, was not the eldest son, he was looked upon by his parents as the shining star of...

  27. 23 Hawaiian Hopeful
    (pp. 279-292)

    Under the guidance of Nicholas Wade, Ann’s finances had been seriously depleted, but the couple apparently had enough left over from the sale of the Malibu property to consider moving far away from Southern California. Whatever difficulties their marriage had been facing in the mid-1950s seem to have been resolved, at least temporarily, and they looked forward to a fresh start. Nick leaned toward moving to Italy, but Ann had other ideas. She had first visited Hawaii in 1935 with Leslie Fenton, and the tropical paradise was appealing to her on many levels. The warm climate and numerous beaches were...

  28. 24 The End of Everything
    (pp. 293-302)

    After Ann Dvorak died in the winter of 1979, theNational Enquirer,a notorious tabloid magazine, ran a scathing article about her final days. The magazine depicted a desperate, paranoid, impoverished woman living in squalor, a moment away from landing on the streets. For those who had never heard of Ann Dvorak, this article was a sad introduction to her. For those who did recall Ann from her days as a film actress, the piece made a lasting impression. The question remains: How accurate was theNational Enquirer’s portrayal of the former actress? As with many articles published within the...

  29. Epilogue
    (pp. 303-306)

    After her retirement in 1952, Ann Dvorak was worried her contribution to cinema would be quickly forgotten. To a certain degree this did happen in the ensuing years as she fell into the ranks of actors whose names would elicit a blank stare or only the vaguest hint of recollection. Part of the reason this happened no doubt can be attributed to the “What have you done lately?” attitude of the film industry, which was prevalent even back when Ann’s mother was making films. Another possible reason for Ann’s quick fade into obscurity was her own reclusiveness and ultimate relocation...

  30. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 307-310)
  31. Filmography
    (pp. 311-322)
  32. Notes
    (pp. 323-348)
  33. Bibliography
    (pp. 349-352)
  34. Index
    (pp. 353-370)
  35. Back Matter
    (pp. 371-372)