Nov 14, 2013

Book Review--Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Rebel

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel
Christina Rice
University Press of Kentucky, 2013

Could Ann Dvorak have been a legendary movie star? Did she have the chops to join James Cagney and Bette Davis at the top of the pile? It's nice to think so.

On the verge of making it big, perhaps, the young star ignored her studio contract and took off on an extended honeymoon. Her career trajectory went from a steady incline to a series of ups and downs, and eventually fizzled out. In her fascinating biography of the star, Rice attempts to solve the mystery of Dvorak's fall and reveal the woman who disrespected her studio, but adored her craft and all that life had to offer.

Ann Dvorak was on the stage before she was born, jostling around in her mother's belly as she performed in vaudeville. Anna Lehr found a small measure of fame on the performance circuit and in the movies and so her young daughter often lived with other family members or went to boarding school while she earned her living on the road. Sometimes Ann would go to the movie theater to watch her absent parent on the silver screen. Her father, Edward McKim, was also in the movie business, but not so much the marriage or parenting game; she would be out of touch with him for most of her life.

As a child Dvorak played a couple of roles on the silent screen. She was admired by the press, but the young actress didn't follow up on these parts until she reached her late teens. By then she was determined to be a star. Her mother worried about Ann's less than glamorous looks and rough skills, but recognized her daughter's unyielding ambition. She introduced her to Douglas Fairbanks and hoped for the best.

The friendly, unpretentious teenager worked her way up from the chorus line. Dvorak danced in a few early musicals and impressed enough on the set to become an assistant choreographer. From the beginning, she was good at building personal relationships. She'd help anyone below her to advance, especially the young dancers she watched after like a den mother.

It was Ann's knack for friendship that transformed her from a gawky kid into a glamorous actress. Buddy Joan Crawford tried to help her win more substantial acting roles, but she was probably most helpful for the influence she had on Ann's style. The young actress learned quickly how much image could help her.

Actress Karen Morley was another well-placed friend. She got Dvorak into the right party, where she performed a slinky dance in front of a stunned George Raft. This was enough to convince director Howard Hawks to cast her as Paul Muni's rebellious sister Cesca in the classic gangster flick Scarface (1932). In that role she was an instant hit: lively, intense and so glamorous she barely resembled the girl who set her sights on acting only a few years before.

Many delicious roles followed, in some of the best movies from the pre-code era. To watch her in Three on a Match, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain and The Crowd Roars (all 1932), you'd think you were witnessing the birth of a legend. But she fell hard for Louvain costar Leslie Fenton, and it changed her whole life.

Fenton looked upon acting as a means to an end. He'd make some money, and then travel the world until he was forced to work again. Ann thought she wanted a career more than anything. Fenton thought he'd never marry. They both proved themselves wrong, tied the knot and took off for an extended European honeymoon. She had a contract with Warner Bros., and the studio was not amused.

When Ann returned to Hollywood, Warner Bros. took her back, but she was no longer groomed for stardom. Though she stayed busy, she'd rarely rise above supporting player again for the rest of her career. Later attempts to freelance and try different mediums like Broadway and television were moderately successful, but never quite what she'd hoped for. She was too good not to get work, but that ill-advised honeymoon gave her a permanent handicap in the industry.

Rice does some impressive digging to flesh out the details of Dvorak's life. Without the benefit of a strong research archive dedicated to the actress and many potential interview sources long gone, she has still created a well-defined portrait of a mysterious woman. It's impossible to fully understand what inspired Dvorak to make the decisions she did, but after reading this book, I felt I knew her well.

In the midst of studio lawsuits, troubled marriages and never-ending career frustrations, Ann found plenty of time for fun, new interests and adventures. Rice nicely balances the bitter with the sweet. While Dvorak's risky decisions could cause her much suffering, they also opened up remarkable experiences that would be impossible to have in a more practical life.

Despite the Hollywood biography familiarity of her troubles with alcohol, an abusive third husband and overbearing studios, there was nothing truly standard about Dvorak. Her eccentricities are more fascinating than any role she ever played and Rice shares them with respect and a beautifully novelistic style.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for sending a copy of the book for review.

1 comment:

  1. As a lover of classic Hollywood and vintage, this novel sounds right up my alley and good research for my sequel to The Girl in the Jitterbug Dress. Thank you for this insightful review :)