Getting to know pre-Code star Ann Dvorak with biographer Christina Rice

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Ann Dvorak and Lee Tracy in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, which screens tomorrow at the Patio Theater
  • Ann Dvorak and Lee Tracy in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, which screens tomorrow at the Patio Theater
As we reported on Friday, tomorrow night marks the Patio Theater's last screening for the foreseeable future, as the Northwest Chicago Film Society will present a 35-millimeter print of The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932). This crime drama doesn't have much of a reputation today, even though it was directed by Michael Curtiz and produced by Warner Brothers, which made some of the roughest and toughest pre-Code features. In other words, it's a characteristic choice for NCFS, which has come to specialize in unearthing rare gems of American movie history. Tomorrow's screening will be introduced by Christina Rice, author of a recent biography of the movie's star, Ann Dvorak. Like Molly Louvain, Dvorak slipped through the cracks of Hollywood lore, despite having appeared in a number of hits in the 1930s. (Rice will also introduce the most famous of these, Howard Hawks's Scarface at the Pickwick Theatre on Thursday.) As I learned from Rice when we spoke the other day, Dvorak enjoyed a fascinating personal life in addition to a lengthy screen career. You can expect to learn more if you attend one of this week's screenings.

Ben Sachs: Tell me about The Strange Love of Molly Louvain and how it fits into Ann Dvorak's filmography.

Christina Rice: It's about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who's trying to make good, but just can't—though ultimately she winds up in the arms of a snappy, wisecracking newspaper reporter. It's not the best pre-Code drama, and certainly not Michael Curtiz's strongest movie, but it's one of the few movies where Ann Dvorak is the bona fide star. It's also a significant film for her on a personal level, because it's where she met and fell in love with her costar, Leslie Fenton, who was arguably the love of her life. In their scenes together in the early part of the film, I think their chemistry is really apparent.

The film also contains what's probably my single favorite Ann Dvorak moment. There's a scene where she and Leslie Fenton are drowning out their sorrows, and she's sitting at a piano, playing a scat version of "Penthouse Serenade." I think it's a great moment that shows just how talented she was.

What inspired you to write a biography of Dvorak?

I first discovered Ann around 1995. I was in college, and I checked out from my local library a movie called Three on a Match, which I think is just one of the best pre-Codes. I thought the plot sounded tawdry, but Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis were in it, and it was only an hour long. I just thought I was going to kill an hour with it, but then there was Ann in this incredible performance. I'd never been so blindsided by a single performance in my life.

Not too long after I saw that, I picked up Scarface and 'G' Men (1935), not realizing that Ann was in them, but there she was again. And I wondered why I'd never heard of this beautiful and amazing actress, why she didn't become a big star. When I tried to find out the answers to these questions, I found there wasn't anything available. After a couple of years, I thought if no one else was going to [write a biography on her], why don't I? I was in my early 20s then and totally naive. I didn't realize it was going to take me 16 years, but I finished.

I first started the project by collecting memorabilia on her. I loved vintage-movie memorabilia, but I was a starving college student. I discovered I could actually afford to collect on Ann—that was how I first started to learn about her. I found these memorabilia shops always had stuff, because nobody collected on her. I also came to find that, when I'd tell people socially I was researching her, people seemed really interested. In a way, it made me more interesting as a person. Later I went to grad school to get my master's degree in library science, and that's when I really learned how to research. I got three school credits for properly archiving my Ann Dvorak collection. So I definitely benefitted because of Ann.

Dvorak (right) in Three on a Match
  • Dvorak (right) in Three on a Match

What were some of your favorite discoveries in the research process?

My single favorite thing I found out about Ann was that, in the 1960s, she wrote an 18-volume history of the world and recorded an audiobook of it. She called it Historical Digest. Her goal was to market it to universities as a teaching aid. Either it no longer exists or I have yet to find it. But I love that she very earnestly embarked upon this project.

Did Dvorak have any experience in academia before she became an actress?

Absolutely none, which is probably why nobody took [the history] seriously. Ann didn't have a formal education, and I think she was trying to compensate for that her entire life. She educated herself, became multilingual; I think she wanted to be ingrained in the world of academia, even though she never could be.

One of my favorite places to research is at the Warner Brothers Archive at the University of Southern California. All of their legal files and production files are there, so I went many times. That's my advice to anybody wanting to write a biography of a classic Hollywood star: pick somebody who worked for Warner Brothers, because there's so much [archival] material. It was great to see the inner workings of the studio, the correspondence that the executives would send back and forth. . . . You can get a real inside education into how the studio system worked, just from those archives.

I work at the central library in downtown Los Angeles, and we have [archives of] all of the local newspapers on microfilm. It was interesting to see to see how all these papers, each of which had its own gossip columnist, would cover different things—and how much of an impact the press had [in the 1930s].

Gossip columnists could be really invasive in that era. I believe new laws were put in place as a result of this, to place certain limits on the paparazzi.

The thing about Ann Dvorak, though, is that she wasn't that scandalous of a person. I never really encountered salacious gossip on her. She was more quirky than scandalous. For instance, she studied bacteriology for a while. Each year on her birthday, Leslie Fenton would buy her a higher-powered microscope. She also made her own hats—in the 1937 Warner Brothers film She's No Lady, she actually got to display some of them. At one point she tried to market jewelry—she designed something called the "curfew bracelet," which had chimes that would ring at midnight. She had a greenhouse and got really into horticulture, submitting flowers to the local flower shows. She bought a walnut ranch—at one point they were going to market "Ann Dvorak Walnuts," with her face on the jar, but unfortunately that never happened.

What would you consider her last great role?

Her last major performance was in her second-to-last film, I Was an American Spy. It was [produced by] Allied Artists, so it was a very low-budget film. It's based on the exploits of a real woman named Claire Phillips, who was in the Philippines when World War II broke out. She owned a nightclub, became a spy for the Allied forces; got captured by the Japanese, who tortured her and sentenced her to death—but the camp she was in got liberated before she could be executed. It was one of Ann's only starring roles. Not a great film, but enjoyable enough.

Getting back to the pre-Code films for which she's best known, what would you say makes her work so distinctive in movies like Three on a Match and 'G' Men?

In Three on a Match, she goes, in the course of an hour, from being this sophisticated, high-society woman to a shriveling mess of a drug addict. She just allowed herself to look like hell, like Bette Davis did in Of Human Bondage. There's this desperation and intensity to her that's very convincing, even on a physical level. You don't see that often in Hollywood films, particularly at that time. Her screen presence was just very unexpected.

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