Monday, October 28, 2013

Talking Old Hollywood: Christina Rice, Ann Dvorak Biographer


Ann Dvorak biographer, Christina Rice

As much as I love stars like Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe I am not on the edge of my seat waiting for the next biography to be written on their lives. Especially when there are so many well deserving classic Hollywood stars who have yet to receive a well written full length biography. That's why I'm so excited for the upcoming biography on the elegant and sometimes sultry, pre-Code actress, Ann Dvorak. Thankfully for all of us classic Hollywood geeks, librarian and Ann Dvorak collector turned biographer, Christina Rice, has taken it upon herself to write the first full length biography on this forgotten actress. The book, aptly titled Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel, will be released on November 4, 2013.

In this installment of Talking Old Hollywood, Rice discusses her process for putting the biography together, Ann Dvorak related Los Angeles locations and how she would spend a day with Ann Dvorak.

DOH: What turned you on to Ann Dvorak as a subject for a biography?

CR: I first discovered Ann when I was an undergrad in the mid-1990s after I checked out a VHS copy of Three on a Match from my local library. I had never heard of Ann at the time and was blindsided by her performance.  I subsequently stumbled upon her in Scarface and G Men and wanted to know why this beautiful and talented actress had not been a major star. It didn't take long for me to realize that she was a not a likely subject to be tackled by anyone else, so at some point I figured - why not me? 

DOH: At what point did you go from Ann Dvorak collector to pursuing writing Ann’s biography?

CR: Another part of Ann's allure for me was that no one was collecting on her. I have been a compulsive collector since birth and always thought it would be cool to own theater-used movie posters. When I found out that I could actually afford gorgeous 1930s posters from Ann's films, I was sunk. 

Immediately after I started collecting, which was around 2 1/2 years after that first viewing of Three on a Match, I decided I would write the book on Ann. However, that is easier said than done. My first five years as Ann Dvorak's biographer mainly consisted of hitting the poster shops, paper shows, and scouring the Internet for memorabilia. I was finding lots of ephemera which sometimes contained information about her, but it wasn't real research. 

When I started grad school in 2001 to get my Master's of Library & Information Science, I started to get a better grasp on the research I was going to need to do in order to tell the story of this actress who retired relatively early, had no children, no siblings, was fairly reclusive, and did not donate personal papers to an institution. 

Once I got serious about the project, I visited the University of Southern California (USC) who has the Warner Bros. production and legal files. Handling these primary source documents relating to Ann, which painted a very vivid portrait of her struggles with the studio was exhilarating and a shot in the arm. After that, I launched the website (www.anndvorak.com) and forged ahead with the research. Of course I was doing this while working full time and in grad school, so it was never a quick process. 



DOH: As a mother and someone who has a full time job, did this impact your ability to research and write the book? How did you find the time?! Did you have a specific research and writing strategy?

CR: My daughter was born in June 2010, and by that time I had been doing the heavy research for around eight years and was mostly done with everything but the actual writing. 

The birth of my daughter actually proved to be a major catalyst to finish it. I had started the writing in late 2008 and two years later had only completed around five chapters. I admit to dragging my feet and finding excuses NOT to write, and one of my main problems is that I was trying to make the first draft a final draft, which was foolish. I was spending so much time fact-checking and looking for citations that it would take an hour to write a paragraph and that lack of progress was discouraging. 

Once I returned to work from maternity leave, I was struck with the brutal realization that I literally had no time to write and that I had previously wasted so much time! I knew I either had to go on the Ann Dvorak website and make a formal announcement that the book was indefinitely on hold, or figure out a way to write it without sacrificing time with my family. 

I take the subway to work from North Hollywood, so I started writing on the train which gave me around 40 minutes of undisturbed time roundtrip, along with another hour on my lunch break. I stopped trying to write a final draft and just started writing. I knew Ann so well by then that there was no reason I could not knock out the bare bones of her story. I made so much progress in a couple of months that it really fueled me to keep going. At this point, my complete lack of time has trained me to be able to start writing on a moment's notice and make the most of every spare minute. The second that kid goes down for a nap, I am typing away! 

My other motivation was that I wanted something tangible for my daughter to be proud of. My husband is a full-time writer who already has a substantial body of published works, but I wanted my daughter to one-day realize that Mom is pretty cool too. In all honesty, without that kid appearing in my life, I don't think the book would be anywhere near completion. 

DOH: Did you find working at the Los Angeles Central Library gave you some advantages in researching Ann’s life?

CR: Oh absolutely! During the first six months I worked at Central, I spent my lunch break everyday sitting on the microfilm readers pouring over all the old Los Angeles newspapers, most of which have not yet been digitized. The book collection at Central Library is so vast that I would sometimes go to the section of film biographies and just browse the shelves looking for memoirs written by her costars. Additionally, I always have access to certain resources like the digitized Los Angeles Times or Ancestry.com, so whenever a hot new lead sprung up, I was able to act on it immediately. 

I work in the History & Genealogy Department, so the nature of the job helped me understand how to effectively research real estate, court documents, and vital records, all of which I used for Ann. 

Finally, I was able to benefit from the knowledge of my colleagues. At Central Library, there are multiple subject departments and the librarians are well versed in their areas. So, whenever I hit a brick wall, I would usually be able to tap into their expertise. 

DOH: Was there any resource you discovered that was particularly helpful in providing information on Ann’s life? A manuscript? A specific person?

CR: As I mentioned before, the Warner Bros documents at USC revealed a lot about Ann's attitude towards the studio and vice versa. 

Fortunately, I acquired some collections of letters written by Ann and her mother in the 1960s. These were especially insightful about the difficulties Ann had in an abusive marriage. More recently, I purchased Ann's journal which only has a lone entry from 1977, but she sums up her feelings about her life, career, and decisions, which are insights I never thought I would have access to. 



DOH: I’m sure with each passing year that it is more and more difficult to find people that would have known Ann and could provide information on her life. Were you able to interview anyone that might have known Ann?

CR: Oy! Finding people who knew Ann was the single hardest aspect of researching this book. As I mentioned before, Ann did not have any children or siblings, outlived all three husbands, and was very private. I'm not sure there is anyone still out there who knew her well enough to really comment on her. Plus, she retired fairly early. I contacted a handful of costars, but they did not have much to say, primarily because they worked with Ann for a very short period of time on insignificant films over 50 years ago. 

I found a handful of people who encountered her and one fellow who hung out with her towards the end of her life, so I do have some firsthand recollections though they do not give the insight that a child or close friend would have. 

I was very insecure about the minimal people I interviewed, but I ended up acquiring so many primary source documents with Ann speaking for herself that I ultimately think those are more powerful than anyone I could have interviewed. 

DOH: Are there any questions you wish you could ask Ann directly to fill in some blanks in her life story?

CR: I would ask if walking out on her Warner Bros. contract to go on a honeymoon was worth it. 

DOH: What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned about Ann?

CR: Even though Ann's formal education was limited, she was a very cultured and educated person who was multilingual and very interested in history and science. In the 1960s, she wrote an 18 volume history of the world and made an audio book out of it! 

I was also very taken with her time spent in Europe during World War II. From early on, I was aware that she followed her British-born husband to England in 1940 after he enlisted in the Royal Navy, but I never really stopped to consider what that really meant. Her war-time experiences were so fascinating that I ended up devoting two chapters to that time period. 

DOH: Are there any myths about Ann you found to by false?

CR: Oh, there are a handful of "facts" that frequently get tossed around that are inaccurate. First off, she was born in 1911 not 1912. I'm under the impression that Ann thought she was born in 1912 and eventually discovered otherwise - I think the inaccuracy can be attributed to her mother, Anna Lehr, who so frequently lied about her own age that she probably got confused about Ann's at some point. 

Ann's 1932 walk out is frequently attributed to her finding out that the child actor who played her son in Three on a Match was paid as much as she was. I'm sure she was riled by this, but there were many other prevailing factors that played into that decision, which I spend a lot of time covering in the book. 

Ann sometimes is described as having served out her Warner Bros. contract on suspension, which also isn't true. She was on a long term suspension, but after she lost her court case against them, she did make two more films before being released from her contract. 

Finally, Ann was not one of the original Goldwyn Girls. 

DOH: What was the most difficult part in putting together the biography? Is there anything you would do differently?

CR: First off, I would pick someone with personal papers or living relatives! Ann left so little of herself behind that her story proved to be a massive jigsaw puzzle. 

When I first started on this quest, it was the early days of the Internet, so information had to be found using "old school" methods which I wasn't necessarily well versed in. Now, we're in a golden age of researching where even if something isn't digitized, it's much easier to figure out what institutions might have particular items. So, starting a book now instead of 1998 is a huge advantage. 

With Ann, the book turned out just as I wanted it to, and it was an amazing journey so I would not change any of it. At the same time, I would never undertake a project as difficult as this again!

Ann Dvorak


DOH: If someone is unfamiliar with Ann Dvorak, which of her films do you recommend they watch first?

CR: I would say Scarface is a must because it's arguably her best and most important film. Three on a Match is one of her most memorable films and performances. I have a personal preference for Heat Lightning, even though she has a relatively small role in it. The Strange Love of Molly Louvain is not the strongest pre-Code, but it's one of Ann's few starring roles and it's also the film where she fell in love with co-star Leslie Fenton, who she subsequently married, which makes their scenes together quite meaningful. From her later career, I personally like Private Affairs of Bel Ami, and I recommend watching the 10 or so minutes of screen time Ann has in A Life of Her Own, though the rest of the film is a bit hard to get through. 

DOH: You had mentioned that you were involved with Last Remaining Seats, the Los Angeles Conservancy’s classic movie screenings in historic downtown theatres. Would you organize a screening around Ann? What film and what theatre would you choose?

CR: Back before I became a mom, I was an active volunteer with the Conservancy and helped plan the Last Remaing Seats, including film selection. In 2007, we actually did screen Scarface at the Alex Theater in Glendale. It was a wonderful evening and a bunch of friends showed up, so Ann had a whole cheering section. At that time, there were at least 30 volunteers involved with the film selection and most of them were movie buffs with strong opinions about what to screen, so successfully pitching Scarface was a major accomplishment! As I mentioned before, Scarface is Ann's most notable film and the best candidate to fill a movie palace, so it's probably the only time one of her films will be shown as part of LRS. 

But, if I had my way, I would screen a Three on a Match/Heat Lightning pre-Code double feature at the Palace Theatre, where Ann's mom performed in 1914 when it was an Orpheum Theatre.  

DOH: Did you say you were also a docent for the LA Conservancy? So you did some of the downtown LA tours? What was a Christina tour like?

CR: Yes, I used to give tours of the historic theatres on Broadway in downtown and it definitely was infused with as much Ann Dvorak as possible! Included on my tour was; the Cameo Thetare, built by William H. Clune who produced the 1916 version of Ramona which was where Ann made her film debut at age four, I already mentioned the Palace/Orpheum theatre where her mom performed on a vaudeville tour, I would also point out that Ann possibly performed onstage at the State Theatre when she was an MGM chorus girl (yeah, that was a stretch), and the tours would end at the Warner Downtown which is where Ann's Warner films would have played in the 1930s. Ending the tour here allowed me to plug my website. One fellow took my tour and later contacted me through the Ann-D website, and we're still very close friends. 

DOH: I’ve been enjoying your Ann’s Los Angeles series on your blog where you’ve been highlighting LA locations significant to Ann’s life. Are there any Ann landmarks that still exist that you get particularly excited about?

CR: Most of Ann's residences are still around, so it's always a kick to be able to drive by them. The most significant Ann-D landmark is the ranch house she built in 1934 with Leslie Fenton. She lived there until 1944, which was by far, the longest she ever lived anywhere. I have a lot of photos of Ann on this property, so it was a huge relief when I realized it was still standing.  

DOH: While we’re on the subject of landmarks, you wrote on your blog that you were married at one of Ann’s former homes. How did you make that happen?

CR: Yes, I was able to hold my wedding and reception at the ranch house I mentioned above. The property was originally a large walnut ranch, which Ann subdivided after she and Leslie Fenton separated. What remains is two acres with all the structures of the property intact, including the main house, garage with servants quarters, pool and pool house, greenhouse, and cow stables. It's all set off from the street and not visible, so for years I assumed the house had been demolished. 

When I finally figured out that the house was still there, I sent an email to the owner asking if I could visit. As it turned out, the man who owned the place bought it in 1959 and had corresponded with Ann in the 1960s. When I first visited, he gave me all the letters. He loved the property and was thrilled to spend time with someone who loved it as much as him. 

When I got engaged a few months later, I asked if we could have the wedding there, and he readily agreed. Obviously, it was a dream come true and there was no where else in the world I would have rather spent that day. 

DOH: Clearly your husband understood your Ann obsession from the beginning?

CR: Oh yes! There was never any question that he would have to share me with Ann. I have been collecting on Ann for over 15 years and have hundreds of movie posters, many of which are hanging up in our home. At one point I was dating a guy who commented that if we ever lived together, I would need to limit the amount of Ann-D posters on display. The relationship ended soon after that! Josh always appreciated the posters from the get-go, so I knew he was a keeper. At this point though, I'm sure he's pretty happy that the book is finally written.   



DOH: If you and Ann were going to have a girls day/night out in Los Angeles, where would you go and what would you do?

CR: Ann was never one to dwell on her past, so I would not bother re-visting any of her old haunts. I would give her a tour of Central Library because I think she would have been interested in some of the collections, particularly the older volumes and manuscripts in the Rare Books department. I would imagine she could have spent a few hours in there! Ann was a fairly serious person, though I think she had a dry sense of humor, so I would take her for a pass through the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City. Finally, dinner somewhere in Malibu would be appropriate. She lived there for a number of years, and even though she'd probably be appalled by all the development, she was such a beach nut that I could not imagine not visiting the Pacific with Ann.  

DOH: When the book comes out in November, is there anything in particular you hope readers will learn about Ann?

CR:  hope they'll get a sense of what a dynamic person she was – much more than just a pretty face. Ann tended to be interested in so many different things that she never really focused on one, which is one of many reasons why her career suffered. I also hope she will get credit for battling Warner Bros. in court in 1936 and paving the way for James Cagney and Bette Davis who also filed suits that year, but after Ann. 

DOH: Thanks so much! I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy.

CR: Thank YOU for being such an advocate for this project over the years. The waiting is almost over! 

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On Tuesday, November 12, 2013, the Los Angeles Central Library will be hosting an Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel release party. Food prepared from Ann Dvorak recipes will be served, Ann-D memorabilia will be on display, and Rice will be on hand to sign copies of her book. Visit the Los Angeles Public Library website for full details.

Visit Christina's website dedicated to Ann Dvorak here.

Previously covered on Dear Old Hollywood: Ann Dvorak filming locations for COLLEGE COACH (1933).

3 comments:

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Great interview, and congratulations to Christina. The book sounds fantastic.

Silver Screenings said...

Can't wait to see this book. Great interview -- the author sounds almost as interesting as her subject!

Along These Lines ... said...

Excellent interview.

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