Christina Rice is a librarian and archivist who oversees the photo collection at the Los Angeles Public Library. She hosts the AnnDvorak.com website and Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel from University Press of Kentucky is her first book. While Christina's Ann Dvorak blog has always been a busy place, she's really outdone herself in 2013 with her daily "Ann Dvorak Progress Report." So far she's on target towards the ambitious goal of a new Dvorak post for every day throughout 2013.
While Christina speculates upon what her future may hold at the bottom of this interview, the very near future includes an Official Book Launch Party at the L.A. Public Library on November 12 between 6 and 8 pm -- Details on the Launch Party are here.
The past few years I've joked with Christina that I wouldn't blog about Ann Dvorak until I got to post an interview with her about the book. While we've got another couple of weeks to go for the book itself (though you can order the pdf now), that interview follows below. Christina goes above and beyond in delivering the ultimate condensed version of her "Ann Dvorak Progress Reports," from idea to publication with highlights from the years in between, as well as an abridged version of Ann Dvorak's actual biography. Christina did not hold back, but provides plenty to whet our appetites for her entire 384-page labor of love, available from the University Press of Kentucky any day now. Enjoy:
Cliff Asks: Well, we’re almost there. As a longtime follower of your Ann Dvorak blog, which traced your progress on Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, congratulations! I know time has simply raced by since you submitted your completed draft to your publisher, but it took awhile to get there. When did you decide to write a book about Ann Dvorak?
Christina Rice: I distinctly remember walking into the grocery store I worked at in 1997 and proclaiming to my coworkers, “I am going to write a book on Ann Dvorak!” I even purchased a spiral notebook which I envisioned being quickly filled with all the great Ann Dvorak info I was going to find. I went to my local library and hit the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, which I figured would yield a treasure trove. Instead, I found almost nothing. I was very naïve!
I soon realized that writing a book about a fairly obscure actress was not going to be an easy task, so the first five years of “working” on the book mainly consisted of collecting memorabilia from Ann's movies. I finally dove in and really dedicated myself to the project in 2002. Overall, it was a much longer process than I could have ever anticipated, but I honestly believe it took as long as it needed to.
Cliff: It’s probably not surprising given the focus of my own site, but one of my favorite features on your blog comes when you highlight the Ann Dvorak collectibles you’ve accumulated over time. What’s your prize piece?
Christina Rice: After fifteen plus years of collecting, I have accumulated A LOT of items relating to Ann. There are many pieces I like for various reasons, such as a publicity still of Ann and Warren William in Three on a Match, which was the very first photo I ever acquired, or the image of Ann on the set of Housewife which I bought for $1 on eBay. Another item that's really cool is a Belgian poster for Gangs of New York that was printed on the back of a map because of paper shortages in Europe during the War. I could go on and on.
However, the one item that's head and shoulders above the rest for me is a 3-sheet from the 1935 Warner Brothers feature Bright Lights with Joe E. Brown and directed by Busby Berkeley. By that time, Warner Brothers really wasn't promoting Ann's career, so she seldom appeared on promotional artwork, particularly on the one-sheet and half-sheets. I remember coming across a Bright Lights pressbook while using the Warner Brothers Archive at the University of Southern California (USC) and feeling disappointed that I would never find the three-sheet, which I thought was especially lovely. A couple of years later, I located it on a Swedish website and was even able to negotiate $100 off the price! That was back in the day when I had the time to spend hours scouring the Internet for poster dealers.
More recently, I acquired Ann's scrapbook of photos from her 1932/33 European honeymoon. To have something that personal of Ann's is very exciting.
Finally, if there is one gaping hole in my collection, it's paper from The Strange Love of Molly Louvain. I have a lot of photos from that film, but have never seen any of the posters or lobby cards. This was one of the few films that she was the star of, so she must be on most, if not all, of those lobby cards!
Christina Rice: I first discovered Ann in Three on a Match and was floored by her performance. I subsequently encountered her in Scarface and G Men, and was baffled why this beautiful and talented actress had not become a bigger star. Figuring out why she wasn't better known was what initially piqued my interest. As I discovered more and more about Ann, like her battles with Warner Brothers, war-time experiences, personal interests, etc., I realized that her story was one worth telling and one that will hopefully have broad appeal beyond her diehard fans.
Cliff: Given her parents’ background in the movies and Ann’s own early film appearances as Baby Anna Lehr, do you think it was inevitable that she’d become a movie star as an adult?
Christina Rice: Oh, absolutely! Ann spent many of her formative years living with members of her mother's family while Anna Lehr was off making movies in Los Angeles and New York. Lehr would visit her daughter occasionally, but usually when Ann saw her mother it was while watching an Anna Lehr movie at a theatre. Seeing her mother on a big screen during these periods of separation must have had a deep impact on Ann.
When mother and daughter were permanently reunited in the early 1920s, they moved to East Hollywood near what's now Paramount Studios. Ann loved being in the midst of what was becoming the film capital of the world.
Cliff: Ann had a strange career arc for someone with such a long movie career. Even though she had spent some time as an MGM chorine she basically burst upon the public scene in Scarface in 1932. Given the legendary status of that movie, did such early success raise the bar too high for the young actress?
Christina Rice: Even though Ann had worked her tail off at MGM for over two years and desperately wanted to break out as an actress, the success of her performance in Scarface and the onslaught of publicity that followed was overwhelming. Add onto that a whirlwind courtship and elopement with Leslie Fenton, and she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I think her natural skills as an actress equipped her to effectively play a role like Cesca Camonte in Scarface, but at the end of the day, she was barely twenty-years-old and not emotionally ready to handle such a sudden surge of fame.
Cliff: In Three on a Match (1932) Ann Dvorak gives one of the most exciting/interesting/thrilling performances of the pre-Code era. Soon after she was playing supporting roles. What happened?
Christina Rice: Well, Ann was at Warner Brothers, who were more interested in making movies than movie stars, so she probably would have been assigned supporting roles no matter what. The 1932 films she made at Warner Brothers were on loan-out from Howard Hughes' Caddo Company. Warner Brothers finally decided to buy her contract outright for $40,000.
Shortly after the Warner Brothers deal was finalized, Ann reached her emotional tipping point, so she and Leslie Fenton skipped town and went abroad for eight months. Fenton was a freelancer with no ties and free to come and go as he pleased, but Ann was breaching her deal with Warner Brothers. When she finally returned the studio was actually fairly generous with her pay and did not tack those eight months onto her contract. But while she did make a great number of films with them over the next three years, Warner Brothers was no longer promoting her as a major up and comer.
Just a side note - as much as current film fans love Three on a Match as a classic pre-Code, and rightly so, when it was first released in 1932, it came and went with little fanfare and Ann didn't think much of the role.
Cliff: After her best known successes of the early 1930s was Dvorak ever offered another potentially signature role?
Christina Rice: I think the closest she came to a signature role was playing Claire “High Pockets” Philips in I Was an American Spy, which was based on a true story. However, it was produced by Allied Artists on a rather low-budget, so I don't think it ever stood a chance of finding a large audience.
Cliff: Which of her movies were your personal favorites?
Christina Rice: My absolute favorite is Three on a Match, which was my introduction to Ann and is a great compact pre-Code gem. Ann really shines in that one, especially in the second half. Scarface is probably her best and most notable film and I never get tired of watching it. I am also partial to Heat Lightning, which is a supporting role for Ann but different from the usual bland leading lady parts. Her scenes with Aline MacMahon are wonderful in that one. The Strange Love of Molly Louvain is not the strongest pre-Code, but it's one of the few films where Ann is the bona fide star, so it's worth watching. I also have to throw in the Columbia feature Girls of the Road which manages to be campy with a social message.
Cliff: There isn’t much information to be found about the last twenty or so years of Ann Dvorak’s life. Does Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel shed any light on Ann’s later years?
Christina Rice: I am happy to say that YES it does! I actually ended up finding a great deal on Ann's post film years, which are covered in the last three chapters of the book. Initially, I was concerned about digging up anything about her time in Hawaii because she was such a private person. For whatever reason there turned out to be a large paper trail of primary documents that I located over the last few years, so I feel that the coverage of this period in Ann's life is pretty solid.
Cliff: For the sake of my blog, I have to ask: How is Dvorak pronounced?
Christina Rice: Hehe. First off, it was a stage name – Ann's given name was McKim. She wanted it to be pronounced vor-shak, but no one ever did and the common pronunciation quickly became da-vor-ak. Ann conceded defeat very early on and just rolled with it. Since the common pronunciation has been da-vor-ak for 80+ years, that's what I go with. Family and friends would frequently simplify it by referring to her as Ann-D.
Cliff: Now that this journey is over is there another subject you’re planning to tackle?
Christina Rice: I'm not sure I would want to tackle another full-blown biography.
The experience with Ann Dvorak was a very unique and personal one that I would not be able to duplicate and actually wouldn't care to. I discovered Ann when I was in college and since first deciding to write the book, I graduated, went to grad school, started a career as a librarian, and became a wife, mother, cancer survivor, homeowner, and probably a few other things! Ann has been ever present along the way – I even got married at her former estate in Encino.
I've actually been collaborating with an artist on a children's book on the early film industry in Los Angeles and have been toying with diving into a fiction project. I think it would be nice to write something without a few hundred end notes!
Cliff: Thank you so much, Christina! This is really wonderful as you've provided so much more than what I expected. Best of luck with Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel and wishing I was on the other coast right now so I could join you for the Book Launch Party.
- Visit Christina Rice's blog AnnDvorak.com
- Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel Official Book Launch Party
- Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel at University Press of Kentucky
- Pre-Order Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel at Amazon.com