The main takeaway, for me, while reading Ann Dvorak: Hollywood‘s Forgotten Rebel is identifying with the book’s author, Christina Rice. In her touching forward to the biography, she details the difficult road she traversed in finding sources, and writing on a woman whom time has forgotten. In a way, her journey mimics mine with Veronica Lake, right down to Rice’s subject walking a similar path.
Ann Dvorak is best remembered as the tormented Vivian Revere in the pre-Code, Three on a Match. But what happened in her life after the success of that film? Why wasn’t she a bigger star, on par with her contemporary, Bette Davis? Marred by poor decisions, both personal and professional, as well as a belief that she could buck the system, Rice’s biography charts Dvorak’s inauspicious beginnings; being told by her mother – a minor silent movie actress herself – that she would never make it in films because she wasn’t pretty enough. From there, Dvorak clawed her way into the movie business and slowly started making a name for herself in movies like Scarface and the aforementioned Three on a Match. However, once her star started rising, Dvorak wanted to move away from being a slave to her studio.
A subplot to Dvorak’s story is the slow disintegration of the contract system, which bound actors to a studio for years, and allowed studios the ability to tack on additional years at their discretion. Eventually, the studio system came off more as indentured servitude for its roster of stars. A few A-list actors would break the cycle and become free agents: Olivia De Havilland, Bette Davis, and James Cagney, but Dvorak failed to have the name recognition, and persuasion to break her contract and keep her career. Rice never comes down on Dvorak for her career misfires, and lays blame both at Dvorak and the studios feet; the studio who continued to place her in clunkers even after her relationship with them was “resolved.” Dvorak’s story is an intriguing examination of a facet of Hollywood little reported on (at least without analyzing the Hollywood studio system in its entirety).
The basic tenets of a biography are also included: Dvorak’s childhood, her multiple marriages, and her sad fade into obscurity. Where I connected was with Dvorak’s life after her Hollywood career faded away. The woman spent the remaining years of her life in Hawaii, stalwart in her refusal to acknowledge anything in her past, including her film career. Dvorak’s story so reminds me of Veronica Lake, another actress hiding from her fame and discarded by Hollywood. Rice captures the loneliness and pain of losing stardom, and just being lonely within old age. It’s biographies like these, and authors like Rice, who keep the memory of these forgotten stars burning bright.
Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel is part Hollywood biography and paean to a star who may not have always known what she wanted, but was well aware of what she didn’t want. It’s TCM‘s book of the month currently, and worth seeking out!
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