Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel

By David Luhrssen
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The lives of the first tier of stars and directors from Hollywood’s golden age have been written—over and over again in many cases. Writers seeking fertile fields are forced to find points of interest in the second tier. This was the challenge facing Christina Rice in writing Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel (University Press of Kentucky).

The subject of her biography is forgotten for an understandable reason: Dvorak starred in only one memorable film, the original Scarface (1932). Most classic film buffs would be hard pressed to recall her numerous B-pictures from the ‘30s or the forgettable bigger budget movies in which she played larger roles. The rebel half of the equation? Although lovely and able, Dvorak was considered troublesome and demanding. Rice makes the case that Warner Brothers intentionally sidetracked her career. And yet many nuances can be drawn from her research. The usually vindictive Jack Warner showed unusual tolerance for Dvorak’s demands for time-off and higher wages; her salary grew over the years, even if the scope of her roles didn’t.

While the studio worked her hard, her pay was regal compared to the wages of most Americans in the Great Depression. As Rice admits, Dvorak picked fights above her weight. James Cagney commanded enough box office clout to make demands. A starlet like Dvorak would have been well advised to wait until she became indispensible. And Dvorak was poorly advised—by her agents as well as her first husband.

One could insist that Dvorak would be better served by a chapter in a book rather than a book to herself. Rice, however, is a fan not only of Dvorak’s era but of the actress, and writes enthusiastically about one of Hollywood’s could-have-beens.

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