Ann Dvorak: Researching a Rebellious Film Star That Hollywood Tried to Forget

Ann Dvorak prepares to battle Warner Bros. in court in 1936. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Ann Dvorak may be the biggest Hollywood star you've never heard of. By 19 years old, she had established herself with her leading role in the 1932 classic "Scarface." But, on the verge of going supernova, the young star seemingly gave it all up for love. She eloped with a co-star and took a year-long honeymoon, sowing tension in her relationship with her studio, Warner Bros. When Dvorak later filed a lawsuit over casting decisions, the act was seen an unprecedented act of rebellion in an age when film studios treated their contracted actors as mere pawns. Her career inevitably faded.

The University of Kentucky Press released Rice's book earlier this month.Now, after 15 years of research, librarian Christina Rice's long-anticipated biography, "Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel," has reignited interest in the star's story. (The Los Angeles Public Library hosts a book launch party on Tuesday, Nov. 12.)

In this age of digitization, some of the most high profile historical collections are only a few keystrokes and mouse clicks away. But Rice's account of her research is a helpful reminder that many of Southern California's stories remain hidden from Web searches, awaiting discovery by dogged researchers -- one reason why L.A. as Subject and its online directory of archival collections exist.

Rice conducted much of her research at downtown's Central Library, where she oversees the Los Angeles Public Library's Photo Collection that contributes so many of the historical images featured in this blog. (Rice also serves on L.A. as Subject's executive committee.)

Though several historical newspapers are available online today, newspapers on microfilm were a valuable resource -- especially when Rice began her research journey.

"The first 6 months I worked at Central," wrote Rice in an e-mail, "I spent every lunch break frantically digging through microfilm."

She also made use of the library's book collection and accessed one of the libraries' most valuable resources.

"I was able to tap into the expertise of my fellow librarians," Rice said, "who I am sure are all sick of Ann Dvorak by now."

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The collections of other L.A. as Subject member institutions were also important. In USC's Warner Bros. Archives, Rice found crucial documents explaining why Dvorak never reached her full potential as a star.

"Without these documents," said Rice, "I am not sure the book would have been worth writing."

She also found some "unexpected gems" at the USC Libraries' Special Collections, like the production records for the MGM films a young Dvorak appeared in as a choral girl.

At UCLA, the Film & Television Archive "proved invaluable," according to Rice. There she was able to watch a nitrate print of "She's No Lady," the first film Dvorak made as a freelancer after her divorce from Warner Bros. The 1937 Paramount production, Rice notes, is "not much of a movie," but as Dvorak's biographer she made a point to view as much of the actress' work as possible.

Los Angeles plays a supporting role in the book. Dvorak came to Los Angeles as a young girl with her parents, both vaudeville actors and in the 1920s attended the Page School for Girls in Highland Park, putting her budding career as an entertainer on hold. Later, Dvorak and her husband lived on a 36-acre walnut ranch in Encino.

The book features images from Rice's own personal collection, as well as from L.A. as Subject member collections like those at the Los Angeles Public Library, USC Libraries, UCLA Library, and Marc Wanamaker's Bison Archives.

A four-year-old Ann Dvorak on the set of Ramona, filmed in 1915 and released in 1916. Courtesy of the Bison Archives.

For her role in 'I Was an American Spy,' Ann Dvorak bonded with Claire Phillips, whose wartime story was being adapted for the big screen. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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