Ann Dvorak and Leslie Fenton were regarded as one of Hollywood’s oddest couples and were often described as recluses because they lived on an isolated walnut ranch in the San Fernando Valley. When they built their home, they deliberately made it too small to accommodate house guests! As much as they may have wanted the public and film community to think of them as hermits, they were occasionally spotted at the Brown Derby or Ambassador Hotel and could frequently be found at the boxing matches.
Boxing was a sport that many celebs of the day enjoyed, and the Fentons were no exception. They had season tickets and made the trek from Encino to Hollywood almost weekly, unless they had been working during the day. In this particular photo from 1935, Ann is wearing a coat from Sweet Music and what appears to be a dress from ‘G’ Men, so it’s possible she had gone to the fights directly from the studio.
This is an image I like a lot because even after three years of marriage and being together nonstop, Ann still gazes at her husband like a wistful school girl (while two guys pummel each other a few feet away).
Ann Dvorak had many hobbies during her life; horticulture, language learning, poetry writing, hat making…the list goes on. Out of the bunch, the oddest was probably bacteriology. That’s right, in her spare time, Ann Dvorak studied bacteria.
This was something she picked up from her first husband, Leslie Fenton, when she was 21 and he was the center of her universe. Fenton was probably introduced to bacteriology by director/scientists Paul Fejos with whom he worked with in the 1920s. Ann claimed she read a book on the subject while they were traveling back from Europe in 1933, and instantly fell in love with the science.
For the next couple of years, the Fentons would study bacteria at their ranch and Leslie would buy Ann higher-powered microscopes on her birthdays. After about four years of engaging in this mad passion, they moved on to other hobbies and the bacteriology equipment was given away.
I do like to think that whenever Ann was in the midst of viewing magnified bacteria, she did so in full hair and make-up, like in this photo.
I have over 1,200 original Ann Dvorak photos in my personal collection, and there are a handful that stick out as favorites. This is one of them. It’s from the opening scene of the 1935 Warner Bros. comedy Bright Lights. Star Joe E. Brown is easy to spot in the light suite and holding up luggage, while a slightly visible Ann can be spotted on the back of the train. Busby Berkeley was the director of Bright Lights, and that’s him in the middle of the photo wearing a white sweater and cap, surrounded by his crew.
I found this one at a paper in show in London in July 2005. With the currency conversion, I probably paid close to 50 bucks for it, but considering I have never seen it again, I think it was worth it.
Merrily We Live is going to air on Turner Classic Movies on Tuesday, February 26 at 10:30am PST.
Over the years, some sources have credited Joan Crawford with helping Ann launch her acting career. This is not exactly accurate, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort on Joan’s part. Ann met Joan while the pair were both under contract to MGM. Dvorak was a lowly chorus girl, while Crawford was well on her way to becoming one of the studios biggest stars. Despite this gap in the studio system hierarchy and a perceived resemblance between them, (people on the lot would frequently refer to Ann as “the dancer who looks like Crawford”), Joan took a shine to the young aspiring actress and became an early mentor. She tried her damnedest to get Ann parts outside the chorus, but the best she managed were extra roles in her own films This Modern Age and Our Blushing Brides. Fortunately for Ann, there was another actress at MGM who saw the same amount of potential that Joan Crawford did, but was able to help her land the biggest role of her career…
One of my favorite areas of Ann Dvorak collecting is finding photos from her uncredited MGM days. There’s a certain rush in searching through a random folder of photos at a memorabilia shop and finding an image with a 19-year-old seated at a table in the background (I guess there’s a reason I was the one destined to write the book on her).
Ann was with MGM from 1929-1931, primarily as a chorus girl and assistant choreographer. By 1931, the public had grown tired of the many musicals that had been coming out of Hollywood, so the chorus roles dried up for Ann. Instead she started getting the occasional extra role, like this one in the William Haines feature Just a Gigolo, as a nightclub guest. She became so frustrated by the lack of opportunity at MGM, that she seriously considered abandoning the movie industry altogether.
What happened next? I guess you’ll have to wait for the book…
Today’s guest blogger is another one of my colleagues at the Los Angeles Public Library and a very close friend. When Mary McCoy is not being a librarian, she’s a writer, whose debut novel, Dead To Me, a YA crime noir set in 1940s Hollywood, will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Fall 2014. Mary also bears the current distinction of being one of three people to have read the completed Ann Dvorak book, and I may need to nominate her for sainthood for being the first person to proof it. On top of it all, she’s one hell of a chef, so her post could not be more appropriate. Take it away Mary!
When I read a celebrity cookbook, I’ve never placed too much faith in the fact that I’m really getting Jay Leno’s chicken wings or the lobster recipe that John Travolta whips up on a Sunday evening. Still, they can be a lot of fun, and movie star cookbooks have been around almost as long as there have been movie stars. One of the earliest I’ve been able to find, Celebrated Actor Folks’ Cookeries, compiled by actress Mabel Rowland as a fundraiser for the Red Cross and Actor’s Fund in 1916, includes, among other things, Theda Bara’s recipe for Snails a la Mouquin and Evelyn Nesbit’s Chicken Cacciatore.
I have two celebrity cookbooks in my collection that include Ann Dvorak’s recipes from different points in her acting career. The first comes from 1932. It was the year she would appear in Scarface, Three on a Match, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, and… Hollywood’s Famous Recipes of the Movie Stars: In Which 100 Screen Favorites Reveal Their Culinary Secrets, with 100 Exclusive Portraits.
The cookbook was really more of a thick pamphlet published by the Goodan-Jenkins Furniture Company, and includes Ann’s recipe for New England Baked Beans.
The second cookbook in my collection is a little more stylish, not to mention interesting. What Actors Eat When They Eat was compiled by freelancing actors Rex Lease and Kenneth Harlan in 1939, with a little studio assistance. Not only did they manage to get a recipe from anyone who was anyone, many of the actors provide rather lengthy preambles to their entries (especially Lionel Barrymore, who writes a pompous, yet charming ode to Fettucine Alfredo).
Ann, however, might have been more at home in the out of doors than behind a stove. One of the recipes she contributed, Salad Encino, is a mixture of raw, diced vegetables tossed in vinaigrette. The other shows her real passion: her walnut ranch. She introduces her recipe for Un-Prepared Walnuts saying,
“Living on a walnut ranch, I’ve sort of experimented with walnuts and have discovered that they are delicious before they have been dried – that is, when the green pod has just begun to burst and the nut is ready to drop. I have found also that they are a delightful meat substitute.”
The recipe itself?
“I arrange freshly picked walnuts (still in their popped jackets) on a plate which I have covered with large, washed walnut leaves and serve.”
Not much of a cook, our Ann, but we love her just the same.
Thanks again, Mary!
On February 22, 1935 at 9:30pm, Ann was interviewed by radio personality George Fisher on a program dedicated to the promotion of her latest film, Sweet Music. It was broadcasted on KFWB, which makes sense since Warner Bros. owned the station and it was one of their films. Sweet Music was actually one of Ann’s bigger budget titles with the studio, so she engaged in more publicity on this one than probably any of her other Warner films.
Ann didn’t make a whole lot of radio appearances over the course of her career, and promo deals like this one don’t seem to have survived the ages. However, Ann did do a handful of radio dramas, and if you’re really patient, I just may post some of them here.
Yesterday, Lou Lumenick over at The New York Post reported that the 1935 20th Century Pictures feature Thanks a Million is going to be released as part of the Fox Cinema Archives burn on demand series. There’s no release date listed in the article or on Amazon, which, as far as I can tell, is a distributor for these titles. As soon as more details are available, I’ll be sure to pass that info along.
I am always happy when an Ann Dvorak movie becomes readily available, though Thanks a Million is far from my favorite. It was actually a pretty big hit at the time, but hasn’t really held up well, and I much prefer the noirish Dick Powell of the 1940s to the boyish crooner of this era. Ann was loaned out from Warner Bros. for this one at the request of producer Darryl F. Zanuck who had previously worked for Warner Bros. Hit or no hit, Ann thought her role in Thanks a Million was garbage and this film would ultimately bring Ann to engage in a full-blown war with Warner Bros.
Image from Heritage Auctions
A few years back I was going through the Ann Dvorak collection with my friend Darin (you’ll learn more about him at some point). I had just moved to a residence with ample wall space and we were looking for posters to hang up in the stairwell. I was delighted to pull out one sheet for the 1939 Columbia feature, Cafe Hostess, starring Ann and Preston Foster. It’s a cute poster, but the reason I was so happy to see it is that I had no memory of buying it. None. I remember getting outbid on one sometime in 2003, but could not recall actually paying for one myself. After Darin finished making fun of me (actually, he’s never stopped), we popped it in a frame and hung it up. I now live in a house with less wall space, but the Cafe Hostess one sheet still has a place of honor in my daughter’s bedroom.
As I started working on this post, I went to an auction website to see if maybe I had bought the one sheet there, and to pull a scan. The website did not have the one sheet, but I was instead dismayed to see a gorgeous Cafe Hostess half sheet that had been available last October. I clicked on it and was even more bummed to see that it sold for a mere $26! Then I saw that the high bidder was…me. Keep in mind this was only four months ago. Not sure why I can’t ever remember buying Cafe Hostess stuff (I also recently bought a duplicate photo), but it sure is fun when I re-discover them again!