Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson (Image from Surface Noise)
Every so often I’ll be watching a film and think to myself, “Gee that would have been a great Ann Dvorak role.” One that immediately comes to mind is the Claire Trevor part in Key Largo. Trevor win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and deservedly so, but what I would give to see Ann forced to sing “Moanin’ Low” for a drink!
In addition to these Ann Dvorak fantasy roles of mine, there are a few parts she was seriously considered for but fell through for one reason or another. Of these potential parts, the one strikes me as the biggest missed opportunity was Sadie Thompson in the Lewis Milestone directed Rain. While the film was being planned, many actresses were rumored to be playing the notorious prostitute and Howard Hughes was determined that it would be Ann.
Hughes had signed Ann to a long-term contract following her strong performance in Scarface. He wanted to find an appropriate follow-up (not counting Sky Devils which she was thrown into when the release of Scarface was delayed) and fixated on Sadie Thompson. He was so convinced that Ann would star in the film that when he agreed to loan Ann to Warner Bros. exclusively during the first half of 1932, the agreement stipulated that she receive time off to make Rain.
In the end, MGM star Joan Crawford received the role and mixed reviews. Crawford came to hate the part and distanced herself from it, though in retrospect she gave a more than credible performance. For Crawford there would be other starring dramatic roles that she is still remembered for, but Ann never came anywhere near a role like Sadie Thompson. Sure she was great in films like Scarface, Three on a Match, or A Life of Her Own, but Rain would have pushed her abilities as an actress more than any film she ever appeared in.
Today I am returning home from a week long family road trip through Arizona which included a visit to the Grand Canyon, the best B&B in Downtown Tucson, Amazing Arizona Comic Con, and a lot of DVDless Dvorak movies. I now present the tenth and (mercifully) last in this series.
I am not a huge fan of Sweet Music, which (in my humble opinion) drags and is not as funny as it thinks it is. Plus, Ann’s character leans too much on the bitchy side for my taste, though this is an unusual change for her. However, despite the many shortcomings the film has, there are a few reasons why I think Sweet Music deems an official DVD release.
First off is the amount of talent. Rudy Vallee I can take or leave (though I do love him in Palm Beach Story), but Ned Sparks, Allen Jenkins, and Alice White are a lot of fun, and don’t forget appearances by Al Sheen (uncle to the Marx Brothers) and torch singer Helen Morgan. This 1935 feature is one of the higher budget films of Ann’s career which she lobbied hard for, and subsequently was one of her favorites. Possibly the biggest reason I endorse a release of Sweet Music is the presence of the ridiculous bird outfit, which rivals the Midnight Court fish dress for sheer hideousness.
Likelihood of an Official DVD Release: If Warner Bros. still has the rights to this, I think we may be seeing it from the Warner Archive sometime down the line.
A Life of Her Own is a film I have talked about on a few occasions so I won’t go into too much detail (see here, here, and here). It’s directed by George Cukor and stars Lana Turner and Ray Milland, which sounds great, but the film is actually a melodramatic turkey which I was only able to sit though once back in the fall of 1997. However, Ann’s performance as a wash-up model is a tour de force and the most memorable part of A Life of Her Own even though she is only has around 10 minutes of screen time.
Likelihood of an Official DVD Release: This one came out on VHS way back when, and despite being kind of a potboiler, it’s still a George Cukor/Lana Turner/MGM film, so maybe?
I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record, but Cafe Hostess is another Dvorak film where the quality of the copy I have is so poor that it’s almost impossible to sit through. Much like Sky Devils, I have only watched Cafe Hostess twice. The first time was probably around 1o years ago and the second time was a few months back when I had to view the film in order to write about it for the book.
However, unlike Sky Devils which I really detested during both viewings, I actually enjoyed Cafe Hostess the second time. Well, I enjoyed it as much as I could with my bad VHS copy. As a nightclub “hostess” who falls for a customer (Preston Foster) and then tries to break away from her caged life, the film really belongs to Ann and it’s one of the bigger roles of her career, something that escaped me during that first viewing. Her scenes with Wynne Gibson are especially effective and leaves ones wishing they would have been paired up more often, which is how I feel after watching Ann and Joan Blondell together.
Likelihood of an Official DVD Release: It’s a Columbia film, whose rights should reside with Sony, who has turned over their burn-on-demand operation to the Warner Archive…so, maybe? Blind Alley, which is the same studio from the same era was released, so let’s hope Girls if the Road is on someone’s radar.
So, I am on a road trip with the family the week which is why the posts have been kind of one note lately. It’s easier for me to make sure I stick to my post-a-day commitment when I don’t have to think too hard to be clever. I hope you have been enjoying, or a least tolerating these DVDless posts, because there are going to be a few more until I get home next week!
Today’s DVDless title is the 1935 romantic comedy Bright Lights starring Joe E. Brown and directed by Busby Berkeley. When Ann was on her whirl wind honeymoon in 1932/33, she missed out on the potential opportunity to appear in one of the many popular musicals featuring over-the-top Berkeley choreographed numbers that were a big hit with Depression-era audiences. With Bright Lights, she didn’t get to float in water with a neon violin while the camera travels through her legs, but at least she got to work with Busby Berkeley who had actually choreographed her dance moves in Sky Devils.
Bright Lights also gave Ann also the opportunity to play straight woman to Joe E. Brown in this light film about a husband/wife vaudeville team whose marital bliss is threatened by his success on Broadway and a saucy runaway heiress (Patricia Ellis). I think Brown’s schtick can wear thin at times and the movie is most watchable when he and Dvorak are onscreen. Their scenes together seem effortless and they make a more believable couple than most of Dvorak’s onscreen pairings. Bright Lights may be a slight film, but it’s fun and I have always had a soft spot for it.
The 1935 Warner Bros. feature Dr. Socrates, about a doctor running away from his demons by setting up shop in a small town, is only moderately entertaining but is notable for a couple of reasons. First off, it reunited Ann Dvorak with her Scarface co-star Paul Muni. This second pairing isn’t anywhere near as incendiary as the first, where they had played siblings with an uncomfortably intense affection for each other. However, it’s great to see Ann acting opposite as capable an actor as Muni, and there does seem to be a genuine affection between the two which comes off onscreen.
The other reason Dr. Socrates is worth a viewing is because it contains something Ann rarely received during her tenure at Warner Bros. – a well shot close-up. Most of Ann’s Warner films were quickie programmers that were shot in as little as two weeks, so there was no time to be bothered with such nonsense as setting up for close-ups. Dr. Socrates is a higher budget film than many of Ann’s other assignments and it shows with something as simple as a well lit, beautifully shot close-up. There is one close-up of Ann that really stands out in Dr. Socrates, and that’s enough to make me want to own a good copy.
Likelihood of an Official DVD Release: I am not 100% sure, but I would guess this 1935 Warner Bros. release is still part of the catalog that belongs to Warner Bros. The Warner Archive has been churning films out for almost four years now, so maybe this one is on the horizon.
I have only seen Sky Devils twice. The first time was around 2002, and the second was in 2010 when I needed to re-watch it in order to write about it in the Ann Dvorak book. Both times, it was sheer agony to get through.
Despite having jokes written by Robert Benchley, who I am generally a fan of, there is nothing funny in this comedy about AWOL WWI soldiers who have wacky adventures and run into Ann Dvorak for some reason. Despite starring Spencer Tracy, who I generally adore, he is unimpressive in this farcical film which was produced by Howard Hughes and uses recycled aviation footage from Hell’s Angels.
So, if I so completely loath Sky Devils, why would I include it as a film I would like to see released? First off, I am a fan of making every last Ann Dvorak film available no matter how bad they might be. If all her films had been accessible ten years ago, that would have made my life much easier and I would rather that future Dvorak aficionados be able to have the full Ann-D filmography experience. Additionally, as with many Dvorak films in my personal collection, the quality is terrible which renders it fairly unwatchable. I am hoping the bad print the main reason why I find Sky Devils disdainful and not because Spencer Tracy cannot pull off jokes written by Robert Benchley that are not funny to begin with.
Likelihood of an Official DVD Release: I’m going to guess pretty unlikely. I’m not sure who has the rights to this one. Universal reissued Sky Devils along with Scarface and Hell’s Angels in 1979, so maybe they still have it. Even if they do, I kind of doubt they’re racing to get this one on the market.
Year of Ann Dvorak: Day 21
The Way to Love was the first film Ann Dvorak made after returning from her lengthy and unauthorized European honeymoon with Leslie Fenton. Considering Warner Bros. had purchased Ann’s contract from Howard Hughes for a whopping $40,000 right before she took off, you’d think they would have put her back to work as soon as she returned in order to start making some of that money back. Instead they let her stew for awhile and finally loaned her out to Paramount for The Way to Love.
Like many Paramount features of the early 1930s, The Way to Love is an odd film starring Maurice Chevalier as a Parisian native who wants nothing more than to be a paid tour guide in the City of Lights. Ann Dvorak is a forlorn gypsy girl who Chevalier tries to rescue from an abusive ward.
Like I said, it’s odd but watchable and Ann’s character has a biting cynicism not seen in many of her characters so early on in her career. My print of this one is a VHS copy that stinks, so I would love to see an official release.
Likelihood of an Official DVD Release: Paramount films are not easy to come by and I doubt this is at the top of any release list, so a DVD is pretty unlikely.
As a whole, Crooner is a fun film. Mind you, it’s no Duck Soup or Animal Crackers, but this quickie programmer about a bandleader who turns into a diva once he discovers that singing through a megaphone makes the ladies swoon, is definitely worth watching. However, when it comes to Ann Dvorak, it falls into the “What Were You Thinking Warner Bros?” category.
After strong appearances in The Crowd Roars and The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Warner Bros. downgraded her screen time with Love is a Racket followed by the thankless Stranger in Town. The studio altered its course by casting her as the sassy Nordie Lord in Cabin in the Cotton, but abruptly changed their minds and gave it to Bette Davis. Instead, Ann got Crooner which meant another routine leading lady role opposite her Stranger in Towncostar, David Manners.
Judy in Crooner does have some spunk and Ann gets to give Manners a well-deserved tongue-lashing after his ego has gotten out of hand, but it’s still a fairly thankless role that many Warner contract actresses could have stepped into. Despite its shortcomings as a decent role for Ann, I’d still like to see it available.
Likelihood of a DVD Release: I think it’s a possibility from the Warner Archive. A decent print is around and has been screened on TCM, so fingers crossed.