Scarface is going to air on Turner Classic Movies on Friday, January 21st at 6:30pm PST.
Ann Dvorak appeared in 53 feature films (not counting her appearances as a child-actor and chorus girl). Some are lousy, others merely watchable, and a few are damn good. In my humble opinion, the one that stands above all the others and is a truly great film is 1932’s Scarface.
Directed by Howard Hawks, produced by Howard Hughes, and starring Paul Muni, Scarface is legendary for the censorship battles it sparked between Hughes and the Production Code Administration, as much as it is for being one of the quintessential gangster flicks of the early 1930s. Also, this was the film that spawned the 1983 Brian DePalma movie of the same name, starring Al Pacino. Scarface is also the first film Ann Dvorak was cast in as an actress as opposed to an extra or member of the chorus.
When watching the film, it’s hard to believe this is the first time Ann really acted on screen, and that she was barely twenty years of age. She more than holds her own with Muni, who was already an accomplished stage actor, and her scenes with an equally effective George Raft are electrifying. Her death scene could have been melodramatically comedic, but instead is quite convincing. With her heavily char-coaled eyes and teased up hair, she is never quite this striking looking in any other film.
The censorship issues with Scarface delayed the film’s release for a number of months and unfortunately, the first movie bearing the name “Ann Dvorak” was not this one, but Sky Devils, a not so funny comedy starring Spencer Tracy and featuring rehashed flying footage from Hughes’ Hell’s Angels.
Scarface is definitely “Ann Dvorak 101,” so if you haven’t seen this one before, set your dial to TCM and enjoy the debauched ride.
The Warner Archive delivers again, and this time in a most unexpected way. The past few months, they have been releasing a steady stream of Ann Dvorak’s Warner Bros flicks from the 1930s. Today, they are offering a Walter Pidgeon/Virginia Bruce two-pack including the 1939 drama Stronger Than Desire, featuring our beloved Miss D.
This M-G-M film about an attorney who defends a woman accused of a murder that may have in fact been committed by his own wife (you got that?), was directed by Leslie Fenton, Ann’s first husband. Fenton had turned in his acting cap the year before, and this was one of his first turns as a feature director. The film is enjoyable enough, and Fenton had the opportunity to direct his wife through a heart-wrenching courtroom breakdown.
I particularly like this film for two reasons. First is the scene where Walter Pidgeon has Ann fake-faint in court. He cues her and she just melts out of the chair and onto the floor. I know it’s supposed to be dramatic, but it’s pretty ridiculous and worthy of a rewind and rewatch. The other reason I find this film memorable (as far as Ann Dvorak movies go) is because she has never looked more beautiful. No studio did Hollywood glamor quite like M-G-M, and it shows. Ann is absolutely luminous, even when she is fake-fainting.
Hats off once again to the Warner Archive for fulfilling the needs of every Ann Dvorak fan, even though they’re probably not doing it consciously.
It’s that time of the year when my husband and I talk about driving up to San Francisco for the annual Noir City film festival and don’t actually go. This year will be no exception, because while my 7-month-old daughter is brilliant, theater-going is not yet on her list of accomplishments.
This year’s line-up is especially of interest because they will be screening the 1939 Columbia flick Blind Alley, directed by Charles Vidor, starring Chester Morris, Ralph Bellamy, and of course Ann Dvorak.
As I have previously discussed when it has aired on television, Blind Alley is one of my favorite Dvorak films. This tale of an escaped convict who with his gang, holds a dinner party hostage at a lakeside home while waiting for an escape boat is a bit campy but mostly compelling. How can one not be engrossed watching Ralph Bellamy use his super-psychiatric powers to drive Chester Morris completely insane? Ann plays the ever-devoted girlfriend, a role that was all too familiar in her Warner Bros days. At least this time her true love is a psychotic, murdering thug, and she is a gun-toting hard-ass who looks stunning while ordering the hired help to lock themselves in the basement.
Blind Alley will be screened at the Castro Theatre on Saturday, January 29th at 1:00pm and 4:30pm. It’s part of a double feature with Fritz Lang’s Secret Behind the Door, which as my husband commented, “sounds rad.”
The Noir City festival runs from January 21-30. The full program list can be found on their website.