Ann Dvorak and her father, Edwin McKim in 1934
Ann Dvorak made her first big entrance on August 2, 1911 in New York as Anna McKim. The only child of two vaudevillians, young Anna was raised in the business that would later make her a star (or at the least, a respected leading lady). Her father, Edwin McKim worked as a director for the Lubin Studios, and her mother, Anna Lehr, would find success as the star of many silent features. The couple split when Ann was four, and she and her mother moved to Hollywood. Ann would not see her father again until a national appeal to the press reunited the two in 1934.
Ann as an MGM chorus girl in 1929
Ann made her film debut as “Baby Anna Lehr” in the 1916 drama Ramona. Two more silents would follow, then Ann briefly retired from show business to concentrate on her studies at the Page School for Girls in Los Angeles. In 1929, the teenager was employed with MGM as a chorine. Appearing in over 20 features and shorts for the studio, she also served as “assistant choreographer” to Sammy Lee. As the 1930s began, Hollywood was pushing the limits of “public decency” with on-screen tales of urban decay, and Ann was about to play a part in the gritty world of pre-Code cinema.
Ann is transformed from an unpolished chorus girl into a pre-Code force to be reckoned with in Scarface
At various times Hollywood lore has credited Joan Crawford, George Raft and Karen Morley with encouraging Howard Hughes to consider the young actress for the pivotal role of Cesca in his gruesome 1932 masterpiece Scarface (it was in fact, Morley who knew Ann from MGM and had already been cast in Scarface). The 19 year old, now going by the name Ann Dvorak, was signed to Hughes’ Caddo Company and cast opposite Paul Muni in the legendary gangster film, directed by Howard Hawks. After appearing with Spencer Tracy in Sky Devils, Hughes began loaning her out to Warner Bros. After a few short years in the movies, Ann looked like she was on the verge of becoming a star.
Ann and husband Leslie Fenton during one of their many honeymoon adventures in 1932/33
In 1932 Ann was appearing on film along side such greats as James Cagney and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and was given a meaty role in the pre-Code classic, Three on a Match, with Bette Davis and Joan Blondell. Warner Bros seemed to be grooming the talented actress for stardom when they purchased her contact from Hughes shortly after casting her in the title role in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain. It was on the set of this film that she met and fell in love with co-star Leslie Fenton. The two soon eloped and sailed to Europe for a year-long honeymoon in July of 1932. Ann’s relationship with Warner Bros. suffered and the remainder of her contract was spent either as leading ladies in mostly lackluster films, or in litigation, objecting to these types of roles. After many public battles with the studio, Ann left Warner’s in 1936 with her damaged reputation, and began to freelance for various studios.
Ann in the 1940s
In 1940, Ann temporarily put her career on hold to support her husband who was a British citizen and a member of the Royal Navy. Although she did make three feature films and one short film in England during this time, Ann devoted most of her energy to the war-effort as a member of the Women’s Land Army, an ambulance driver, a newspaper columnist, and a BBC broadcaster. Returning to Hollywood in 1943, Ann soon filed for divorce from Fenton, referring to the broken marriage as a “war casualty.” She continued to make films throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s and appeared on Broadway in The Respectful Prostitute in 1948. She also tried her hand at marriage for a second time. Ann ended this union with Russian dancer Igor Dega in 1951, the same year she retired from the screen.
Ann as “Gert” in Our Very Own
Ann was married for a third time in 1951 to architect/television producer Nicholas Wade. The couple resided in both Honolulu, Hawaii and Malibu, California, traveled and amassed an impressive collection of rare books. The marriage was a tumultuous one, and when Ann returned to California to care for her ailing mother in 1974, she stayed until Wade passed in 1975. Ann returned to the island where she remained until her own death on December 10, 1979. Her ashes were scattered off the coast of Waikiki Beach. Because she was living under her married name, Los Angeles newspapers did not report the death of the actress until Christmas Eve.
Ann as photographed by George Hurrell in 1937
While Ann Dvorak has not survived the ages as a household name, she still managed to carve a small niche in the conscious of American pop culture. A discussion of pre-Code films should always pay homage to Ann’s convincing death scenes, and her attempt to seduce George Raft in Scarface by suggestively slinking about in a revealing black gown has been shown to film students all over the country. While the films were not always good, her performances were always great. She could be tragic, (Three on A Match, G-Men) she could be loyal, (Bright Lights, Blind Alley, Thanks a Million) she could be funny (Merrily We Live, Out of the Blue) but above all she was always damn good (Scarface, A Life of Her Own, and many others)! Maybe some of the films are forgettable, but the personality she brought to all of her characters, as well as her own strong-willed personality, should never be forgotten.
Additional information about Ann can be found in the full length biography Ann Dvorak:Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel (2013, University Press of Kentucky).