Ann Dvorak

Pre-Code Essentials: Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a match 1932

Plot

Even from a very young age, Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak), and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis) were on completely different paths in life. They were classmates together as children; Mary the class bad girl, Vivian the popular one, and Ruth was one of the most studious.

Ten years after parting ways, they run into each other and meet for lunch. After a stint in reform school, Mary is now working as a showgirl. Ruth is a stenographer and Vivian married to powerful attorney Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). Although Vivian seems to have everything a person could ever want, she’s grown increasingly dissatisfied with her life. To shake up her life, Vivian takes her son on a trip, but on the ship, she gets mixed up with gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). Before long, she’s descended into a life of drugs and alcohol, making it impossible for her to take good care of her son.

Mary is aware of Vivian’s hard partying and goes to see Robert to come up with a plan to at least get the child away from her. Once her son is away from her, Vivian and Robert divorce and Vivian hits rock bottom. When Vivian and Michael are desperate for money, Michael kidnaps Vivian’s son and holds him hostage.


My Thoughts

When I first saw Three on a Match, I was mostly watching it for Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart since those are two of my favorite movie stars. I know I’m not the only one who was drawn to this movie because of those two, but while many people watch for Bogart and Davis, they stay for Ann Dvorak. Out of all the major stars, Ann Dvorak is now the least widely remembered of the bunch, but she completely steals the movie from every single one of her costars. Bogart and Davis, at the time, were up-and-coming stars and weren’t being used to their full potential yet. Warren William and Joan Blondell are both good, but are totally eclipsed by Ann Dvorak’s mesmerizing presence.

Three on a Match is also a master class in efficient storytelling. It fits more into 63 minutes than most movies do in two hours.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Herve (Humphrey Bogart) insinuating Vivian’s drug addiction.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

One last “fallen woman” tale for this series of essential pre-codes. In some ways, Vivian’s story reminds me of several other “fallen woman” movies I’ve highlighted this month, but her story ends up feeling really unique. Vivian reminds me a bit of Temple Drake from The Story of Temple Drake in the sense that they were both women with a pretty high standing in society and when they fall, they fall very hard. They both slip into these incredibly dirty worlds that are anything but fun. Three on a Match does nothing to glorify the lifestyle Vivian and Michael end up leading. But the fact that Vivian is a mother and her lifestyle directly endangers her child adds a more shocking element to her story. Helen Faraday from Blonde Venus is another fallen woman who is also a mother, but she was much more concerned about her child’s welfare; Vivian was too strung out to properly care for her son. However, she does redeem herself in the end by making the ultimate sacrifice for her child.

Pre-Code Essentials: Scarface (1932)

Scarface 1932

Plot

With the death of gang leader Big Louie Costillo, the doors are open for major gang activity as various gangs fight to take control over the south side of Chicago’s bootlegging racket. Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is the ruthlessly ambitious right hand man for gangster Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Johnny gains control of the south side with Tony’s help, but Tony isn’t content to settle for just the south side; he wants to control the north side, too, even though doing so would mean starting a war with some gangsters Johnny specifically told him to leave alone. Rival gang leader Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff) tries to have Tony killed, but only ends up introducing Tony to tommy guns in the process.

Not only is Tony trying to oust Johnny for the title of Chicago’s top gang leader, he also has his sights on Jonny’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley). Johnny realizes how dangerously out of control Tony is and tries to have him killed, but Tony once again survives and kills Johnny. Johnny finally has everything that he wants — complete control over Chicago and Poppy. But his antics haven’t gone unnoticed by the police, who are moving in on him. Tony also has to worry about his younger sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), who has taken an interest in his lifestyle.


My Thoughts

Paul Muni doesn’t seem to get enough credit for playing one of the all-time greatest movie gangsters. Cagney, Bogart, and Robinson were all great movie tough guys, but none of their characters had the unrestrained glee that Tony took in killing people. Cold blooded? Absolutely. But giddy about killing? Not quite. When faced with a hail of gunfire, Tony lights up like a kid on Christmas morning. I’m certainly no stranger to gangster movies, but this version of Scarface is really jaw dropping compared to many others (including ones made in the late 1960s and beyond, although I’ve actually never seen the Al Pacino version of Scarface) because of that fact.

And I certainly can’t neglect to mention Ann Dvorak, who is truly electrifying as Cesca.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

The pure joy Tony takes in killing people.

The incestuous tones to Tony’s relationship with Cesca.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Scarface was a nightmare for censors before it even started filming. The original screenplay included Tony’s mother being supportive of her son’s (for lack of a better word) career and featured a hypocritical politician who rallies against criminals like Tony by day, but goes to parties with him by night. The Hays Office insisted on so many script revisions, Howard Hughes eventually got so fed up with it, he told director Howard Hawks to just go ahead and make the movie as violent and as realistic as possible. There was a lot of concern that even though Tony dies at the end, the movie still glorified criminal lifestyles. An alternate ending was filmed where Tony turns himself in, but censors still objected to that version.

To make some effort to appease the censors, some of the violence was toned down, the subtitle “The Shame of a Nation” was added, and a text introduction condemning Tony’s behavior were added to the movie.

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel by Christina RiceFans of pre-code cinema are no strangers to the name Ann Dvorak.  Her electrifying performances in movies like Scarface and Three on a Match helped give those movies a quality that makes them enjoyable over eighty years later.  But to other movie fans, her name probably doesn’t ring any bells.

Ann Dvorak is a movie star who never really became a movie star.  When she was moving up in the film industry, she came up alongside the likes of Bette Davis and James Cagney.  Joan Crawford was a mentor to her.  Her performance in Scarface had people calling her “Hollywood’s new Cinderella.”  But like her contemporaries Davis and Cagney, Ann Dvorak wasn’t afraid to challenge her studio bosses when she wasn’t happy with the way she was being treated.  However, Dvorak’s battles against the studio were poorly planned and as a result, her career never reached its full potential.  Despite such a promising start, Dvorak was relegated to supporting roles and mediocre movies for the rest of her film career.

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel by Christina Rice is the first biography ever written on Ann Dvorak and I was so excited when I found out a book about her was being published.  In the book’s introduction, Rice talks about her experience seeing Three on a Match for the first time, being captivated by Dvorak’s performance, and wanting to find out more about that woman.  Three on a Match was also my introduction to Ann Dvorak and I had a
similar reaction, but I never knew much information about her until now.

In Hollywood’s Forgotten RebelRice reveals a very intriguing woman.  Actually, I found the parts covering Dvorak’s life when she wasn’t acting more fascinating than the parts about her film career.  She was a woman with a wide range of interests outside of acting and she did her best to pursue them all.  During World War II, she went to England with her first husband and spent time driving an ambulance, working on a farm, and writing newspaper articles.  In her spare time, she enjoyed studying bacteriology.  In her later years, she tried creating a program for teaching history in universities.

Dvorak’s compelling story paired with Rice’s writing style make Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel an absolute pleasure to read.  I didn’t want to put it down.  There were times when I’d sit down to read just a little bit and before I knew it, I’d be a good fifty pages further in it.

Whether you’re already a fan of Ann Dvorak or are just interested in hearing a largely forgotten Hollywood tale, Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel is well worth your time.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932)

For all her life, Molly Louvain (Ann Dvorak) has been treated like a second class citizen.  Her mother abandoned her when she was a baby and everyone in town assumes she’s nothing but a good-for-nothing tramp just like her mother was.  But Molly is determined to rise above it all and at last, she thinks she’s found what she’s been looking for in Ralph Rogers (Don Dillaway).  Ralph comes from a wealthy family and been having an affair with Molly and he’s in love with her and wants to introduce her to his family.  However, Molly’s happiness is shattered when he suddenly leaves town and leaves her behind expecting a child.

Molly works by selling cigars in a hotel, which is where she meets a young bellhop named Jimmy Cook (Richard Cromwell).  Jimmy absolutely adores Molly, but she only sees him as a friend.  When Molly decides to leave town, she runs off with Nicky Grant (Leslie Fenton), a traveling salesman and thief.  Three years pass and Molly now has a daughter she adores, but she can’t deal with Nicky’s shady dealings anymore and leaves him.  She gets a job as a dance hostess at a local club, and one night, in walks Jimmy Cook.

She and Jimmy leave the club to catch up with each other, but Nicky sees them and makes them get into a car, which it turns out, has been stolen and used in a robbery.  The police catch up with them when Nicky stops at a store and Molly is left to drive away.  Nicky is arrested, but now the police are after Molly, too.  She dyes her hair and she and Jimmy get out of town and they end up living in a boarding house along with reporter Scotty Cornell (Lee Tracy).  It just so happens that Scotty’s pet story is the police’s search for Molly Louvain.

Even though Scotty is extremely attracted to Molly, he fails to realize who she really is.  He also isn’t as serious about her as Jimmy is, who plans to marry her.  When Scotty hears this, he tells Molly that being with Jimmy would only mean unhappiness for them both, and she backs out of her marriage plans.  But then Scotty works with the police on a plan to catch Molly by announcing that her daughter was very sick.  Sure enough, the plan works and Molly turns herself in.  Scotty is shocked to find out who Molly is, but when he sees just how much Molly loves her daughter, he vows to help clear her name and give her the life she’s always dreamed of.

Gotta love a good Ann Dvorak pre-code.  She gives it her all in Molly Louvain and makes a  movie with an average story one worth seeing.  As great as Dvorak is in it, I’ve got to give credit to Lee Tracy for being able to keep up with her.  Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending and thought Molly would be better off with Jimmy, it was hard for me to fault Molly for choosing Scotty when Lee Tracy brought so much charisma to the character.  Jimmy may have had the best intentions, but compared to Scotty, he’s about as interesting as a piece of plain white bread.

Love is a Racket (1932)

It’s never a good idea to give too much of yourself in a relationship, and that’s a lesson newspaper columnist Jimmy Russell (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is about to find out the hard way.  He’s in love with aspiring actress Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee), and since he writes the Broadway gossip column, he uses that to help influence her career.  His friend Sally (Ann Dvorak) has been in love with him, but he’s too blind to see that Mary will take him for everything she can get.  Even though Mary has also been seeing a Broadway producer, when Mary writes a bunch of bad checks, of course Jimmy wants to jump in and pay them off for her.  But it turns out someone has beaten him to the punch.  Gangster Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot) isn’t too happy with Jimmy or his newspaper since he found out they were planning to break a story about a racket he’s involved in.  Even though Jimmy agreed to kill the story, Eddie went ahead and bought up all of Mary’s bad checks.  Eddie tells Jimmy that he’s headed off to Atlantic City for a few days and Jimmy follows them, but when Jimmy arrives, he finds out it’s a trap and is held captive by one of Eddie’s cronies.

Meanwhile, in New York, Eddie takes this opportunity to start winning Mary over.  He sends her a bracelet and a telegram telling her to come over to his place.  Mary is scared and with Jimmy out of town, doesn’t know what to do.  Finally, her Aunt Hattie decides she can’t sit idly by and watch Mary fall in with a guy like Eddie, so she decides to settle the score herself.  By now, Jimmy has gotten away from Eddie’s cronies and makes it back to Eddie’s apartment just in time to see Jimmy dead and Hattie ditching the evidence.  Still wanting to protect Mary, he destroys all the evidence and makes it look like Eddie killed himself.  But in yet another crazy twist of fate, Jimmy’s friend Stanley (Lee Tracy) also comes by just in time to see Jimmy shove Eddie’s body off the building and assumes that Jimmy was the one who killed him.

Everyone believes that Eddie committed suicide, but Stanley doesn’t know the real story.  To protect his friend, he took some incriminating evidence from the scene of the crime and hands them over to Jimmy.  He has no intention of ratting his friend out, he just doesn’t want them falling into the wrong hands.  Later, they head back to Jimmy’s apartment and get a telegram from Mary announcing her sudden marriage to that Broadway producer.  Finally, Jimmy realizes what a sap he’s been.  He sends Aunt Hattie a little wedding present — the gun she used to kill Eddie — and declares that he will never fall in love again.  But the way he looks at Sally lets us know that won’t last long.

I think Love is a Racket is something of an underrated pre-code.  The story is pretty convoluted, but its sharp script and strong cast make it pretty enjoyable.  Doug Fairbanks, Jr., Frances Dee, Lyle Talbot, and Lee Tracy are all great, although it’s too bad that there wasn’t more to Ann Dvorak’s character.  She gets some witty lines to say, but other than that, there’s just not a whole lot of substance to her part.  Give this one a shot next time it’s on TCM.  With a runtime of just over an hour, what have you got to lose?

Friends of Mr. Sweeney (1934)

Back in his college days, Asaph “Ace” Holliday (Charlie Ruggles) and his best friend Wynn Rixey (Eugene Pallette) were known as a couple of the wildest guys in town.  But after spending a few years writing for The Balance, a newspaper run by Franklyn Brumbaugh, he’s turned into a different man.  Brumbaugh’s overly conservative nature has broken Asaph’s spirit.  Even his secretary Beulah (Ann Dvorak) has noticed a change in him.  When Asaph writes an unfavorable editorial about politician Stephen Prime, Brumbaugh orders it to be rewritten in a more positive way since he and Prime are friends.  The old Asaph would have thrown that editorial right in Burmbaugh’s face, but the new Asaph reluctantly agrees.

One day, he gets a telegram from his old friend Rixey and starts reminiscing about the good old days.  Once he starts remembering how he used to be, he finally works up the nerve to ask Beulah to dinner.  She invites him to have dinner at her apartment, but when he arrives, he’s surprised to find her friends Millie and Alex, an outspoken communist, will be joining them.  He ends up getting drunk with them and while hungover the next morning, Asaph agrees to publish a tirade against Prime that Alex has written.  But when Prime finds out about the article Alex has written, he sets out to stop it any way he can.

When Rixey arrives town, Asaph is determined to prove that he’s still the same guy he used to be.  Asaph calls up Beulah, has her bring another girl, and the four of them head out to an exclusive club that they get into by pretending to be “friends of Mr. Sweeney.”  Asaph has no idea who Mr. Sweeney is, but it sounds impressive enough to get them in and give all of them a swell night at the club.  But as the night goes on and Asaph gets more in touch with his old self, he decides he’s going to stand up to Brumbaugh and write that editorial the way he wants to.  Asaph, Beulah, and Rixey head over to the newspaper offices to work on it (Asaph sent Beulah’s friend home when he decided she was too boring). When they arrive, they find Brumbaugh and his mistress being held at gunpoint.  Asaph manages to get the gun away from the burglar and uses it to hold the burglar, Brumbaugh, and his mistress at gunpoint while he writes the article the way he wants to.

I ended up liking Friends of Mr. Sweeney a lot more than I thought I would.  I didn’t have particularly high expectations for it, but it was really funny.  If you’re a fan of Charlie Ruggles, it’s definitely worth checking out.  He really knew how to get the most out of his material here.  Ann Dvorak was petty enjoyable as well.  If you’ve got about an hour to kill, watching this movie isn’t a bad way to spend it.

What’s on TCM: August 2011


It’s that time of year again!  Let Summer Under the Stars commence!  I love this year’s line-up.  Even though there are plenty of the usual SUTS suspects like Bette Davis, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart, more than half of this year’s stars have never been part of SUTS before.  And many of those who have been featured before, haven’t been featured in quite a few years.  Let’s take a look at the full list of stars:

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