Several weeks ago, the L.A. Daily Mirror had lunch with Christina Rice, author of the new book “Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel” and it’s always fun when two ardent researchers get together to talk shop. We chatted about various archives, the thrill of the hunt in tracking down information and how many Hollinger boxes there are on such and such a subject.
Rice is one of what she calls “the triple threat” of writers associated with the Los Angeles Public Library’s history department, the others being map librarian Glen Creason, author of “Los Angeles in Maps” and Mary McCoy, formerly of the history department and now a librarian at Teen’Scape, who has a book coming out next year.
Anyone who has known Rice for any length of time knows of her devotion to the subject of Ann Dvorak, or “Ann,” as Rice often refers to her. Rice is quick to point out in response to continuing questions, that no, she doesn’t identify with Dvorak — in fact Rice laments some of the dreadful decisions the actress made in her life. And although she was married at Dvorak’s former home in Encino, she never considered “Ann” or “Dvorak” as a baby’s name. Only other people suggested that, she says, explaining that she and her husband chose the name Gable.
Rice says she began her research odyssey 15 years ago, when she was in library school, assuming that material would be easy to find, and she suffered a cold dash of reality when she found nothing more than a few articles in Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature.
And yes, having started 15 years ago, Rice did much of her research in the dark ages of research, with Readers’ Guide, microfilm of newspapers and buying a lot of memorabilia. Fortunately, she had the skills of a librarian and the determination of a dedicated researcher. It’s safe to say a lesser researcher would never have been able to pull off this book.
For the first five years, she says, she collected Ann Dvorak material and, fortunately for her, Dvorak was not considered highly collectible, so she had the field to herself, obtaining lobby cards, movie stills, posters, radio contracts, letters and all the other ephemera that make up someone’s life. It wasn’t long before dealers began calling her the Ann Dvorak lady and approaching her with all manner of materials.
One of the more unusual items she obtained was an index to citations of Ann Dvorak in gossip columns in the Los Angeles Examiner, Herald-Express, Hollywood Citizen News and other papers compiled by a man who spent untold hours going through the library’s microfilm, reading all the gossip columns.
Another essential research task was tracking down and watching as many of Dvorak’s films as possible, including one of Dvorak’s prime films, “Scarface,” which was taken out of circulation by Howard Hughes and unavailable for years.
Rice succeeded in seeing everything except for a few silents that Dvorak made when she was a child actress, two British films that are considered lost and some TV shows. She has watched everything else, whether it was on VHS, DVD or, in one case, a nitrate print at UCLA.
She also found a rich source of information in the Warner Bros. archives at USC, and says that anyone who wants to do a biography of a Golden Age movie star should pick someone from Warners because the archives are extensive. The Warners material constitutes much of the book, Rice says, particularly the information about Dvorak’s legal fight with the studio over her contract.
And Rice’s pick and shovel work is evident on every page. Although Dvorak was not quite “born in a trunk,” her parents were active in show business and the early days of film, and Rice has clearly looked under every rock to find out anything about two folks who are forgotten today. Rice says she found the New York Public Library far more helpful than the Margaret Herrick Library in researching the early silent films of Dvorak’s mother, actress Anna Lehr, and Dvorak’s somewhat eccentric father, Edwin S. McKim, an actor of sorts and aspiring movie producer.
Fortunately, all the material that Rice has unearthed is presented in a light-handed style in contrast to what one might expect from a more academic biography that all too often begins with the subject’s great-great-grandparents, diverting into somewhat interesting but ultimately irrelevant subjects like the dust storms great-grandma and great-grandpa suffered at sea on their voyage to America.
Rice is unsure about her next project. She says no other book can ever come close to all the labor she devoted to the Dvorak project. I would almost suggest (facetiously, of course) the topic of “How to Write a Book While Riding the L.A. Subway,” because, yes, Rice realized that the only free time she had was riding mass transit while commuting to the library. And so that’s how she did it.
“Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel” is an easy read and uses the life of one actress to explore the abuses of the studio system and offers a look at how film executives dealt with stars who could be professional on the set, troublesome in the courtroom and rather unwise in their choice of men.
The book is available for $22.99 for the Kindle, $36.17 in hardback from Amazon or $40 at local independent bookstores like Vroman’s, which is where I got my copy.