“The trouble with Hollywood is everybody is crazy for money.” — Ann Dvorak

Anna McKim chose “Ann Dvorak” as her stage name. She chose a challenging name to pronounce (for American audiences, that is) over her easily-pronounceable real name. Who does that?? Well, she does. It says a lot. It’s mischievous. I love it.

Jen Johans and I delved into the extremely satisfying subject of pre-Code actress Ann Dvorak when I appeared on Jen’s podcast to discuss Pre-Code films. Ann Dvorak should be WAY more remembered than she is. Her career has suffered eclipse for many years basically because so many of her films weren’t seen for decades – in the years before television and VHS and etc. That has since been rectified, with the Forbidden Hollywood box sets – where she reigns supreme – and also streaming platforms. If you have Amazon Prime, put her name in, and some of these old and almost completely forgotten films will come up. Ann Dvorak’s work does not date. It is so unbelievably contemporary: ALWAYS.

Heat Lightning is a relatively recent discovery. Aline MacMahon, known mostly as a sidekick character actress in pre-Codes, and always good, takes center stage, and is heartbreaking and tough-minded and funny. The whole film is great and so worth discovering. It’s streaming on Amazon! In Heat Lightning, Dvorak’s character looks forward to the youth-quake of the 1950s, with films like Splendour in the Grass or Rebel Without a Cause, a restless teenager in a hurry to grow up, bucking up against adult control, flirting with danger, anything to get OUT.

Heat Lightning

Dvorak is probably most well known for her performance in Howard Hawks’ Scarface, one of her films to have been played consistently over the years (and associated with Brian De Palma’s remake). Dvorak is hot-to-trot in it, as the gangster’s sister, busting out of the confines of her family – and her clearly incestuous relationship with her brother (it’s barely euphemistic). She’s wild and “carefree”, wearing a backless dress with straps making an X across her creamy skin. (Scarface is filled with ominous symbolic X-es.)

She’s such a disturbing and deeply connected screen presence.

Her best performance by a long shot is in Three on a Match, directed by Mervyn LeRoy. She is almost spookily ahead of her time. It’s a fearless performance, even for a Pre-Code. The performance doesn’t date at all. Throw her into a 1986 Brian De Palma film, she’d fit right in. The character’s arc is bleak and tragic. She is a rich girl, a rich woman, and … bored. Her boredom is existential in nature. There’s something missing. There’s a blank at the center of all of it, and she can’t really explain it. She just knows it’s there.

And so she runs away. And she takes her child with her. She vanishes into the underworld. And she feels no remorse about the husband who is devastated at his child being missing, who has no idea where she has gone. She is DONE playing by the world’s rules, she is DONE being a “good girl”.

This is not a happy story. She RACES to the bottom. She consorts with gangsters, she becomes addicted to heroin almost overnight, and most probably sells her body to support her habit – all as her little son, a baby, sits across the room looking on, filthy, neglected, traumatized. This is bleak shit, even by Pre-Code standards. And it gets even worse. Dvorak’s performance is unblinkingly realistic.

Three On a Match has not been available until relatively recently, a real loss. But it’s now “out there”, it plays at festivals, it plays on TCM, it’s in a box set. There’s no reason at this point that Dvorak’s performance – or Dvorak – should “sink into obscurity.” Her final scene in Three on a Match is difficult to watch. When you want to swoop in and save a character, when you want to leap through the screen to stop the horror unfolding – you know you’re in the presence of the Tragic.

Dvorak always had a tough side, a sharp edge, but these performances make me think she would have been a phenomenal Blanche Dubois (whose core is quite tough beneath the Southern belle persona). Dvorak lived in the dichotomy: ladylike, tough, romantic, streetsmart … Not a lot of people understand that fluid in-between state, but she did.

My friend Imogen Smith has written a lot about Three on a Match (and pre-Code movies in general), as well as a great piece on Dvorak – which unfortunately seems to have disappeared from the Internet. I did save some quotes from the piece, though: This is on Dvorak in Three on a Match:

You would never guess from this film that Bette Davis would wind up the best known of the three actresses, or that Humphrey Bogart would become a beloved icon, while Ann Dvorak would sink into obscurity.


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4 Responses to “The trouble with Hollywood is everybody is crazy for money.” — Ann Dvorak

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    Thank you for this. She’s one of my favorite actresses, one I might not have known without TCM. I love Heat Lightning (great title!) and Three on a Match. I think she’s not simply modern, but she’s one of those rare performers who creates a space that’s hers alone – meaning that at any given moment in history, she’d seem utterly new and startling. She could be the sister of Jerry Lee Lewis in that clip you posted from (I think) the Steve Allen Show, where he kicks away his piano bench. All of her best performances were her way of kicking away the piano bench.

    • sheila says:

      // meaning that at any given moment in history, she’d seem utterly new and startling //

      I love how you put this. Very true.

      I love how she was doing it by pure instinct. She was like 19 years old, and a contract dancer – if I’m not mistaken. She wasn’t “trained”. She didn’t need to be. Scarface … that’s a very challenging part! she’s unforgettable.

      I wish she was more remembered. Someone should put together a retrospective.

  2. Lizzie says:

    I’ve seen her in Three on a Match and Scarface, and she was excellent in both — but I was really surprised and blown away by her performance in A Life of Her Own with Lana Turner. I watched it back when it was on Criterion last year, not even realizing Ann Dvorak was in it, but she was the best thing in the movie. She makes such a huge impression in her few scenes–portraying an aging model who has become totally unmoored once her beauty starts to fade. Even when she’s not onscreen, her presence looms, and that’s hugely due to how complex she is – proud, nervous, shallow, conflicted, despairing, reluctantly kind, lost, hollow (or so she fears). 15 years after her brief heyday and playing someone who has lost “it” (allure, youth, beauty), she proved she still could be captivating onscreen.

    If I had to describe her in one word, it might be unflinching — she doesn’t seem to hesitate to go anywhere emotionally or do things that are “unflattering” or risky (even if her character would be invested in protecting herself–which is a tricky distinction to show.) I’ll have to seek out Heat Lightning! It sounds like a great role for her.

    • sheila says:

      Lizzie –

      // I watched it back when it was on Criterion last year, not even realizing Ann Dvorak was in it, but she was the best thing in the movie. //

      Oh, that’s right!!

      // proud, nervous, shallow, conflicted, despairing, reluctantly kind, lost, hollow (or so she fears). //

      Incredibly honest. You make me want to see it again.

      and yes – Heat Lightning! It’s a new discovery to me and it quickly rose to the top of my favorite pre-Codes.

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