There's More to Local History Research Than the "Los Angeles Times"
When I first started researching the life of 1930s/40s film star Ann Dvorak back in 1998, the Internet was around but there wasn’t much to be found on her. I did own a CD-ROM called Cinemania, a precursor to IMDB, which had the actress’s incomplete filmography listed, but other than that a computer held little value in uncovering the life of the reclusive Dvorak.
At some point that all changed when the World Wide Web ushered in a golden age of research. Not only did it become easier to figure out what institutions held certain documents, but many actual primary sources also started to become instantly accessible. As a graduate student, I discovered the Los Angeles Public Library subscribed to Proquest’s database of the historic Los Angeles Times. My head nearly exploded diving into the more than one thousand hits that came up for Ann Dvorak. It was a treasure trove of information documenting her film career, marriages, world travels, and ongoing battles with Warner Bros., the studio she was under contract to for nearly five years in the 1930s. The Los Angeles Times opened up a floodgate of information and leads to follow.
When I started working at the History & Genealogy Department at Central Library in 2006, a whole different world of research opened up. These newfound treasures were not to be found with a keyboard, mouse, and computer screen, but were buried in boxes upon boxes of microfilm. Their contents were not always easy to find, but they were worth digging up. I was astonished to discover that in the 1930s Los Angeles had no fewer than seven daily papers along with a host of smaller community weekly newspapers. The first six months I worked at Central, every lunch break was spent parked in front of the microfilm readers, frantically searching for new tidbits on Ann Dvorak. I was rewarded handsomely.
In my quest to explore Ann’s story through the reporters of the 1930s I discovered that while digitization may have made the Los Angeles Times the easiest paper to investigate, it was far from the final word on any given story. It became quickly apparent that the Los Angeles Examiner was frequently a stronger source for local coverage than the Times, and the Los Angeles Herald would always give more details if a story were particularly scandalous. The Times gave decent amount of coverage when one of Ann’s homes was subjected to a vice raid (she was renting it out and in Europe at the time), but the Herald devoted serious real estate to the story including a full pictorial spread, complete with a shot of the “purple room,” which could be rented for $150 an hour.
In 1932, Ann Dvorak torpedoed the trajectory of her film career by walking out on her Warner Bros. contract to go on an extended honeymoon while complaining about her salary in the midst of the Great Depression. The Times certainly reported on it, but Elizabeth Yeoman over at the Hollywood Citizen News lambasted the young actress for her actions, as did Relmen Morin over at the Los Angeles Record. When Ann sued Warner Bros. in 1936 for what she claimed was an unjustified suspension due to ill health, the Times accurately reported that X-rays of her chest were put on display, but the Examiner actually took a picture of the actress viewing her inner organs. The biggest question about Ann Dvorak, besides the pronunciation of her surname, is why didn’t she become a bigger star? Coverage in the Los Angeles Times absolutely helped in putting together the pieces of Ann’s fractured career, but being able to view how the different local media outlets responded to her gave a much fuller picture of why her career unraveled.
As information becomes easier and easier to access, researchers are becoming more reluctant to make the trip Downtown and become bleary-eyed behind microfilm readers. That’s really too bad, because the available digitized newspapers may only be revealing part of the story, and can serve as an excellent jumping off point for exploring offline papers. The librarians in the History & Genealogy Department will certainly rejoice when the Herald and Examiner finally go digital (and no, we have no idea when that might happen), but until then you might want to come visit us at Central Library and dive into our microfilmed Los Angeles newspaper collection. You never know what you might find.
Christina Rice is the author of the newly release book “Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel” from the University Press of Kentucky. Christina and LAPL will be celebrating with an official book launch party on November 12th.
(Image from the Los Angeles Herald Collection/Los Angeles Public Library shows Ann Dvorak entering court to battle Warner Bros. legally for the release from her studio contract in 1936.)