This is my contribution to the Russia in Classic Film blogathon, being organised by Movies Silently. Please take a look at the great range of posts on films, stars and directors with Russian links.
She’s known as ‘Goldwyn’s Folly’ – if she gets a mention at all, that is. But, after seeing a few of her films, I feel that actress Anna Sten deserves more recognition. The Russian star was a victim of over-hype by the studio – with failed attempts to turn her into the “new” Garbo or Dietrich, rather than creating an image around her own screen personality. She was also advertised as the “Passionate Peasant”, which didn’t sit well with the glamorous photos used to celebrate her beauty.
Either because of too much publicity, the studio’s choice of roles or for some other reason, Sten failed to set the box office alight. That’s not in doubt… but I do get fed up with the claims in reviews of some of her films that she “couldn’t act” or “lacked talent”. Her success before arriving in the US surely proves the opposite – and her acting ability also shines through in the films she did make in Hollywood.
Born in Kiev, probably in 1908 though records vary, Anna was half Ukrainian and half-Swedish. She attended theatre school and, after being discovered by legendary theatre director Stanislavsky, appeared on stage and in a number of Russian and German silent films. She went on to star in German talkies, including an acclaimed production of The Brothers Karamazov made in 1931 – I’ve just seen this and it’s a forgotten gem.
Things only went wrong after Samuel Goldwyn fetched Sten over to the US and tried to turn her into a Hollywood superstar. Apart from the hype overload, another problem was that he hadn’t realised she couldn’t speak any English. Her difficulties with the language became a joke, after being mentioned by Cole Porter in the original lyric to Anything Goes. (“If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction/ Instruct Anna Sten in diction,/ Then Anna shows/ Anything goes.”) So what about Sten’s accent on screen? It’s a little heavy in her first American film, Nana, but I had no difficulty in understanding her. In her other Hollywood films that I’ve seen so far, the accent is no stronger than than that of Garbo or Dietrich.
Anyway, here are some brief thoughts on the films of Anna Sten’s I’ve seen so far – I liked three of them a lot but have to admit Nana is a pretty weak offering. A shame it was the one designed to propel her to stardom.
The Brothers Karamazov (Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff) (Fyodor Otsep, 1931)
Although this is a German-language film, it has a strong Russian flavour. Adapted from Dostoyevsky’s great novel, it was directed by Moscow-born Fyodor Otsep (Anna Sten’s then husband), whose work is respected by critics but seems to be sadly neglected. Having seen this, I’d definitely like to see more of his films.
This adaptation focuses on just one thread of the novel, the tale of Dimitri (Fritz Kortner), a soldier heavily in debt who returns home to borrow money from his father. He is smayed to discover that the old man is splashing out large chunks of his fortune in the hope of marrying a prostitute, Gruschenka (Sten). Dimitri tries to persuade Gruschenka to break up with his father – but ends up falling under her spell himself. Meanwhile, his father’s creepy servant Smerdjakoff , played by Fritz Rasp, who also starred in The Threepenny Opera, is cooking up a plot.
The film is a breathtaking mix of spoken melodrama and silent (except for the powerful background music) montage sequences, Among the most memorable are Dimitri’s drinking bouts and a long gypsy dance. There is also a lot of great expressionist photography. Kortner dominates throughout and is mesmerising as the intense Dimitri. Sten gets far less screen time, but is riveting as Gruschenka, giving the character a mercurial quality, with a believable chemistry between her character and Dimitri. This film doesn’t appear to be available on official DVD anywhere in the world, but it is on Youtube, in a goodish print although it has Spanish subtitles and a lot of background noise.
Nana (Dorothy Arzner, 1934)
After being captivated by Sten’s performance in The Brothers Karamazov, Goldwyn wooed her over to Hollywood and carefully groomed her for stardom. The original plan was to do an English-language version of Karamazov, but, when that didn’t work out, another classic adaptation was brought forward instead – this melodrama loosely based on a Zola novel. Original director George Fitzmaurice was fired and Dorothy Arzner, the only woman director working in Hollywood at the time, was brought in instead. According to the TCM article on the film, some of the original stars were also sacked and replaced, with the film’s original budget being doubled as a result.
This drama was made and released at the end of the pre-Code period. Once again, Sten plays a prostitute, a poor girl in 19th-century Paris who lands up on the streets after her mother dies – but makes her fortune when she goes on the stage. She is the mistress of an older man, Gaston Greiner (Richard Bennett), a theatrical impresario, but, when she falls for a handsome young soldier, George Muffat (Phillips Holmes), she endangers her livelihood. Lionel Atwill also stars as the soldier’s much older brother, who, in a similar plot line to her previous film, tries to warn the heroine off only to be bewitched himself. Atwill gives a particularly good performance in this, with shades of his character in the Dietrich pre-Code The Song of Songs. Mae Clarke also features as a friend of Nana.
It’s plain to see that Nana was an expensive production, with lavish sets and gorgeous costumes. The black-and-white cinematography by Gregg Toland, who worked on all three of Sten’s Goldwyn productions, is also stunning. Arzner had well-documented problems getting her star to master the dialogue and had to cut some of it (though the film seems far too talky as it is!) – but Sten’s accent doesn’t seem too bad to my ears. The big problems with this film are the repetitive script and the slow pace – it starts off well, but at times almost grinds to a halt. Whatever you think of her accent, Sten looks beautiful enough to justify all the publicity, and I also think she gives a pretty good performance in the lead role, giving Nana a teasing charm and vivacity. She also performs a song specially written for her, That’s Love, by Rodgers and Hart, singing in a style a bit similar to Dietrich. (Sten also sings in Karamazov.) Sadly, this title is not available on DVD, but it does sometimes get shown on the US TCM .
For further reading on Nana – the TCM article has a lot of background, and Silver Screen Oasis posted some of the publicity pictures for the film, as well as interestingly suggesting that it might have influenced George Cukor’s Camille.
We Live Again (Rouben Mamoulian, 1934)
With a great director, Fredric March as leading man and a script partly written by Preston Sturges, why did Anna Sten’s second Hollywood film fail? It’s a puzzle – but perhaps another classic adaptation just a few months after Nana seemed too similar to the previous release. This time round, Goldwyn decided on Tolstoy’s Resurrection, but changed the title, and, of course, much of the plot again had to go.
It’s a while since I saw this film, but I remember being impressed by the drama as a whole and the performances of both lead actors. March plays a Russian aristocrat, Prince Dmitri, who, as a young man, befriends a peasant girl, Katusha (Sten). He at first falls genuinely in love with her, but, after the inevitable seduction, he abandons her – and, once again, Sten plays a woman driven to prostitution. Years later, Dmitri is confronted with Katusha following some surprising plot developments, and forced to realise what he has done. The film won enthusiastic reviews, but proved to be another box office flop. I do hope to write a proper blog post about this in future, but I only saw it when it was briefly available on Youtube. Sadly it hasn’t had a DVD release in the UK, where I live, but it is out on DVD in region 1 from MGM, and there’s a Spanish release in region 2.
For further reading on We Live Again, here is a link to the TCM article on the film.
The Wedding Night (King Vidor, 1935)
I’ve already reviewed this film, so anyone interested can follow the link to see my thoughts, including some stills from the movie.
With another great director at the helm, Goldwyn decided on a contemporary production for his protégé third time around. Anna Sten plays another peasant girl, Polish-American farmer’s daughter Manya, who finds herself torn between her attraction to writer Tony Barrett (Gary Cooper) and her planned marriage to a boorish man chosen by her father, Fredrik (Ralph Bellamy). I found this a very powerful film, with plenty of chemistry between Cooper and Sten, and am somewhat bewildered as to why, yet again, it failed at the box office. Once again, this isn’t out on DVD in the UK, but has been released by MGM in the US.
After these three box office flops, Goldwyn cancelled Sten’s contract, but she did go on to make some more films. I’d be interested to hear which of these titles others would recommend.