Archive for July, 2020|Monthly archive page

Cabin Fever Film Festival: NANA (1934)

In Uncategorized on July 9, 2020 at 3:21 pm

No actor ever had a more auspicious beginning or bigger build-up in Hollywood than Anna Sten, sadly later referrred to as “Goldwyn’s Edsel,” i.e., a profound failure. The legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn had discovered the Russian actress in a film adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov, and an aha! moment occurred to him with her cast as his great, inspirational muse, much as the beautiful Hungarian Vilma Banky had been for him in the silent era.

He brought her to Tinseltown and, in the words of Cole Porter’s topical “Anything Goes,” “If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction / Instruct Anna Sten in diction / Then Anna shows / Anything goes.” She was, of course, physically made over, her large and lush Slavic features cosmeticized into a reasonable Garbo/Dietrich facsimile – mostly Dietrich – in order to play her debut American role, Emile Zola’s “Nana.”

No expense was spared: Hollywood’s one prominent woman director, the lesbian Dorothy Arzner, fresh off “Christopher Strong” with Katharine Hepburn, helmed the show, and Sten was surrounded by a cast which included Lionel Atwill, Richard Bennett, Mae Clarke, Phillips Holmes, Reginald Owen, Jessie Ralpph, Muriel Kirkand. She was luxuriously lit by the great Gregg “Citizen Kane” Toland, Rodgers & Hart were hired to compose a song she sings in a cabaret moment in the heroine’s career, Richard Day did the brilliant Belle Epoque sets and, sartorially, she had the distinction of being the only star to ever wear both of Hollywood’s two pre-eminent designers Adrian AND Travis Banton. The publicity campaign was completely over-the-top, with George Hurrell employed to make endless gorgeous portraits of her – he said her face took the light better than any actress in Hollywood and you could paint entirely different identities and moods upon it.

It had an ultra-gala opening at Radio Music Hall, but after a packed first week of the curious come to see what the ballyhoo was all about, the film – and Sten – flopped.

Goldwyn, undeterred, made two more films with his discovery, “We Live Again,” another literary adaptation (Tolstoy’s “Resurrection,” directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and “The Wedding Night,” directed by King Vidor). They were equally unsuccessful; the public just wasn’t buying Anna Sten.

This was probably due to a surfeit of foreign divas, indeed led by Garbo and Dietrich, on the screen then, with too many other exotic would-be super novas promoted by the various studios: Lillian Harvey, Gwili Andre, Tala Birell, Lili Damita, Elissa Landi, Greta Nissen, et al. It was a shame, because Sten really was the real thing, surely as beautiful as Dietrich, if not the all-encompassing Garbo, and perhaps even a better actress than both. None of her films are a disgrace – instead, it’s an indictment on public taste at the time that -even surrounded by Hollywood’s finest talent -this special, radiant and deeply moving and real performer could not catch a deserving break. Despite its heavily bowdlerized script (coming, too, as it did, in the first year of the censorious Hays Code, unfortunately), and some indifferent acting (zero chemistry between Sten and the always synthetic if Apollo-like Holmes), Nana remains one of the most visually beautiful black and white films ever made.

watch it here: