Sunday, 1 September 2013

Anna Sten: A Noble Failure

/ Exquisite Russian actress Anna Sten (1908-1993) in the film Nana (1934) /
"Prior to the advent of Dietrich, studios had been scrambling for a Garbo in their backlot. Now they wanted a Dietrich as well. Browless, languid, chain-smoking creatures poured into Hollywood from every corner of the globe. If they weren't born with a foreign accent, they quickly acquired one. They appeared through screens of cigarette smoke and vanished into them as quickly as they arrived … Hollywood talent scouts rummaged through Europe, returning with waves of exotics in their tow. In the search for substitutes many talented actresses were sacrificed."
From the book Marlene Dietrich by John Kobal (1968)
"Accents have always had it tough in Tinseltown. For every Garbo and Dietrich there are dozens of Franciska Gaals from The Buccaneer and from Hungary. That faraway quality in their voices sent them far away after casting directors ran out of foreign outposts in which to station them. (Samuel) Goldwyn tried hard with Anna Sten, or Anna Stench, as she was known to his stockholders. He spent a fortune promoting Sten, but in glamorizing her he buried her natural beauty under doll-like make-up. She’s remembered as a famous flop, Goldwyn’s very own Edsel.”
From the book Flesh and Fantasy by Penny Stallings (1978)

In an ideal world, Sten would be remembered as a radiant, sensitive, fragile and intense actress who was unlucky to be constantly unfavorably compared to Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich (who could measure up to them?). John Kobal would recall how Sten “… spoke in a series of semicolons and dashes, pauses that reflected the Russian soul of this half-Swedish actress who was the method in the eye of the method.” Her key Hollywood vehicles Nana (1934), We Live Again (1934) and The Wedding Night (1935) were all commercial failures, but they’re interesting failures and worth catching.

Above: Sten crooning the sultry torch song "That's Love" in Nana. It's fascinating to see how she's been painstakingly coached to mimic Marlene Dietrich (the world-weary half-spoken delivery, taking insolent drags from the smoldering cigarette) - and yet her own charisma shines through.

Update: tragically, the beautiful clip above has since been deleted! Try watching it here. 

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