Sunday, October 07, 2012

Peter Bagrov: Anna Sten: Actress before Star (Pordenone 2012 introduction)

Anna Sten: Attrice prima che diva / Actress before Star

"Of all Soviet silent film stars, Anna Sten (1906-1993) enjoyed the most breathtaking, unpredictable – and finally anti-climactic career."

"She was born in Ukraine, as Anna Petrovna Fesak (the name Sten seems to have been acquired from a mysterious early marriage). The beginnings of her professional career are elusive. The Soviet tendency to conceal one’s biography clashes with two enthusiastic promotional campaigns: a German one of 1930-1932 and the massive Goldwyn campaign of 1932-35. In the conflicting accounts, her birth year fluctuates between 1906 and 1912, and the record of her social origins, education, and private life is equally tangled. It was claimed that she had begun her acting career with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre, continued her studies at the Moscow Film Academy, and was later “trained for the Russian talking screen by S.M. Eisenstein”. In fact there was no Film Academy in Moscow (though there was a Film Technical College – which Anna Sten never attended). She had left for Germany long before talking pictures were made in Russia, and, given Eisenstein’s own confusion at the introduction of sound, it is hard to imagine him setting out to train an actor. Credulity is strained. And yet…"

"Though she had not met Stanislavsky, Anna Sten did impress his collaborator and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who was seriously considering a project for a modernized film adaptation of Carmen in Hollywood, with Rouben Mamoulian as his co-director. The mysterious “Moscow Film Academy” turns out to be a film department of the Kiev Theatre Technical College – led by Valerii Inkizhinov, the star of Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia. Sten didn’t work with Eisenstein, but she was an actress at the Proletkult theatre in Moscow, which Eisenstein co-founded and had just recently abandoned. And as a film actress she worked with almost every major Soviet film director except Eisenstein – among them Lev Kuleshov, Boris Barnet, Abram Room, Yevgenii Cherviakov, Yakov Protazanov, and Fyodor Otsep."

"Not only was she popular with audiences, but the filmmakers themselves respected her as a skilful and genuine actress whose approach to cinema was strictly professional – something rather uncharacteristic of a screen beauty. She enjoyed experimenting with genres and styles, even appearing in avant-garde films in which acting was dominated by montage, the most significant of them being Cherviakov’s My Son (1928)."

"Yet, she was not willing to be treated as a “lamp” (a favourite term of Soviet critics of the 1920s for a typecast actor in montage pictures): she was furious when her part in Cherviakov’s subsequent film The Golden Beak (1929) was cut down to little more than a succession of picturesque stills. She did her best to dissuade the Soviet-German production/distribution company Derussa – who were courting her at the time – from buying this picture; and at the same time attempted to dissuade them from showing Novyi Vavilon (New Babylon), whose directors Kozintsev and Trauberg she felt did the same injustice to their actors. She was imported to Germany along with Ivan Koval-Samborskii, Vera Malinovskaya, Vera Baranovskaya, and several other Soviet actors. While most of these had only mediocre success in second-rate films, Anna Sten was teamed with such stars as Emil Jannings, Fritz Körtner, Hans Albers, and Adolf Wohlbrück (Anton Walbrook), and directed by E.A. Dupont and Robert Siodmak, among others. It was however Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff (1931), directed by her compatriot Fyodor Otsep, that earned her international success and the admiration of Samuel Goldwyn."

"Goldwyn recalled: “The day I signed her I thought it was the greatest day of my whole career. I thought, ‘This is some star!’ She had everything. She had looks and style and sex and class. She had tremendous life and she could act like a son of a bitch.”"

"He was obsessed with the idea of turning Sten into a new Garbo – just as the Germans had at a certain point aimed to present her as the new Dietrich. He spent three years – and a fortune – grooming her in dancing, singing, and English, devising her new style (the evolution of Anna Sten’s publicity image is a fascinating topic for fashion historians). Together they made three pictures – Nana (1934), We Live Again (1934), and The Wedding Night (1935). Despite flattering reviews, all of them were box-office flops. Neither film historians nor Goldwyn himself ever completely understood the reasons."

"In fact, there were many reasons. Her accent was much stronger than that of Garbo or Dietrich. King Vidor, who directed her in The Wedding Night, recalled humorously, “I pleaded for one-word replies to questions, and long speeches by other actors. Marlene Dietrich and Garbo had been most successful with this technique – a deep-sounding ‘No’ or ‘Yes,’ strung out to five times its length can be most effective coming from the lips of a European, especially if it is accompanied by a studied shifting of the eyes. My arguments were in vain. Goldwyn was all for the staccato jabber-jabber type of speech. … Goldwyn believed that if Claudette Colbert could rattle off fast verbose dialogue, Anna Sten could be made to do the same.”"

"Then there was the advertising campaign, remarkable even for Hollywood. Goldwyn went so far as to involve the Russian Orthodox Church, which held special services on the eve of the opening of Nana. He did indeed succeed in making Anna Sten a household name: for many years she was known as “Goldwyn’s Folly”, and critics called her “one of the darkest moments in Mr. Goldwyn’s career”. She even figured in Cole Porter’s song “Anything Goes”: “If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction / Instruct Anna Sten in diction, / Then Anna shows / Anything goes.”"

"But the main problem must have been in her screen personality – or, rather, an intentional lack of one in the Hollywood sense. She was first and foremost an actress. In a German interview she revealed that she found the most appealing aspect of her work “this surrendering of one’s personality in order to create another”. “What do they want?” she said in another – American – interview. “I am an actress. I came here to work, to study. Not to give a monkey exhibition!” It was precisely her quality as an actress which conquered filmmakers in Russia, Germany, and the United States, including Goldwyn himself. Whereas Garbo and Dietrich were women from nowhere, fantasy figures immutable in their mystery, always presenting variations of the same make-believe. Anna Sten may have even been a better actress, but she was not play-acting. She was a person of flesh and blood with a gift for incarnating a character – which is why she is so convincing on the real streets of Moscow or Berlin. But even Gregg Toland, who shot all three of her Goldwyn pictures, couldn’t make a 1934 Hollywood set habitable. (Though it must be said that she would have had even less chance in Soviet cinema of the 1930s.)"

"“Jolly, rather than exotic, describes Miss Sten,” claimed an American reporter. “And glamour and allure do not go, somehow, with the undeniable wit and humor that she possesses. A thoroughly likable person, unpretentious and unspoiled, Miss Sten indicated volubly that she was sick unto death of being considered a veiled, inscrutable, silent and mysterious stranger from another planet.”"

"Who knows – had Goldwyn presented her simply as a talented actress and not a star, her career might have developed along the lines of Katharine Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman. But after three flops in a row Goldwyn and Sten separated peacefully."

"And peacefully Anna Sten continued to live in Hollywood, becoming one of the best-liked members of the community. (In 1943 she and her producer husband Eugene Frenke hid the fugitive Charles Chaplin and 17-year-old Oona O’Neill from the press covering the Joan Barry paternity suit.) Occasionally she made films. Minor ones. And she was good in them – much more convincing and diverse than in her Goldwyn spectacles." – PETER BAGROV

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