06 October 2012

Anna Sten

Today starts the 31st edition of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the silent-film festival in the Italian city of Pordenone. This year I can't be there, but sure I would like to. Why? Just let me quote Variety magazine: "Tired of movies looking like videogames rather than celluloid projections of men and women? Come to the Pordenone Silent Film Fest in northern Italy. The gold standard for silent film presentation, complemented by the world's finest musical accompanists, Pordenone is the autumn destination for programmers, academics and enthusiasts from around the globe." This edition brings many musical events, including a screening of La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer) in the Duomo of Pordenone, in which the Orchestra e Coro San Marco will perform. There will be a presentation of films adapted from the works of Charles Dickens, the Giornate is presenting two programmes of German animation, one of them devoted entirely to commercials, and the Giornate gives its guests the first-ever chance to see the entire silent work of the 'brilliant and fascinating artist' Anna Sten. According to the Giornate newsletter, Sten 'must be regarded as one of the great screen actresses - as well as one of the most beautiful'. Who was this 'now unjustly eclipsed' star?

Ukrainian-born Anna Sten (1908 - 1993) rose to international fame in the Soviet Union during the silent era, then went to Germany where she consolidated her reputation with Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff/The Murderer Dimitri Karamazov (1931). She was thereupon snatched off to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn, who was looking for a star to rival Garbo and Dietrich.

Anna Sten
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3825/1, 1928 - 1929. Photo: Derussa.

Anna Sten
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6371/2, 1931 - 1932. Photo: Ufa.

Anna Sten
British postcard in the Picturegoer series, London, no. 831. Photo: United Artists.

Anna Sten was born Anjushka Stenski Sujakevich in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine, Russian Empire (now Kiev, Ukraine) in 1908. Her father was an Ukrainian ballet master who died when she was 12, her mother was Swedish. Anna herself worked as a waitress until she was discovered at the age of 15 while acting in an amateur play in Kiev. Her discoverer was the influential Russian stage director/instructor Konstantin Stanislavsky, who arranged for her to get an audition at the Moscow Film Academy. She studied there and then acted in theater plays. From 1926 on she also appeared in films. She married director Fyodor Otsep a.k.a. Fedor Ozep the following year, but they divorced in 1931. Sten appeared in classic Russian films such as Devushka s korobkoy/The Girl with a Hatbox (1927, Boris Barnet), Zemlya v plenu/Land in Captivity (1928, Fyodor Otsep), and Belyy oryol/The Lash of the Czar (1928, Yakov Protazanov). Sten is often mixed up with actress Anel Sudakevich, whose name is quite similar to Sten's original name. The two actresses played together in the films Zemlya v plenu/Land in Captivity (1928, Fyodor Otsep) and Torgovtsi slavoj/Merchants of Glory (1929, Leonid Obolenskij). Sten travelled to Germany to appear in films co-produced by German and Russian studios, international productions common in the years prior to World War II. Making a smooth transition to talking pictures, Anna appeared in such German films as Lohnbuchhalter Kremke/Payroll Clerk Kremke (1930, Marie Harder) starring Hermann Vallentin, Salto Mortale/Trapeze (1931, Ewald André Dupont) with Adolf Wohlbrück a.k.a. Anton Walbrook, and Stürme der Leidenschaft/Storms of Passion (1932, Robert Siodmak) starring Emil Jannings. The German-French coproduction Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff/The Murderer Dimitri Karamazov (1931, Erich Engels, Fyodor Otsep) based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, became her international breakthrough. In an obituary of Sten in the British newspaper The Independent, David Shipman writes: "It may still be the best screen transcription of that writer, with Fritz Kortner on magnificent form as Dimitri, and Sten as the trollop who causes his downfall. This was one of the screen's cliche roles, but Sten, part Marilyn Monroe, part Nancy Carroll, seemed never to have seen any previous screen vamp - let alone studied them".

Anna Sten
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6372/1, 1931 - 1932. Photo: UFA.

Anna Sten
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6646/2, 1931 - 1932. Photo: Vogel-Sandau, Berlin.

Anna Sten
German postcard by Ross verlag, no. 6371/1, 1931 - 1932. Photo: UFA.

The New Garbo
A photo of Anna Sten with her wide and high cheekbones and beautiful large eyes in Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff/The Murderer Dimitri Karamazov came to the attention of American movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. He was looking for a foreign-born actress who he could build up as the rival of, and possible successor to, Greta Garbo. His agent did sign Sten to a contract but forgot to mention that she didn't speak English, which made her appearance in sound pictures questionable. For the next two years Goldwyn had his new star tutored in English and taught Hollywood screen acting methods. Goldwyn publicity called her 'The Passionate Peasant' and sold her image to papers all over America. Goldwyn's tutoring of Sten is mentioned in Cole Porter's 1934 song Anything Goes from the musical of the same name: "If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction / Instruct Anna Sten in diction / Then Anna shows / Anything goes." Her first American film was Nana (1934, Dorothy Arzner, George Fitzmaurice), a somewhat homogenized version of Émile Zola's scandalous novel. Despite the publicity campaign, her first Hollywood production was a resounding box office failure, even though the film was almost completely rewritten and reshot from the original. Anna looked great, but the script and picture were average. Her two subsequent Goldwyn films, We Live Again (1934, Rouben Mamoulian) based on a novel by Leo Tolstoi, and The Wedding Night (1935, King Vidor) with Gary Cooper were not a box office success either. Sten got nicknamed Goldwyn's Folly. Reluctantly, Samuel Goldwyn dissolved his contract with his ‘new Garbo'. David Shipman: "It was not perhaps a mistake on his part to publicise Sten as the new Garbo, since such was the fate of most of the other (female) European imports - though few of these remained residents of LA for long. It was an error to announce that her grooming would be in the hands of Dietrich's mentor Josef von Sternberg, when neither he nor the equally autocratic Goldwyn ever took kindly to any ideas but his own. It was also foolish to spend two whole years with a constant barrage of publicity emerging about 'tests', plus the amounts being spent to turn Sten into a Hollywood 'personality', and on the search to find the vehicle to launch her".

Anna Sten
British card. Photo: United Artists. Publicity still for We Live Again (1934).

Anna Sten
Latvian postcard by Izd. IRA.

Anna Sten
Portuguese postcard by Tip. Costa Sanches, Lisboa (Lisbon). Photo: publicity still for Nana (1934, Dorothy Arzner, George Fitzmaurice).

Juvenile Delinquent Epic
Anna Sten retreated to Britain for the historical drama Two Who Dared/A Woman Alone (1936), directed and produced by her husband Eugene Frenke. Based on a novel by Fyodor Otsep, Sten plays a peasant girl in 19th century Russia who falls in love with military captain Henry Wilcoxon. Sten continued making films in Hollywood for Fox and Universal, including secondary roles in the melodrama The Man I Married (1940, Irving Pichel) with Francis Lederer, So Ends Our Night (1941, John Cromwell), and a lead in the propaganda film They Came to Blow Up America (1943, Edward Ludwig) opposite George Sanders. In the 1950's she attempted to revive her career by studying at the Actors' Studio. This led to the tour of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, as Jenny, following its first presentation in New York, when Louis Armstrong's record of Mac the Knife did no harm at all. Sten found greater success with a new career - as a painter, exhibiting several times in New York. In the late 1950’s she was seen as the mother of Marla English in the juvenile delinquent epic Runaway Daughters (1956, Edward L. Cahn), produced at poverty row studio American International Pictures. Happily, Sten did not have to rely on acting to support her comfortable lifestyle. Since 1932, she was married to film producer Eugene Frenke, who flourished in Hollywood after following his wife stateside. Most of her latter-day film appearances were, in fact, favors to her husband. She had an uncredited bit in the Frenke-produced Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957, John Huston) starring Deborah Kerr, and a full lead in her final film (also produced by Frenke), The Nun and the Sergeant (1962, Franklin Adreon) with Robert Webber. On TV she was last seen in the series Arrest and Trial (1963) starring Ben Gazzara. In 1993, Anna Sten died by a heart attack in New York at the age of 84.

Clip from the Russian comedy Devushka s korobkoy/The Girl with a Hatbox (1927). Source: Jonatan 79 (YouTube)

Anna Sten singing That's Love in Nana (1934). Source: Deneuvefan 1939 (YouTube).

The song Anything Goes by Cole Porter. Source: OptimumPx (YouTube).

Sources: Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Hal Erickson (Rovi), Operator_99 (Allure), David Shipman (The Independent), Tony Fontana (IMDb), Wikipedia (English and German), and IMDb.

Special thanks to Leonard, who sent me corrections on an earlier version of this post.


發財 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Leonard said...

Interesting post, but there is a mix-up of two actresses with similar names: Anna Sten (Sujakevich) and Anel Sudakevich:

"Anna Sten was born Anel (Anjuschka) Stenski Sudakevich" shoudl read: "Anna Sten was born Anjushka Stenski Sujakevich"

"From 1926 on she also appeared in films and made her first uncredited film appearance in Miss Mend (1926, Fyodor Otsep)." No, this is not correct. The actress was Anel Sudakevich.

"Sten appeared as Anel Sudakevich in more classic Russian films such as Devushka s korobkoy/The Girl with a Hatbox (1927, Boris Barnet), Potomak Chingis-khan/Storm over Asia (1928, Vsevolod Pudovkin), Zemlya v plenu/Land in Captivity (1928, Fyodor Otsep), and Belyy oryol/The Lash of the Czar (1928, Yakov Protazanov)"

Anle Sudakevich played Potomak Chingis-khan/Storm over Asia (1928, Vsevolod Pudovkin)

Both Anna Sten and Anel Sudakevich played in Zemlya v plenu/Land in Captivity (1928, Fyodor Otsep) and in Torgovtsi slavoj/Merchants of Glory (1929, Leonid Obolenskij)

"In 1927 she also worked on the curious collage film The Kiss of Mary Pickford which was produced on the occasion of a Soviet Union journey by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks without their knowledge by Sergei Komarow from newsreel footage."
This is wrong, it was Anel Sudakevich

For updated filmographies on both actresses see:
Anna Sten: http://www.kinotv.com/page/bio.php?namecode=98660&q=0&l=en
Anel Sudakjevich: http://www.kinotv.com/page/bio.php?namecode=100138&l=en

Bob of Holland said...

Hi Leonard,

Thank you for these corrections.

I'll update the post on Anna Sten with your information soon.



--- said...

Hi Bob,
Congrats for this effective facelift on Anna Sten. There is still one remark I'll like to make:

"Sten appeared as Anel Sudakevich in classic Russian films such as Devushka s korobkoy/The Girl with a Hatbox (1927, Boris Barnet), Zemlya v plenu/Land in Captivity (1928, Fyodor Otsep), and Belyy oryol/The Lash of the Czar (1928, Yakov Protazanov)." - This is not correct, and probably based on a non verified source. In fact, the titlecards of all three films clearly name "A. Sten" [А. Стен] or "Anna Sten" [Анна Стен] for Zemlya v plenu/Land in Captivity.

If you like, I can send you the relative frame enlargements.

Best regards

Leonhard H. Gmuer

Bob of Holland said...

Thanks again, Leonard. I've corrected it.

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