‘Nana’ on TCM

Samuel Goldwyn’s production of Nana runs on Turner Classic Movies on November 13. I wrote a survey of the production – and Goldwyn’s campaign to turn his “discovery,” Anna Sten, into an American star – for TCM.

Nana (1934)

Producer Samuel Goldwyn’s lavish though compromised adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel Nana (1934) is best remembered today as the infamous Hollywood debut of Russian-born starlet Anna Sten. The film is the story of a mercenary streetwalker turned stage singer whose calculating social rise is undone when she falls in love. Sten was to be Goldwyn’s answer to Greta Garbo at MGM and Marlene Dietrich at Paramount, his own exotic leading lady. That she spoke not a word of English when he signed her to a lucrative two-year contract didn’t trouble him in the least. Before she even arrived in America, Goldwyn busied himself building up his starlet’s image as “the passionate princess” and “the Soviet Cinderella,” an exotic fairy-tale princess whose beauty and charisma would capture the public imagination. Or so he hoped.

Goldwyn gave Sten top billing in Nana – her name is above the title right there in the first credit – and then added mystery by withholding her picture from the portrait-gallery of the cast that followed. In her first scene, a pauper’s funeral in a grim graveyard, she’s shrouded in a fog so thick she could be underwater (it’s an evocative image from the great cinematographer Gregg Toland, who later shot Citizen Kane [1941] and The Little Foxes [1941]). In the next scene, she’s slaving away as a plucky servant scrubbing the floor of a home no better than a shack. “I don’t know what I’ll be, but I won’t be weak and I won’t be poor,” she vows, and by her third scene, “One Year Later,” her transformation is complete. Nana is a beautiful and brazen streetwalker in everything but name, a mercenary woman of the streets who knows how to take care of herself. She takes her future into her own hands. When hired by a possessive theatrical impresario (Richard Bennett) who grooms and mentors his discovery, she plays the old man like a violin while flirting her way up through high society. It’s only when she falls in love with lowly military lieutenant George Muffat (Phillips Holmes) that her mercenary instincts fail her. Lionel Atwill (who had starred opposite Dietrich in The Song of Songs, 1933) co-stars as the lieutenant’s elder brother, Andre, a moralizing martinet of a superior officer who, in his efforts to separate Nana and George, himself falls for Nana’s beauty.

With her big eyes and lovely smile, Sten is undeniably photogenic and she’s fine when striking an attitude or putting on a show to manipulate an admirer, but when called upon to play more complex emotional states her weaknesses become apparent. Sten plays Nana as either a conniving golddigger or girlish romantic but offers little nuance in between and her weak command of English results in awkward delivery and odd rhythms. “The only thing I could do was not let her talk so much,” commented Arzner years later. Sten largely talk-sings her one and only song, a minor Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart torch song entitled “That’s Love,” with the affectation of world weary experience. She’s at her best in scenes with her best friends, the savvy and cynical Satin (Mae Clarke) and the naïve and sweetly dim Mimi (Muriel Kirkland), a pair of loyal colleagues from her streetwalking days carried along on her rollercoaster rise and fall.

Read the complete feature here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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