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"All I ask is to live again with your forgiveness and your help and your love."
Fredric March to Anna Sten at the end of We Live Again
Having failed to sell Russian-born protge Anna Sten to American audiences as a Frenchwoman of easy virtue in Nana (1934), producer Samuel Goldwyn gave her the chance to live again on screen in a film that hit closer to home, an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection entitled We Live Again. Despite a solid leading man (Fredric March), strong direction by Rouben Mamoulian and the usual Goldwyn high class treatment, the 1934 film proved her second costly flop in a row.
Perhaps the Depression-weary public simply wasn't in the mood for another adaptation of Tolstoy's 1899 tale of a Russian nobleman who discovers the peasant girl he had seduced and abandoned years ago has now turned to crime. Or possibly the efforts to bring the tale of seduction and redemption within the guidelines of the newly powerful Production Code made it too moralistic for audiences who had recently been flocking to more debauched entertainment (Production Code enforcer Joe Breen praised the script as a model for treating illicit sex on screen). Goldwyn could hardly be slighted for choosing the property, however. It had been adapted to the stage as early as 1903, giving Herbert Beerbohm Tree a hit in London. D.W. Griffith had made a twelve-minute film version in 1909 with Biograph Girl Florence Lawrence as the wronged peasant girl. More recently, Dolores del Rio and Rod La Rocque had starred in a 1927 silent version, while Lupe Velez and John Boles had appeared in a 1931 sound era version for Universal (with Velez and Gilbert Roland starring in a Spanish-language version shot concurrently). But even though it had only been three years since the last adaptation, Goldwyn was convinced the earlier versions had missed the story's epic grandeur. In his own words, it "has not been made until I make it" (quoted in Goldwyn by A. Scott Berg). To underline the fact that this was his Tolstoy adaptation, he even changed the title to We Live Again, arguing that it meant the same thing as Resurrection but in simpler words.
Goldwyn hired a strong director who had recently worked successfully with the two actresses whose success had inspired him to groom Sten for stardom. Rouben Mamoulian had just directed Marlene Dietrich in The Song of Songs and Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (both 1933), and the latter film had opened to particularly strong reviews. After hiring writer Willard Mack, who had written Nana, to shape the material into a screenplay, Goldwyn heeded Mamoulian's advice and brought in playwright Maxwell Anderson (What Price Glory?) to make the piece more poetic. After deciding that Anderson's poetry had turned the characters into so many marble statues, Goldwyn brought in Preston Sturges, at $1,500 a week, to bring the script to life and add what the producer called "snappy nineteenth century dialogue." Happy as he was with Sturges' work, Goldwyn was happier to see the expensive writer finish his script polishing. He then hired Leonard Praskins to combine the best of Anderson's and Sturges' scripts. Somewhere along the line, playwrights Paul Green and Thornton Wilder and film director Edgar G. Ulmer may have made their own contributions to the script.
With Sten's box-office failure in Nana, Goldwyn had trouble getting the right leading man for We Live Again. MGM had just signed Fredric March, a recent Oscar®-winner for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), to a short-term contract, and Goldwyn convinced that studio's production head, Irving G. Thalberg, to give him one of the actor's options. March took a little more convincing, but for the sum of $100,000 he agreed to take second billing. Nonetheless, March was concerned the project could damage his status as a leading man. When Goldwyn visited the set and saw the actor looking morose, he tried to cheer him up with, "Freddie, you got the best part in the picture." Then he realized Sten was sitting next to her leading man and quickly added, "And Anna, you got the best part, too."
With his commitment to quality, Goldwyn used only the best talent behind the scenes, including pioneering cinematographer Gregg Toland, composer Alfred Newman and costume designer Omar Kiam. To give We Live Again a more sumptuous look, Goldwyn enlisted Sergei Soudeikin, set designer for the Metropolitan Opera, to work with his resident art director, Richard Day. And he sent a second-unit team to the Soviet Union to shoot background footage. Nonetheless, there was one noticeable error in the finished film. Goldwyn loved the music Newman had used for a Russian Orthodox church service so much that when his production team realized the music had been played backwards nobody dared tell him. The film went out to theatres that way.
We Live Again won strong reviews. Andre Sennwald of The New York Times praised Goldwyn for capturing the essence of Tolstoy's novel (proving the producer's claims more than just braggadocio), spoke well of all the production elements, but gave the lion's share of the credit to Sten: "Chiefly, however, it is Miss Sten's vitality, loveliness and dramatic skill which impresses the spectator." There was only one problem. Everybody but the ticket-buying public loved it. Despite the reviews, We Live Again died at the box office. Goldwyn would give his protge one more chance by casting her opposite Gary Cooper in The Wedding Night (1935), or as some called it, "Goldwyn's Last Sten." When that, too flopped, he cancelled her contract and she, like her character in We Live Again, went into exile, albeit the metaphorical Siberia of Hollywood obscurity.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Screenplay: Maxwell Anderson, Leonard Praskins, Preston Sturges, Paul Green, Talbot Jennings, Thornton Wilder
Based on the novel Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Art Direction: Richard Day, Sergei Soudeikin
Music: Alfred Newman
Principal Cast: Anna Sten (Katusha Maslova), Fredric March (Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov), Jane Baxter (Missy Kortchagin), C. Aubrey Smith (Prince Kortchagin), Sam Jaffe (Gregory Simonson), Ethel Griffies (Aunt Marie), Jessie Ralph (Matrona Pavlovna), Leonid Kinskey (Simon Kartinkin), Cecil Cunningham (Theodosia), Halliwell Hobbes (Official).BW-85m.
by Frank Miller