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Nana (1934)
Remind Me

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.

Goldwyn had first seen Sten in a German version of The Brothers Karamazov (1931) and originally planned to launch his discovery with an American adaptation of the novel until he became frustrated negotiating the legal complications. Instead, he turned to Zola's Nana, an up-from-the-streets romantic tragedy with a story that fit both the Cinderella story he spun for Sten's publicity blitz and the exotic mystique he hoped she would put across on screen. He spent almost a year developing a workable screenplay from the massive novel, which gave Sten time to master her halting English and Goldwyn time to groom her in the ways of Hollywood celebrity. The finest designers in show business created her wardrobe and major magazines ran glowing profiles and glamorous photos of his discovery before she ever shot a foot of film. After spending nearly $200,000 on his protégé and her publicity build-up, Goldwyn poured money into the production, only to shut it down after more than three weeks of shooting.

He fired original director George Fitzmaurice and brought in a new screenwriter to revise the script. After unsuccessfully courting George Cukor, Goldwyn hired Dorothy Arzner (the only woman director working at the major studios at the time) to take over the project and even recast some of the major roles: Warren William, originally cast as Andre, was replaced by Lionel Atwill and Mae Clarke took over the role of Satin, Nana's best friend, from Pert Kelton. The overhauled production started from scratch, more than doubling the film's budget. Goldwyn just added it to his hype, branding Sten his "million dollar discovery."

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.

Produced under the eye of the newly empowered Hays office, the script never states the obvious but Nana still manages to suggest a culture of decadence and sex and Arzner never passes judgment on their profession. If anything, it's the lecherous old men, who woo the young and beautiful Nana with jewels and gifts in exchange for her attentions, and the moral hypocrites who pass judgment on her, that are the most tarnished in this story.

Nana opened wide with a massive advertising push and was a huge flop, both commercially and critically. Most reviews honed in on Sten's weak performance. Goldwyn's "Million Dollar Discovery" was branded "Goldwyn's Folly," but the producer was undeterred, determined to transform Sten into a star, and he featured her in two subsequent productions: We Live Again (1934) opposite Fredric March and The Wedding Night (1935) with Gary Cooper. They proved to be expensive lessons and Goldwyn finally gave up on Sten. Though she remained in America, her career was quickly forgotten. Goldwyn's career, meanwhile, only became more successful and more prestigious.

Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Dorothy Arzner; George Fitzmaurice (fired, replaced by Dorothy Arzner)
Screenplay: Harry Wagstaff Gribble, Willard Mack; Emile Zola (novel)
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Frank Lawrence
Cast: Anna Sten (Nana), Lionel Atwill (Col. Andre Muffat), Richard Bennett (Gaston Greiner), Mae Clarke (Satin), Phillips Holmes (Lt. George Muffat), Muriel Kirkland (Mimi), Reginald Owen (Bordenave), Helen Freeman (Sabine Muffat), Lawrence Grant (Grand Duke Alexis), Jessie Ralph (Zoe), Ferdinand Gottschalk (Finot).

by Sean Axmaker