Germany. 1932. Another young screen actress is lured from the thriving UFA studios to the motion picture colony in California. Her name was Anna Sten. She was born one hundred years ago (3 December 1908) in what was then Russia. According to Deems Taylor’s Pictorial History of the Movies, Sten was thought of as “another Banky [aforementioned], Garbo, or Dietrich.” Highly, in short. The man who did the thinking was Samuel Goldwyn; and soon after, he must have thought, “What was I thinking!”
European beauties were all the rage in the early 1930s Hollywood. It was a peculiarly anachronistic fad, considering that the talkies called for clear diction, however exotic the looks of the actress from whose mouth the sounds poured into the still imperfect microphones. Beauty, Taylor’s 1948 update of his compendium to motion pictures conceded, Anna Sten “undeniably” possessed; but her “all-too-Russian” accent was better suited to comedy than to tragedy.” Surely, a Russian accent need not be no impediment to melodrama; rather, this non sequitur signals that, by the mid-1940s, Russians were deemed too dangerous or dubious to be romantic leads in Hollywood and were more safely marketable as so many eccentric cousins of Mischa Auer.
When Sten’s first three movies misfired, Goldwyn sensed that the eggs this Kiev chick laid were not golden. By 1935, her leading lady period was effectively over. Still, two years after her last Hollywood flop, the notoriously diction-challenged Sten was given another shot at stardom . . . by stepping behind the microphone of the most popular dramatic show on the air: the Lux Radio Theater. The show’s nominal producer, Cecil B. DeMille, was called upon to remind an audience of millions (most of whom potential moviegoers) why Sten was still a star; no Banky, but bankable:
I first saw Anna Sten in one of the most effective scenes ever filmed. It was in a foreign production with Emil Jannings [Robert Siodmak’s Stürme der Leidenschaft (1932)]. Determined to place her under contract, I started negotiations for the service of this very young girl who had starved with her parents in the Ukraine to become one of Europe’s most glamorous stars. Then, one day, Samuel Goldwyn invited me to his office to ask my opinion of an actress he just signed. The actress was Anna Sten. I was greatly disappointed to lose her, but tonight have the privilege of presenting her in a DeMille production.
The “production” was an unusual one for Lux, a program best known for its microphonic telescoping of Hollywood pictures. Sten was cast in yet another variation on George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark, that popular, sequel-spawning romance of the early days of the last century. Sten had not appeared in the screen version; indeed, the property was never revisited after the end of the silent era, when last it served as a vehicle for comedienne Marion Davies. By 1937, Graustark was pretty much grave stench. Was Sten being condemned to suffocate in it?
Not quite. The Lux version (8 February 1937) made no attempt at fidelity to the original. Like many romances written or rewritten in the wake It Happened one Night, Graustark was given a screwball spin. Clearly, this radio production was designed to test how Sten’s comic appeal. For this, the air waves were an economically safer testing ground than the sound stage. Besides, it forced the foreigner to prove her command of the English language, albeit in a role demanding an eastern European accent. Sten is delightful (and altogether intelligible) in the role of Princess Yetive; but the broadcast did nothing for her career.
Commemorating Sten’s 100th birthday (she died in 1993), I am turning to her final pre-Hollywood effort, the musical comedy Bomben auf Monte Carlo (1931), from which all the images here are taken. As the bored Princess Yola, a not-so-distant cousin of Yetive, Sten plays opposite German screen idol Hans Albers, the sea captain whom she employs and pursues, using the manual How to Seduce Men as a guide. It is the kind of screwball material that would have served her well overseas. Also in the cast are Heinz Rühmann (last seen here) and Peter Lorre, whose voice remained an asset in Hollywood, and the lively tunes of the Comedian Harmonists (who also appear on screen). This one bombed in name only, however monstrous the title in light of German air attacks on Spain in 1937 . . . shortly after Sten’s first and final Lux broadcast.
It was not so much Sten’s diction that caused her fall as it was the rise of a stentorian dictator. The Old World that Sten had been called upon to represent was fast disappearing; and whatever was distant and foreign soon ceased to be exotic, glamorous, or desirable.