Goldwyn's 'Last Sten'
Over many decades, Hollywood moguls have, from time to time, attempted to create stars from scratch. That is to say, taking a nobody, changing their name, creating a back-story and building them up so that they are already "legendary" even before the first foot of film has been exposed. Sometimes it works; sometimes it fails. The first such manufactured star was Theda Bara, a dark-eyed rather zaftig young Jewish lady from the Avondale section of Cincinnati whose real name was Theodosia Goodman. Early film mogul William Fox (Vilmos Fried - 1879-1952), a furrier from Tolscva, Hungary turned owner of the unheralded Fox Film Corporation in New York, found himself in desperate financial straits in 1914. What to do?
Fox and his publicity staff started looking around for an actress who could take direction, then go to work creating an identity and unique look, an unforgettable name and a biography (the crazier the better) to sell to a gullible public that would be thirsting to see her on the silver screen. And so, assembling members of the press in a smoky, dimly lit hotel room in Chicago, the then 30-year old Miss Goodman (who though a natural blond now sported jet black curls) was introduced to the world as Theda Bara (an anagram for "Arab Death"), who, the assembled journalists were told, was born in the shadow of the Sphinx, the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French actress. (During the 6-month long publicity campaign, Miss Bara, the ultimate vamp, was also billed as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor.) She finally hit the screen in a film based on a ridiculous stage 1909 Porter Emerson Browne play called A Fool There Was, and by the next year, was almost as popular as Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin. Her weekly salary quickly skyrocketed from $50.00 to $4,000.00. Her vogue, which lasted barely 4 years, had her playing a succession of vamps, seductresses and wicked women in such films as Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Camille, Salomé and Madame Du Berry. Miss Bara, who would be a doyen of Beverly Hills society for more than 30 years (dying there in 1955), not only saved Mr. Fox; she insured that his name and an offshoot of the company he created would still be in the headlines more than a hundred years later (think "Fox News"). Needless to say, this first "creating a star out of whole cloth" was a rousing success.
In early 1940, RKO boss Howard Hughes - the Donald Trump of his era - decided that he too wanted to create a star. And so, after looking around for a while, his search netted him a 19-year old graduate of Van Nuys High School (the same high school that Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford and Dodger pitching great Don Drysdale attended) named Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell (1921-2001) He quickly signed her to a standard 7 year contract. Jane Russell had a couple of things going for her: she had actually studied drama and acting at Max Reinhardt's Acting Workshop, had been coached by Maria Ouspenskaya, had a decent singing voice, and measured a colossal 38D-24-36. After a year of publicizing his upcoming star (during which time she did not appear on screen), Miss Russell got top billing in a film called The Outlaw, costarring the equally unknown Jack Buetel and featuring Oscar-winning actors Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell. Due to problems with the censorship board, the film (which was made in 1941) did not go into general release until 1946. But Hughes continued publicizing Miss Russell. Thousands upon thousands of photos of the voluptuous star-in-the-making ran in magazines throughout the country. By the time the film went into general circulation, she had the best known cleavage on the planet. Hollywood writer and Algonquin Roundtable wit Dorothy Parker referred to Hughes' campaign as "The sale of two titties." Critics hated the film; the public couldn't get enough of Jane Russell and her amazing cleavage.
Miss Russell would go on to star in more than 30 films, including The Paleface (1946), His Kind of Woman (1951), Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1953), and The Tall Men (1955). Despite her seductively loose, lusty-busty image, Miss Russell was, in her own words, ". . . a mean-spirited, narrow-minded, right-wing, conservative Christian. I start out with that, and if you don't like it, you can lump it." By any stretch of the imagination, Howard Hughes' - like William Fox's experiment in star creation - was a great success.
Sorry to report, such was not the case for one of the greatest of all movie moguls: Samuel Goldwyn. When he tried to create a star, he fell on his face, landing with a thud which resonates to this very day. Her name? Anna Sten . . .
Born in Kiev (then Russia, now the Ukraine) in 1908, Annel Stenskaya Sudakevich got her start in acting with the Moscow Art Theater. After playing small roles in a couple of Soviet films, she moved on to Germany, where scored rave reviews playing Grushenka in the 1931 masterpiece Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff ("The Murderer Dimitri Karamasoff") based on Dostoevsky's classic novel "The Brothers Karamazov." One night, Goldwyn saw this film, and even before its conclusion gave orders to one of his assistants to contact Sten's people and sign her to a 7 year Hollywood contract. He had dreams of making her his Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich - so much so that he arranged to have her photographed with some of the same poses Garbo used. (See pictures to above of Anna Sten, and below of Greta Garbo, using the same pose)
When Sten arrived in the United States, so the story goes, she had put on considerable weight and, to Goldwyn's amazement, found her English to be impenetrable . . . which, considering the state of his English must have been truly depressing. And so, Goldwyn put his staff to work slimming her down, working on her English and looking for the ideal picture in which she could make her American debut. Of course, all the while, her picture and stories about her were running in fan magazines across the country. Finally, Goldwyn decided on starring her in Nana, based on the classic novel by French author Emile Zola. Unfortunately, a faithful treatment of this notorious literary whore and the men she ruins was impossible in an industry newly saddled with the restrictions of Will Hays and his Production Code. Despite all her English lessons, Sten wound up learning her dialogue by rote; there was none of the vital thespic spontaneity that had so captivated Goldwyn or his staff. Predictably, the film bombed . . .
Undeterred and possessing an ego approximately the size of California, Goldwyn persisted. Sten's next two films - We Live Again (1934) costarring Frederic March and The Wedding Night (1935) which costarred Gary Cooper and won King Vidor a best director Oscar - were better, but the public wasn't buying. As Goldwyn biographer Scott Berg noted, "When the public failed to embrace her a third time, Goldwyn decided he could not afford to give her another chance." When it became known around Hollywood that Goldwyn, at Sten's request, cancelled the final year-and-a-half of her contract (which paid her $2,500.00 per week), The Wedding Night started being referred to as "Goldwyn's last Sten." The debacle wound up costing Goldwyn in excess of $2 million.
Anna Sten would go on to make a handful of increasingly cheaper movies for increasingly minor studios. She even guest starred in a handful of television shows. She and her husband, the Russian-born producer Eugene Frenke (who were married for 52 years) moved to Manhatten, where he died in 1984 and Miss Sten about 10 years later, shortly before her 85th birthday. Today, three things remain of the Sten legacy: Her nickname, "Goldwyn's Folly," the expression "Goldwyn's Last Sten," and a line written by Cole Porter for his 1934 show Anything Goes:
When Samuel Goldwyn can with great conviction
Can instruct Anna Sten in diction
Then Anna knows,
Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone