Friday, November 14, 2008

I woke up and my nose was all stuffed up, and i think a cold is trying its best to work its magic.

Anyway, last night i stayed up and watched the Samuel Goldwyn production of "Nana", which is credited as directed by Dorothy Arzner. It was the first of the three movies which Goldwyn would make with the Russian actress Anna Sten. This was the first time it was on TCM, and it was the first time it's been on TV in decades. I have to admit: i'd seen it in the 1960s (if i'm not mistaken, it was at the Thalia on a double bill with Rene Clement's "Gervaise", so it was a based-on-Emile-Zola bill), but i haven't seen it since. (I skipped it when it played at the Dorothy Arzner retrospective which was at MoMA a while ago.) Watching it again, there are three things that were immediately apparent.

The first: i was surprised at how much of the movie i remembered. For years, i'd been reading about what a negligible movie it was, and that it was a major flop... and yet it is a very lavish movie, with some wonderful visuals. And so many of the images are memorable.

The second: i was amazed at what a huge production it was. How much Goldwyn was willing to spend on the movie! Not one, but three credited costume designers (John W. Harkrider! Travis Banton!! Adrian!!!); a song written for the film by Rodgers and Hart; Alfred Newman's score (which is like a dry run for his score for "Wuthering Heights"); Gregg Toland's cinematography (not in his deep-focus or neo-documentary mode, but all gauzy and shimmery, in the Lee Garmes-von Sternberg mode). It's all done in a fast 90 minutes, but it's still mighty impressive.

Finally, what i was really surprised about was how closely "Nana" resembled another movie about a French courtesan. In fact, in many ways, "Nana" seemed like a dry-run for "Camille". And one of the things about Hollywood history is how much has been hidden over the years.

When George Cukor first got to Hollywood, Dorothy Arzner was at her peak: she had directed "The Wild Party" (which was a big hit) and she was one of the big directors at Paramount (where Cukor was first signed). In terms of the social scene in Hollywood in that period, Dorothy Arzner was someone who was never hidden about her sexual orientation: it was widely known (in the industry) that she was a lesbian.

And so Cukor would have been around Arzner, as part of the gay artistic community in Hollywood. (And it would continue, in that Arzner would direct Cukor's "discovery" Katharine Hepburn in "Christopher Strong".)

In the hubbub surrounding the production of "Nana", there were several dierctors who were attached to the project, or who directed some of the movie, but the only one credited is Arzner. (George Fitzmaurice, who had directed Garbo in "As You Desire Me" and "Mata Hari", was one of the directors fired from the movie.)

But if you look at "Nana" now (and in the light of Cukor's "Camille"), it's easy to see the similarities. There are the two sidekicks (Mae Clarke and Muriel Kirkland in "Nana", Laura Hope Crews and Lenore Ulric in "Camille"), who seemed to have been encouraged to overact. There's the beautiful if stolid leading man (Phillips Holmes in "Nana", Robert Taylor in "Camille") while the romantic rival is played with some subtlety and panache (Lionel Atwell in "Nana", Henry Daniell in "Camille"). And as the maid-confidante, there's Jessie Ralph! Giving what seems to be the same performance.

As for Anna Sten: her English is problematic, there are times when she seems to stumble over her lines (especially in the repartee when she's supposed to be cutting down her admirers), but she does have something. It's not what Garbo or Dietrich had, it's not even what Hedy Lamarr had: though she's lit so that she's goddessy-beautiful, she's not a goddessy actress. But she's not a bad actress, though it should be said that it's obvious that she's having a problem in some of the costumes: the final scenes, where she's running through the apartment trying to keep Holmes and Atwell from seeing each other, are particularly difficult, because it's so clear that she's being hampered by the costumes. She's trying to run, and it's absurd.

But she's so much better in "The Wedding Night" but by that point, it was too late.


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