Exile Express (1939) Director: Otis Garrett. Writers: Ethel La Blanche, Edwin Justus Mayer. Prod: Eugene Frenke. Photo: John Mescall. CAST: Anna Sten (Nadine Nikolas), Alan Marshal (Steve Reynolds), Jerome Cowan (Paul Brandt), Walter Catlett (Gus), Jed Prouty (Hanley), Stanley Fields (Tony Kassan), Leonid Kinskey (David), Etienne Girardot (Caretaker), Irving Pichel (Victor), Harry Davenport (Dr. Hite), Addison Richards (Purnell), Feodor Chaliapin Jr. (Kaishevshy), Spencer Charters (Justice of the Peace), Byron Foulger (Serge), Don Brodie (Mullins).
Chemist Nadine Nicholas (Anna Sten) is implicated in the murder of her boss (Harry Davenport). He was actually killed by foreign spies, who want to obtain the formula for their project, a secret poison. Although she was at the point of becoming a US citizen, Nicholas is ordered to be deported, along with several other shady characters. She boards a train from San Francisco to Ellis Island. Her long-standing beau (Jerome Cowan) concocts a scheme to smuggle her into Canada, have her married to a US citizen, and return quietly over the border. Of course, a nosy reporter (Alan Marshal) gets involved in the plot, which puts the whole plan at risk.
Poor Anna Sten couldn’t catch a break. Imported from Russia with great ballyhoo by Sam Goldwyn, her films tanked from the start. Audiences found her accent too thick and her talent too thin. Within a few months, she had been nicknamed Anna Stench by the press, and she became a joke immortalized in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”: “If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction/instruct Anna Sten in diction/Then Anna shows… anything goes!”
Sten was dropped from her Goldwyn contract and went to Europe with her husband, producer/director Eugene Frenke (creator of Life Returns, shown at Cinefest a couple of years back.) Frenke fashioned a comeback for her in England that didn’t stick, and returned to the US where he continued to produce freelance pictures. One of the first things he did was to retrieve the negative of Life Returns from Universal (after a protracted series of lawsuits), and release it through Grand National.
Frenke also produced Exile Express and released it through Grand National, one of the last films to be released by the studio before it went bankrupt. It must have been a rather personal film for the producer and star, because its theme of struggling to become a US citizen is something both the Russian Frenke and his bride faced. Frenke got a wonderful supporting cast, including some of the best character actors in the business: Irving Pichel, Leonid Kinskey, Harry Davenport, Maude Eburne, and the wonderfully loopy Etienne Girardot all appear.
Frenke clearly intended this as a comeback vehicle for Sten, and, to some degree, it worked. A number of scenes feel a little contrived to give her something to do. Happily, she rises to the occasion and gives a likeable performance. She isn’t competition for Garbo, but no one ever was. Her performance was strong enough to get her a three-picture deal at Fox, after which she made fewer films and went into a quiet retirement.
Exile Express has the feel of being a little cheap, and a little rushed. Most of the Grand National films have the same feel. The plot and acting are enough to make it an enjoyable picture. It never quite goes the conventional route to its climax, which will keep you in suspense until the end.