I’ve been meaning to write something about this little-known but powerful melodrama directed by King Vidor, which was made under the Hays Code, but feels like a pre-Code in its sympathetic portrayal of an adulterous passion. Unfortunately I’ve left it a little too long since watching it and my memories are starting to fade, but I do want to write a brief review and post the lovely stills that I’ve collected together from this production. Gary Cooper stars as a hard-drinking and debt-ridden author suffering from writer’s block, a character said to have been based on F Scott Fitzgerald, with Anna Sten as a Polish farm girl who he falls for. Gregg Toland’s atmospheric black and white photography helps to create a feeling of unbearable tension, especially in the later scenes.
This was the third and last film Samuel Goldwyn produced in his failed efforts to turn Russian actress Sten into a star in Hollywood – and, like the earlier two, it flopped at the box office. However, I must say I think Sten is excellent in it, as well as being beautiful, and I’m rather puzzled that it failed to make her name. She had already proved herself as an actress in Russian and German films (I’m hoping to see her 1931 German film of The Brothers Karamazov) and, despite all the jokes about her accent, I can’t see that it is any heavier than those of Garbo and Dietrich. Maybe the problem was that those two great actresses had the market for exotic European exiles sewn up between them. Or maybe Goldwyn’s attempts to promote Sten as “the Passionate Peasant” backfired, just not sounding glamorous enough. I’ve also seen one of Sten’s two earlier Hollywood films, We Live Again, a version of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, where she plays a downtrodden maidservant and I think she is good in that too, but so far I’ve only managed to see clips of her first Hollywood film, Nana, which also looks well worth seeing – sadly it isn’t available on DVD and old VHS copies are now selling at a hefty price. I’d be interested to know if anyone visiting my blog has seen this or other films starring Sten, and what you think of them.
At the start of The Wedding Night, author Tony Barrett (Cooper) is feeling the pace of his New York party lifestyle, and is told by his publisher that his latest novel is no good – bad news for him, since he needs an advance to pay his debts. To escape from creditors, he and his wife, Dora (Helen Vinson) head off to a run-down Connecticut farm which he has inherited. Tony decides that the remote setting of the farm is just what he needs to recharge his batteries and start writing seriously again. He becomes increasingly interested in his Polish neighbours, farmer Mr Novak (Sig Ruman) and his daughter Manya (Sten), and starts to use their lives as material for a new novel. But Dora can’t take all the peace and quiet, and they agree she should leave him there for a few weeks, heading back to the big city.
Quite a few people visiting my blog aren’t fans of Gary Cooper – I am, but would admit that not all his films are successful. However, he is very good in this one, portraying a character who is fluctuating and inconsistent. TCM’s article on the movie says: “When shooting began on The Wedding Night, Vidor was disappointed and concerned that Cooper seemed to be mumbling and stumbling through the scenes. In his autobiography, Vidor recalls his surprise when he watched that first day’s footage. What he saw was “a performance that overflowed with charm and personality….a highly complex and fascinating inner personality revealed itself on the projection room screen.”
I was also impressed by Vinson’s understated performance as Dora – she is a character who could all too easily be completely unsympathetic in a film of this period, as a woman who enjoys drinking and partying and has no interest in cooking, homemaking etc, but in fact she comes across as witty and likeable and there is a strong sense of the history she shares with Tony. One of the most impressive things about this film is that this couple’s marriage is shown in the round, both its flaws and its strengths.
Once Dora has gone away, Tony starts to spend more and more time with Manya, who is working as his housekeeper, and a dangerous attraction begins to grow between them. However, Manya’s father puts her under pressure to marry another Polish farmer, the boorish Fredrik (Ralph Bellamy), mainly because the two men are sorting out a land deal between themselves. Manya agrees to marry Fredrik, but it becomes increasingly clear that she has made a disastrous mistake and can’t really stomach the thought of her new husband touching her. As in other films like The Crowd and Our Daily Bread, Vidor’s feeling for working people who feel trapped by their everyday lives comes across powerfully in his portrayal of the Polish farmers in this film, even if there is some stereotyping at times. He also focuses especially on the plight of the isolated heroine, who can’t decide on her own happiness but feels forced to do what her father tells her.
Bellamy is yet again playing the “other man”, and is also saddled with a fake Polish accent, but he has a more interesting part in this film than in some of his others, as Fredrik has violent depths. When Fredrik and Tony confront one another on the wedding night, the stage is set for tragedy. I won’t give away exactly what happens, but will say that the later scenes are harrowing and have a ring of truth about them, with no easy solutions. This is a film where none of the characters are prepared to fade into the background to give someone else a happy ending.