The Wedding Night (King Vidor, 1935)

Gary Cooper and Anna Sten

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.

Gary Cooper and Helen Vinson

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.

Cooper, Sten and Bellamy

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.

Cooper, Sten and Bellamy

Cooper and Sten

16 thoughts on “The Wedding Night (King Vidor, 1935)

  1. I haven’t seen The Wedding Night, but I have seen We Live Again, and I thought Sten was excellent in that film – quite luminous as the innocent girl in the early scenes, and then bringing a harsh desperation to her ruined character, now reduced to prostitution, in in the later ones. I think you’re right that Goldwyn didn’t market her correctly. He didn’t seem to understand how she came across onscreen – she’s not a foreign ‘exotic’ in the manner of Garbo or Dietrich. She actually comes across as warm and down to earth. I think the same mistake was made with Hedy Lamarr, who was also marketed as another mystery woman. In seeing her in films like H.M. Pulham Esq. or The Strange Woman, I was surprised by how confident, approachable, and earthy she appeared onscreen. Dietrich herself had to remake her exotic image by playing comedy (Destry Rides Again), and she succeeded in doing so – maybe that image was closer to the real Dietrich.


    • G.O.M., I am pleased to hear you liked Sten’s performance in ‘We Live Again’ too – I was surprised at how good she was after all the dismissive comments about her work that I’ve come across. It’s a pity she was over-hyped by Goldwyn and then dropped. I agree with you that she comes across as warm and down to earth in both the roles of hers I’ve seen so far. I’m interested in what you say about Dietrich – I think she already had a warmth and comic touch at times in several of her early melodramas, and those elements always came across in her singing, but I can see that the focus changed in films like ‘Destry Rides Again’ and ‘The Spoilers’ and am intrigued by your suggestion that those roles might be more like the real Dietrich. I haven’t seen much of Hedy Lamarr’s work, but will bear your comments in mind when I do. Thank you very much for your comment.


    • I think you’re right about Dietrich – she definitely brings a comic touch to her early roles, such as in ‘Dishonored’ and ‘The Scarlet Empress,’ even though she’s overwhelmed by quite ornate cinematic effects in the latter film. I wonder if von Sternberg couldn’t or didn’t want to see that in her. After ‘The Blue Angel,’ he seemed to be trying to make her as exotic and frozenly iconic as possible.

      ‘H.M. Pulham Esq’ is now on MOD DVD and I recommend it. I was really surprised by Lamarr’s performance in it. She utterly convincing as a smart, earthy business woman who falls in love but yet keeps a clear mind; she plays a similar part in ‘The Strange Woman’ (which is in public domain; you can probably see that on Youtube), I’ve been reading that Lamarr was in real life an intelligent woman who actually invented a patented process that led eventually to today’s wireless technology. It’s fascinating to see that kind of quality come out on screen. Really enjoyed your post!


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  3. I haven’t seen this one, but I’m keen to give it a try after reading your review. I don’t think Gary Cooper is the most versatile actor, but he is entertaining. I can’t think of one performance he’s given that I don’t like.


    • Hope you get a chance to see it, Cooper is excellent in this and I’m sure you will enjoy it. I did recently see him in ‘North West Mounted Police’ which I thought was a pretty bad movie in general and not a good role for him – however, in general I love him and am trying to see as many of his films as possible.


  4. “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.”

    Judy, sorry to say I have not seen this one, but will make a move based on your solid recommendation to track it down. I am also one who never found Cooper as a superstar actor, but like you I agree he most certainly had his moments (I’ll take the safe route and name his work in HIGH NOON as my favorite) and I am thrilled to see we apparently have another where he shines. As you may recall I am a huge fan of Vidor, who gave us THE CROWD and THE BIG PARADE, two of the greatest silent masterpieces of all-time. You have again written a riveting piece in consideration and defense of a film that clearly should be a matter of urgency for every serious cineplile!


    • Sam, thank you very much, and I hope you enjoy this movie when you get to see it – I know you are a huge fan of Vidor, as you say here, so I feel confident you will! I suspect this film would probably be much better known if it was a more famous actress, like Dietrich or Stanwyck, in the lead instead of Anna Sten. That’s a pity, as Sten is very good in this, but she only seems to be remembered for Goldwyn’s role in her failure to make the big time in Hollywood.

      I must say I like a lot of Cooper’s films and, as I’ve said in replies to others, he is one of my favourite actors, so he is a superstar in my book – I especially like him in ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and ‘Beau Geste’, and also ‘Ball of Fire’… and, of course, ‘High Noon’, your favourite, which I need to see again soon. But I have seen one or two roles recently which weren’t quite as good for him as those were, which is always a danger of course when you start to track down an actor’s lesser-known films, though against that there is the reward of finding a little-known gem like this one!


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  8. Hi Judy, I’m belatedly catching up with this post and just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed it — you’ve definitely got me intrigued to see it! It sounds quite different.

    I’d also like to second the praise for Hedy Lamarr in the comments above. She’s an actress of overlooked abilities and, as noted above, quite an amazing person off the screen, with not one but two recent biographies published about her life, film career, and “frequency hopping” invention. One of my favorite Lamarr films is EXPERIMENT PERILOUS, which I had the pleasure of seeing for the first time on a big screen — I was really struck by how much she was able to convey strictly with her eyes and expressions. Like H.M. PULHAM, ESQ., it’s now available from the Warner Archive.

    Best wishes,


    • Hi Laura, thank you very much – hope you do get to see it! I really want to see more of Anna Sten’s films now. I’ve actually just seen a Hedy Lamarr movie, ‘Algiers’, the remake of ‘Pépé le Moko’ where she stars opposite Charles Boyer, and thought she was good in it – I was given the movie in a set which includes more Lamarr films, too, so I will be seeing more of her work soon. I will look out for the titles you recommend too. Thanks again!


  9. I am a huge Gary Cooper fan and I love this movie. I agree that Anna Sten was excellent in her role, naturally beautiful and very enjoyable to watch. As to the story about King Vidor’s reaction to watching the film, I have read that many of his directors have said the same thing : that while they are shooting a scene, it looks as though Cooper is doing nothing. But then later when they watch on a screen, something more has been captured that the naked eye missed. One said that it was like he was having an affair with the celluloid, but others said that he was a master at knowing the right angle and how to play to the camera and extremely aware of lighting and even which lense was on the camera, etc. Cooper acknowledged that some of his movies, especially some made in the early 50’s were mediocre, and this was the only period where his popularity waned. High Noon resuscitated his career. Some other Gary Cooper movies that lesser known but that I think are excellent are: Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, The Westerner, Along Came Jones, Friendly Persuasion, Love in the Afternoon, Ten North Frederick and The Hanging Tree.


    • Chris, thanks so much for this great comment and sorry to be slow in replying to it. Glad to hear we agree on Anna Sten, and I’m very interested in your description of how Cooper’s power only really came across on screen. I must agree with you that The Hanging Tree is excellent – Colin did a great review of it earlier this year at his blog, I didn’t like Bluebeard’s Wife so much as I found the element of cruelty in the humour hard to take, but I did enjoy the way Cooper makes fun of himself if Along Came Jones. I haven’t seen Friendly Persuasion, Love in the Afternoon or The Westerner as yet (none of those is available in the UK), but should be getting hold of Ten North Frederick from a DVD club soon and hope to catch up with the others before too long.


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