October 31, 2017
The Wedding Night was doomed from the start. It was producer Samuel Goldwyn’s final attempt at making the Ukrainian actress Anna Sten into a Garbo-level star, and his persistence had become something of a Hollywood joke. The Wedding Night became known around town as “Goldwyn’s Last Sten”, but though it failed as a star-making enterprise, it was another sensitively directed drama from King Vidor, detailing an unlikely romance between a dissolute big city writer and a Polish farm girl.
The story by Edwin Knopf and script by Edith Fitzgerald concerns down-on-his-luck writer Tony Barrett (Gary Cooper), a former wunderkind turned hack (supposedly based on F. Scott Fitzgerald), whose latest cash grab novel was declined by his publisher. Swiftly running out of money, he moves into a derelict house he inherited with his wife Dora (Helen Vinson). It is there he meets the Novak family, Polish farmers who are putting up tobacco acreage as far as the eye can see. Their only daughter Manya (Sten) is due to be wed to local yokel Fredrik (Ralph Bellamy, of course).
Tony is inspired by the Novak’s work ethic, and begins to write a new novel. Manya takes on the role of sounding board, and once all of Tony’s servants quit and Dora heads back to the city, of a romantic interest as well. When Dora returns, Tony must make a decision – to upend Manya’s carefully controlled life, or remain with his wife to repair their tattered vows.
Tony Barrett is introduced at a society party in a bathroom, pitching his publisher on a book when, he says, “I know its tripe.” He still expects it to be published based on the fumes of his former fame, but is soundly rejected. Tony and his wife Dora seem perpetually soused – their biggest concern about the move was the safety of their box of scotch. But while rural life bores Dora, it begins to rejuvenate Tony, who finds a focus and work ethic he had formerly abandoned.
Vidor was unenthused with the assignment from Vidor, as he found both Cooper and Sten to have severe limitations, as Cooper kept mumbling and muffing his lines, while Sten’s thick accent was another hurdle. Regarding Sten, Vidor wrote, “Her pantomime flowed quite easily and freely, but her dialogue was quite a different matter. Her words and syllables were never quite synchronized with her gestures. Rather than a director, I began to feel like a dentist trying to pull the syllables out of her mouth before the accompanying gesture had passed by.”
But once Vidor started looking at the rushes, he discovered that Cooper gave “a performance that overflowed with charm and personality…a highly complex and fascinating inner personality revealed itself on the projection room screen.” He was a performer who played well for the camera, not for the crew. Sten is unable to overcome a certain stiffness and formalism in her performance style, though it is appropriate for her character, a woman in a tightly-controlled patriarchal family unit who for the first time is granted a certain freedom of movement – inside Tony’s house. Sten’s buttoned-up coolness is an interesting contrast to Cooper’s anxious warmth, his puppy dog desire to be loved.
Tony re-ignites his will to write mostly due to his exposure to the Novak family, who have successfully avoided assimilation into the American way of life, for better or for worse. They maintain something of an agrarian existence, living off the proceeds of the land, but treat their women like slaves and their children like servants. They are completely alien to him, and are a rich source of character detail for his novel. They are content for him to exploit.
Early on Tony is invited for dinner, and Vidor sketches out the power structure through his blocking of the characters, keeping the women on the periphery, rotating around the male Novaks, rarely puncturing the center of their frame. It is only on the night of her wedding that Manya stands in the center of the kitchen, isolated in dramatic overhead lighting as the other women work around her, sewing and cooking and preparing for her wedding party. Manya stands alone, more isolated than ever, miserable in the thought that she is being given this privileged moment, this space as the center of attention, only because she is to marry Fredrik, played with utmost buffoonery by Ralph Bellamy (king of the buffoons). The film was shot by the great Gregg Toland in a naturalistic, evenly lit style, though he is already experimenting with the deep focus that would get so much attention in Citizen Kane in the next decade.
Tony believes that Manya is aiding his work, but not through any Muse-like inspiration from the gods, but simply for re-instilling in him a work ethic. She is out there milking cows every day, because if not the job will not get done. So he takes to same attitude toward his writing, putting up the following sign at his desk: “YOU MAKE YOUR LIVING AT IT – YOUR PEN IS YOUR PLOW, YOU BLANKETY BLANK!” Vidor presents writing as just another form of labor, and that practicality is refreshing for this type of romance. And the love that emerges between them seems realistic because of this practicality, it is love not of the spirit but of the flesh. And with the flesh comes fathers-in-law, and this particular one is none too pleased that Manya had been spending so much time with a married writer from the city. And neither, of course, is Dora, who returns to mend their broken marital bonds. There is no villain, no wronged party, just the messy stuff of living.