Affairs of the Heart: The Wedding Night (1935)

October 31, 2017

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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.


The End of the Affair: Cynara (1932)

October 24, 2017


Ronald Colman signed as a contract player with the Samuel Goldwyn Company in 1924, cranking out heart-tugging romances all the way through the transition to sound, as  in the 1932 production Cynara. A particularly “adult” pre-code drama, it frankly discusses extramarital affairs and suicide in a tone of disarming directness. Adapted from a hit play, Goldwyn wanted faithfulness to the material, though director King Vidor and writer Frances Marion sought ways to make this stagebound scenario more cinematic. The resulting film leads one to think that Goldwyn won most of the battles, as it is ends up as a very well-acted filmed play, though Vidor does find ways to be inventive at the edges. Ronald Colman, in his penultimate performance for Goldwyn, plays against type as a boring barrister who falls into an affair with a young shopgirl. He is no great lover, as he portrayed in a series of hit silents with Vilma Banky, but a nervous, guilt-ridden, self-flagellating one. Colman wasn’t happy with the film because it clashed with his established persona, but that is what makes the film so fascinating today.

Cynara originated in Robert Gore-Brown’s 1928 novel An Imperfect Lover, which was adapted into the play Cynara, a stage success in 1930. Goldwyn was in a perpetual search for quality material to funnel Colman into, wanting to build off of John Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931), which was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. The search lasted for months, and was so consuming that one evening, according to Harpo Marx, he visited the Goldwyn home to find their son Sammy reading the funny pages. Harpo asked what he was doing, and Sammy responded, “I’m looking for a Ronald Colman story, Mr. Marx.” With its suggestive subject matter and stage pedigree, Goldwyn eventually settled on Cynara as Colman’s next film, and lined up Vidor and Marion as his directing and writing time, fresh off of their triumph The Champ (1931). Marion agreed to do the job on one condition – that Goldwyn hire Lois Weber to assist in the adaptation. Weber, one of the pioneering female directors of the silent era, had fallen on hard times, and hadn’t worked on a film in five years, taking on a job as an apartment manager to make a living. Goldwyn agreed to the arrangement, both respecting Weber’s accomplishments and wanting Marion on the job.

Told in flashback as a confession from the misleadingly named barrister Jim Warlock (Ronald Colman) to his wife Clemency (Kay Francis), Cynara is an apologia for male infidelity. Jim is a homebody whose horny old bachelor pal John Tring (Henry Stephenson) is always encouraging to join him on extra-curricular outings. So when Clemency goes on an impromptu trip to Venice with her sister, Tring encourages Jim to explore the London nightlife, specifically its females. One night at an Italian restaurant, they run into two shopgirls named Doris (Phyllis Barry) and Milly (Viva Tattersall). Milly uses the flirtation as an excuse to enjoy Tring’s money, but Doris falls for Jim’s awkward sincerity, and concocts a plan to meet up with him again at a swimming exhibition that Jim would be judging. Jim tears up a note with Dori’s address, and in a beautiful transition, Vidor dissolves from the bits of torn-up note to pigeons flying in Venice, connecting Jim’s two loves in a poetic bit of montage. Despite his seemingly abiding love for Clemency, Jim begins a whirlwind affair with Doris, which ends just as abruptly when Clemency arrives home early. The whole affair ends in tragedy, threatening Jim’s marriage and the entire life he had built up until that point.

Though the film is centrally focused on Jim and Clemency’s marriage, it finds time to give the shopgirl’s perspective – showing how Doris doesn’t have the same societal protections as Jim’s upper class bubble. Milly repeatedly warns her about how working class girls are tossed away by men like Jim, but Doris refuses to hear it. She is in love, and pays the price. It is unclear how much influence Weber had on the script, but she dealt with the double-standard between married men and single women in the fallout of an affair in films like What Do Men Want? (1921) and Shoes (1916). That double standard definitely applies in Cynara, as while Jim’s reputation is tarnished, he is still free to make a new life wherever he’d like, while Doris is jobless and spiraling in depression.

The most thrilling scenes in the film occurs when Jim and Tring deign to visit the blue collar district – there is a remarkable sequence set inside a movie theater showing Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life (1918). Vidor has a camera boom swoop from the back of the theater down to the front, capturing the full-body laughter of a theater audience losing its mind to Chaplin. In a clumsy if effective visual metaphor, Chaplin shoves a dog down his pants to sneak into a dancehall, and the animal pokes through Chaplin’s pants, causing some awkward encounters. It is after this that Doris takes Jim’s hand in hers, and for the first time Jim exhibits what looks like lust. The sequence presents a Chaplin short as an erotic experience, both for the other revelers laughing their heads off in full body convulsions, and Jim and Doris, who find the film’s loosening of social codes a way to free themselves from their guilt, and towards their disastrous affair.

The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

October 17, 2017


By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

King Vidor was “a little ashamed” of Bardelys the Magnificent, while John Gilbert considered it to be “Applesauce. With one John Gilbert providing the sauce.” It didn’t have the cachet of their previous films together, though seen today it’s a vibrant and funny film, one adapted from the 1905 novel by Rafael Sabatini. John Gilbert is the title character Bardelys, a womanizing adviser to King Louis XIII, he warns his servant to always let him know which husbands are in town before he schedules his assignations. But even when angry spouses drop in and challenge him to a sword fight, he flatters them so relentlessly (both their looks and their fighting skill), that they go away happy. Bardelys is such a well-known lover that almost every woman in town has been called “dark enchantress” and received a locket with a piece of his hair, meant to symbolize his devotion – they are assembled in bulk by his servants and dispensed with impunity.

The Comte de Châtellerault (Roy D’arcy) has no such luck with women. He was very publicly rejected by Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman, to become Vidor’s wife after filming) before tripping over a precisely placed lunchbox and falling on his behind. The Comte becomes the laughingstock of Paris, and in a fit of pique, he makes an impossible wager with Bardelys – if Bardelys can get Roxalanne to marry him, he will receive all of the Comte’s wealth. And if he fails, Bardelys must give up his entire fortune. Bardelys is in no mood to marry, but accepts the bet anyway, as a test of his desirability. In order to win the anti-monarchy Roxalanne’s heart, Bardelys pretends to be famed revolutionary Lesperon. It is in this guise that Roxalanne’s reserve begins to crack, but soon Bardelys will have the King’s guards on his tale, and it’s more than money he has to put on the line.


Vidor films with great agility, moving his camera in inventive ways, including dropping down with Bardelys out of a window. The most memorable shot is a ravishingly romantic one, of a canoe ride with Bardelys and Roxalanne, weeping willow branches drooping down over them like a caressing lover. King Vidor recalled the construction of the scene in his memoirs, as quoted in a post on

“I saw a property man wading in the lake pushing an old rowboat he had brought along just in case the director asked for one. He brushed past the lone branch of a weeping willow tree hanging in the water. I asked the head grip: ‘How long will it take you to make a tunnel of willow branches one hundred feet long?’ The leaves threw a moving pattern of light and shadow which played moodily across the faces of the lovers. The arrangement, movement and lighting of the scene were in complete harmony. The total effect was one of magic.” Vidor added that he was often asked about that scene. “They have forgotten the title, the actors, the author, even the melodramatic plot, but the magic of the camera made its indelible impression.”

Also making an impression is Bardelys’s wild escape from the gallows, a remarkably inventive bit of madcap action that has Gilbert springing around with uncanny mobility. In my favorite bit, he is trying to escape back up through a hatch, but a group of soldiers are thrusting their scythes into the opening below him. Taking this as an opportunity, when the scythes all clash together, it forms a kind of floor which Bardelys uses as leverage to leap up and out of the hatch. It is a brilliant bit of stagecraft, and manages to display the wit of Bardelys solely through action.

Arthur Lubin, who plays King Louis XIII, recalled that the set was a happy one, and speculated that “I think the reason King was so well liked was that he left the actors alone.” That convivial atmosphere really comes across on the screen, though Gilbert himself expressed unhappiness with the whole production. He told Alma Whitaker of the Los Angeles Times that “I don’t want to be portraying this incredible ‘magnificent’ stuff. Whenever they talk ‘costume picture’ to me again, I am going to mentally translate all the characters into modern clothes and see how they would work out in say, Pasadena, today. If they don’t ring true, they are out.”

The film was a minor success, bringing back a profit of $135,000 on a cost of $460,000. But for all involved it was a minor affair, a diversion from the other work they’d rather be doing. MGM felt similarly, for when their rights to the Sabatini novel expired in 1936, they destroyed the negative. The movie would have been lost forever if not for the miraculous discovery of that print in France. Thankfully, we can now see the film for what it is, an impressively mounted off-the-cuff adventure that could give Fairbanks a run for his money.


September 10, 2013

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Earlier this month Turner Classic Movies began airing The Story of Film, a 15-chapter documentary by Mark Cousins tracking the history of the moving image from 1895 – 2000s. Running from now through December,TCM will also air 52 movies that Cousins mentions in his work. To coincide with The Story of Film Chapter 2: 1918 – 1928, tonight TCM will air everything from Nanook of the North (1922, 8PM) to King Vidor’s silent masterpiece The Crowd (1928, 2AM). While Nanook was recently issued on Blu-rayThe Crowd is only available on out-of-print VHS, so this airing is a rare opportunity to see it in a decent edition. George Feltenstein, the Senior Vice President of Theatrical Catalog Marketing at WB, recently wrote that the home video future of The Crowd depends on the sales of Vidor’s The Big Parade, which comes out on October 1st. It was originally because of the The Big Parade’s massive success that Vidor was allowed to make the smaller, artier The Crowd, so maybe it will have the same effect on WB executives today. Like Murnau’s Sunrise (’27) or Paul Fejos’ Lonesome (’28), The Crowd depicts the trials of the everyday with expressionistic intensity, proving that the working man is as worthy of tragedy as royalty.

MGM producer Irving Thalberg asked Vidor what he would do to follow up the success of his WWI drama The Big Parade, and Vidor replied, “Well, I suppose the average fellow walks through life and sees quite a lot of drama taking place around him. Objectively life is like a battle, isn’t it?” He sketched out an original story with Harry Behn about the trials of an office worker who can never get ahead, but spent a long time searching for an actor who held the everyman qualities he was looking for. According to Vidor, he found  James Murray at the MGM casting office looking for employment as an extra. Murray had the hardscrabble background Vidor was seeking, having worked his way to California as a dishwasher and coal-shoveler. Though it seems Murray was plucked from obscurity, he had already secured lead roles in MGM’s In Old Kentucky (’27) for director John Stahl and the Joan Crawford drama Rose-Marie (’28). Regardless, he had a roughness that Vidor favored that he felt was ideal for The Crowd. Offscreen Murray struggled with alcoholism and depression, and following his soulful performance for Vidor, he descended into poverty, and was found dead in the Hudson River in 1936. Vidor was so affected by Murray that he attempted to tell his life story in a never-produced movie called The Actor as late as 1979.

In The Crowd, Murray plays John Sims, a tough-luck kid born into privilege but shoved into the underclasses after the death of his father. He moves to NYC with hopes of reviving his fortunes, and joins an advertising firm as a low-level accountant. That’s as far as he rises, having to scrimp and save to care for his wife and children. Tragedy lowers their income from precarious to poverty, and to Sims the world seems like an ever-tightening noose.


From the start Vidor depicts the city as a heaving mass, an active agent in thwarting Sims’ progress. When John learns of his father’s death, he is ascending a staircase, the camera pointing downward from a height, the crowd below a vertiginous blur. Height will be a destabilizing force throughout. When John first arrives in NYC, Vidor employs a series of superimpositions of traffic, crowds and trains that climaxes in a low angle of skyscrapers, sentinels staring down at the masses. In one of the most quoted shots in film history, Vidor than tracks the camera up the face of one of these buildings, with the use of a miniature, before plunging into a top floor window and peering into John’s new office, filled with ant-sized desks. The camera glides over the workers until it settles onto John, a member of the crowd for now, going with the flow. He coasts on this flow, even participating in the angles, he will peer up a doubledecker bus ladder up the skirt of the woman he will later marry.


He proposes marriage to Mary (Eleanor Boardman, Vidor’s wife) after seeing an advertisement on a bus saying, “You furnish the girl, we furnish the home.” His actions seem dictated by “the crowd”, his eagerness to fit in with an upwardly mobile society. But as soon as he takes those steps the world starts to conspire against him. It begins with everyday objects in his dingy one-bedroom apartment he shares with Mary. The Murphy bed won’t fold up and the bathroom plumbing springs a leak. The implied contract he signed with big city society is not being fulfilled – the advertisements promising a sun-filled “home” were telling lies. His initial joyousness at entering a loving relationship dissipates into bitterness, exemplified by a bottle of milk exploding in his face. The world is rebelling against him. It is here than he exclaims that “marriage is not a word, it’s a sentence.”

Separation is delayed by children. Both Mary and John decide to give their union another shot because of their son, and then their daughter. Their attempt is sincere, and Murray’s desperate search through a labyrinthine hospital to find his first-born is a nightmare of indifferent bureaucracy, the soulless efficiency of his workplace transplanted to a facility supposed to house his salvation. Murray pushes through a triangle of hospital beds to meet his wife and child, and the look of desperate beatitude on his face is heartbreaking.

Since their bond is with the child and not each other, John and Mary are always separated in the frame, until an untimely death shears them completely apart. In a funeral car they are pushed to extreme edges of the frame, eager to burst out of each other’s lives. Vidor struggled mightily over the ending, as seven were shot, and theaters were given two options to screen. One was a super-happy ending gathered around a Christmas tree, the other more ambiguous, with the family unit intact but still struggling. The latter is the one that survives in existing prints, with John crawling back into employment and buying his family tickets to a vaudeville clown act. The camera glides over the laughing crowd, ending by lifting straight up away into the sky, into the heavens the Sims can never quite reach. While it offers hope, it is a temporary one. For as the inter-titles state, “The crowd laughs with you always…but it will cry with you for only a day.” This laughter and this happiness, Vidor implies, will last only this night, until the hard work of living begins again.