Three very good performances from Gary Cooper, Helen Vinson and Ralph Bellamy spark The Wedding Night, an affecting early production code-era drama for which King Vidor won the directorial prize at Venice. Edith Fitzgerald’s script, from a story by Edwin H. Knopf, revolves around Tony Barrett (Cooper), a young writer whose successful first novel has seduced him into a glittery, dipsomaniacal lifestyle and buried him in debt. After his publisher rejects his latest novel, which he himself has branded as “tripe,” Tony and Dora, his spendthrift wife (Vinson), retreat from Manhattan to their country home in Connecticut. The possibility arises for Tony to make some money by selling his land, but he opts instead to write a novel about a Polish immigrant farm girl, Manya, whose beguiling simplicity and straightforward nature have rekindled in his heart the will to live and to write seriously again. Tony at least thinks he is in love with Manya, who certainly falls in love with him; but we note something on his part that may bound beyond the parameters of romantic love: the manipulation of reality to create an energizing “plot” with himself at the center. Tony’s self-resurrection, in which God has been denied all participation, includes sobriety but which necessarily endangers his marriage. Indeed, two marriages may fall since Manya, in exchange for dowry, is due to marry Fredrik Sobieski (Bellamy). The match has been arranged by Manya’s father, who has thus brought the Old World with him into the New, and Fredrik is of the same traditional stripe. It is meaningless to both Fredrik and Manya’s father that Manya is not in love with Fredrik. In their eyes, she is Polish and will do as she is told. However, Tony’s attention and affection have crystallized her intent to be American in reality, not in name only. When Fredrik, drunk, grows fiendishly jealous on their wedding night, tragedy results from the collision of the old and the new.
Often this film is dismissed even by Vidorians who fail to grasp its thematic depth and potent ironies—this, despite a truly remarkable passage. At the celebration following Manya’s wedding ceremony, when Tony intrudes, Fredrik cuts short Tony and Manya’s dance and proceeds to impress Manya into their own dance. “This is my property!” Fredrik is announcing to Tony, and to Manya also, and to himself. People as property: powerful stuff.
Of course, the film is infamously wobbled by Anna Sten’s stilted, unconvincing performance as Manya. For the third time, producer Samuel Goldwyn attempted to make the Russian Sten a foreign-born Hollywood star along the captivating lines of M-G-M’s Garbo and Paramount’s Dietrich. The public still didn’t take to her. Goldwyn then turned his attentions to another untalented actress who proved much more successful: the exotic, (unpublicized) biracial Merle Oberon.
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