The Wedding Night

The Wedding Night stars Gary Cooper as a boozy, successful yet party-hearty writer who finds unlikely inspiration in a beautiful Polish immigrant. Newly reissued on made-to-order DVD by the folks at Warner Archive, this routine 1935 melodrama stands out somewhat - not for Cooper's character (loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald), but for the actress who played his muse. The name Anna Sten might be unknown outside the realm of Turner Classic Movies fanatics, but in the mid-'30s she was heavily hyped by producer Samuel Goldwyn as the Next Big Thing, a European exotic in the mold of Garbo and Dietrich. In the end, Sten lacked that certain something to endure - but it wasn't for a lack of trying on Goldwyn's part.

A dreamy modern-day romance capably directed by King Vidor (Stella Dallas), The Wedding Night served as the third and final Sten vehicle under Goldwyn's watch. On the surface, it feels like a classic, plush Goldwyn production like Dodsworth or These Three, but unlike those films, The Wedding Night's original source material is weak - while Cooper and Sten fail to gel as a romantic pairing.

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Our story begins in glittery Manhattan, where Cooper's novelist Tony Barrett enjoys the high life with his bubbly wife, Dora (Helen Vinson). Things aren't going so swell in the career department, however, as Tony's publisher warns that their lavish lifestyle can't be supported on book advances with nothing good to show for it. An opportunity arises in the run-down farm owned by Tony's family in Connecticut, however, where the Barretts have moved to spruce things up for the winter. A farming neighbor, Jan Novak (Sig Ruman), approaches Tony to sell a portion of his land. Captivated by Novak's daughter, Manya (Sten), Tony soon becomes drawn to the local tribe of simple, honest, hard-working Polish immigrants and decides to make them the subject of his next novel. Left alone at the rickety house after his wife and manservant have fled for more comfortable digs, Tony proceeds on his novel while conspiring to have Manya on hand to supply background info on the Polish life. They fall for each other, of course, and the resulting torridly romantic manuscript Tony wrote leaves Dora questioning the validity of their "modern" marriage. Meanwhile, Tony and Manya are put in a compromising position that prompts her irate father to marry her off to an irascible Pole whom she doesn't love (played by that most unloveable of '30s actors, Ralph Bellamy).

King Vidor directed The Wedding Night with a real empathy for the characters and the bind they put themselves in, although that attention to detail fares better for the colorful supporting characters than for the leads. Sten is lovely, charming in a low-key way, and capable of doing drama and light comedy (check the scene where she adjusts to wearing Cooper's borrowed pajamas), but she fails to convincingly show what Manya has over Vinson's sparkling Dora (why he'd toss this lady aside for the dull, matronly Manya is anyone's guess). Cooper doesn't help, either, essaying a half-hearted performance that adequately conveys Tony's restlessness but none of his passion for Manya (apparently the two actors loathed working together). As with Goldwyn's other '30s-era productions, it looks fantastic, with nicely composed cinematography and good art direction. One might think that Goldwyn putting Sten in a contemporary, original piece might have been a fresh improvement over the high-minded Zola and Tolstoy adaptations she'd previously starred in. The Wedding Night's soapy melodramatics ended up being more stodgy and unsuitable for the actress than her previous vehicles, however. While the movie isn't horrible by any means, it isn't especially worth seeking out, either.

I first saw The Wedding Night on cable TV's American Movie Classics channel in the early '90s, along with Sten's prior vehicle We Live Again (a more successful film, as I recall). Then as now, I was probably more enthralled with the idea of an Anna Sten than with the genuine article.

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