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The Wedding Night (King Vidor, 1935)
King Vidor’s glossy romantic drama The Wedding Night provides enough texture to make one almost forgive its simplistic plotting. Set among an enclave of tobacco farmers of Polish descent, the film depicts the culture clash that occurs when American individuality confronts the communal fray. That selfhood is embodied here by Gary Cooper, who plays Tony, an author who has squandered his early success and finds himself retreating to his family’s Connecticut farm after turning in an unpublishable draft. There he meets Manya, a young Polish woman played by would-be star Anna Sten, sparking a romance that threatens both his existing marriage and her arranged one.
The deck isn’t evenly stacked here, at least at first glance. Manya and Tony seem a perfect match. Manya’s suitor is a guy (played, of course, by Ralph Bellamy) whose idea of a date is showing her how to slaughter pigs. Tony’s wife abandons him at the first opportunity, heading back to the city and confirming our first impression that she’s a gold-digger. Unencumbered by much external drama, the midsection of the film becomes a bloated meet-cute, in which he makes fun of her heavy accent and she makes him pancakes. In its final reels, though, The Wedding Night begins to show more nuance.
As the prospect of Manya’s marriage grows closer, the familial pressures weighing down the girl begin to press harder. Then, Tony’s wife returns, and she’s revealed to be an actual human being, far more sympathetic and reasonable than we had any right to expect initially. This development doesn’t just round out the love triangle. It makes Gary Cooper something of a cad in this arrangement, wanting to have his pancakes and eat them too. His wife’s return unbalances the bliss that Tony and Manya spent the previous hour establishing, and sets the film up for a sobering conclusion.
Throughout the movie, Vidor has a real feel for the immigrants’ culture. His depiction of unsubtitled Polish speech and the titular marriage rituals rings true. More than that, though, he relays the farmers’ distinctly un-American social mores. From the group scenes, which embody the tension that Manya feels throughout, to the sad moment where a matriarch tells Manya that “Polish women cry their tears alone,” the film does a respectable job of explaining this subculture and validating their point of view.
All in all, The Wedding Night is a satisfying, if unexceptional, melodrama buoyed by its performances. While there is a mild confusion about whether ingénue Sten is mean to be a new Lombard or a new Garbo, the mixture serves the script’s needs. Similarly, Cooper’s selfish demeanor here might sully his good guy image somewhat, but it gives audiences more to ponder. Together they make a routine story more memorable.