powered by AFI
By 1930s standards, The Wedding Night (1935) is an unusual film. The unlikely romance between a sophisticated (and married) New York novelist who retreats to his Connecticut farm looking for inspiration, and a farm girl from an old-world Polish family, had more realism than most Hollywood fantasies. As critic Andre Sennwald wrote in an admiring review in the New York Times, "Hollywood has taught us that little things like language, tradition, and character are no obstacles when a high-powered romance is roaring across the screen. But The Wedding Night displays an unusual regard for the truth, and is courageous enough to allow an affair which is obviously doomed to end logically in tragedy." Although the film was not successful, 70 years later, it seems less dated and more compelling than many other films of the era.
Credit for that goes to the sensitive direction of King Vidor, and the striking performances of Gary Cooper (as a character allegedly based on F. Scott Fitzgerald) and Russian actress Anna Sten. Vidor, who had a distinguished career in silents with such films as The Big Parade (1925) and The Crowd (1928), had never worked with Cooper before, but knew him as an arresting screen presence who had risen to stardom in silent films. When shooting began on The Wedding Night, Vidor was disappointed and concerned that Cooper seemed to be mumbling and stumbling through the scenes. In his autobiography, Vidor recalls his surprise when he watched that first day's footage. What he saw was "a performance that overflowed with charm and personality....a highly complex and fascinating inner personality revealed itself on the projection room screen." Cooper proved to be one of those performers whose magic is only fully captured by camera and microphone.
Anna Sten, although a good actress, was a different story. What the camera seemed to capture in her was a lack of ease, both with the English language, and with the expectations of the public and her studio. Almost completely forgotten today, Sten became known as "Goldwyn's Folly" in the 1930s, because of the failed attempt by movie mogul Sam Goldwyn to make her into the next Garbo or Dietrich. Born in Kiev and trained at Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater, Sten had appeared in Russian and German films. Goldwyn brought her to Hollywood in 1932, and had her spend two years learning English and taking acting classes, before showcasing Sten in her first American film, Nana (1934). In spite of an aggressive publicity campaign promoting her as "The Passionate Peasant," moviegoers were not impressed, and the film flopped. So did her next one, We Live Again (1934), based on the Tolstoy novel, Resurrection. The Wedding Night was Sten's third American film, and by that time, Goldwyn's relentless publicity push was shopworn, and his temper was fraying.
Vidor felt the problem was that the less-than-fluent Sten had too much dialogue. He noted that the "exotic" mystique of stars like Garbo and Dietrich stayed intact when they merely had to say "yes" and "no," and everyone else in the film spoke most of the dialogue. Goldwyn showed up on the set one day when Sten had to recite a Robert Browning poem that began, "Earth's returns/ For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!" With Sten's thick Russian accent, it kept coming out "Earse returz." Exasperated, Goldwyn launched into a tirade (in his own fractured English) about how much depended on the success of the film, ending with "if this isn't the greatest love scene ever put on film, the whole goddamned picture will go right up out of the sewer!" The frustrated Cooper took to calling Sten "Anna Stench" behind her back.
In spite of the problems, Sten and Cooper showed some real chemistry onscreen, and The Wedding Night earned very good reviews, Sten's best to date. But the public still wasn't buying. After the failure of that film, Goldwyn gave up, and Sten agreed to cancel their contract. The Wedding Night became known in Hollywood as "Goldwyn's Last Sten." The actress made a few more films in England and the U.S., but by the end of the 1930s her career was essentially over, although she appeared occasionally in films produced by her husband, Eugene Frenke, including a cameo in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). Anna Sten died in 1993.
Director: King Vidor
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Edith Fitzgerald, based on a story by Edwin H. Knopf
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Editor: Stuart Heisler
Costume Design: Omar Kiam
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Principal Cast: Gary Cooper (Tony Barrett), Anna Sten (Manya Nowak), Ralph Bellamy (Fredrik Sobieski), Helen Vinson (Dora Barrett), Sig Ruman (Jan Nowak), Esther Dale (Kaise Nowak).
by Margarita Landazuri