Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Bellamy the Deflowerer: THE WEDDING NIGHT (1935)


If you want to see the cruel extreme barbarism of the sudden implementation of the Catholic Legion of Decency's enforced production code (which overtook Hollywood in 1934), look no further than 1935's THE WEDDING NIGHT, starring Gary Cooper, Ralph Bellamy, and Anna Sten (the 'other' Garbo). It helps when considering the Christian backlash hooplah about the 'morning after' pill to see a film like this, and realize the extent of female subjugation in pre-industrial European culture, and the way it survives today in xtreme Catholicism, fundamentalist Islam and with some Mormons.


Ralph Bellamy with his wild hair, expertly applied peasant-stock eye-liner, and traditional Polish farmer garb actually gives Cooper a run for the money here in the god-like looks department. He's way too good looking to be so dumb, and what's this brood of crafty Polish tobacco farmers doing up in Connecticut in 1935, living next door to dissolute drunk writer Cooper's getaway lodge? Well, you can guess when Cooper's going to do when he dips those ink-lined lashes Sten's way.

See, Cooper's wife has stayed back in New York City, but Cooper moves up  to the lodge, you know, for inspiration for his next book? Anna Sten and her family's provincial Polish culture is just the ticket, he thinks. The film thus sees the code mandate of 1934 as a property dividing line, between the home-grown social 'dissolution' of the post-WW1 Depression era of women's equality and hurrah for the next who dies, and a very fundamentalist old world patriarchy proletariat still thriving and yet to be smashed in Europe by the Nazis. Without that common enemy, those old-school Poles get mighty narrow-mined. Their dissolute neighbor next door is demonized as brutally as the Nazis would later do the Jews; meanwhile the property-greedy father and his obsession with land grabs hints at the outmoded values soon to be be read as the very reason for the barbarism inflicted upon them. As The farmer says to his daughter when she refuses to harness herself to the Bellamy plow, "stop making me hit you!"

Cooper's never been too convincing as a writer, but here he at least is convincing as a self-hating intellectual for whom literary 'research' has been the rationale for seducing women, book after book, so now he can't even remember whether the book is in service of the affair or vice versa (like a male Catherine Trammel) Sten is a fine actress and Sig Rumann is properly terrifying in an unusual role (for him). The code-enforced shock ending is of course that Sten must die, because her father pledged her to Bellamy, and was paid the dowry, and she refused to run away from the ceremony before saying "I do," which is the only proper thing for a bride standing on the lip of the 20th century. She blew it. That she loves Cooper instead but still goes through with the Bellamy wedding spells her death under the draconian rubrics of the code. But if she'd just run out to the car and driven off and grabbed Cooper and fled to the city before saying she did, well you could roll the credits right then. But the post-34 censor had his eye on adulterers, even if they'd been forced into a marriage that was only minutes old.

And so... in the post-34 world of Hollywood, once-free women starting dropping like flies. At least they had time to take long Garbo-esque death scenes, but there's a thin line between good death scenes and the bitter aftertaste of deaths being forced by a code no one making the film has any faith in.  Religious censorship bleeds into the nature of the post-code era's stories -- where women marry even knowing it means their death, because marriage is the ultimate validation of woman, and then she may breed and create more Christians who can carry forth this fine, wretched, evil tradition of yoking the women to the Bellamies. Imagine the tale of Little Red Riding Hood if the Catholic Legion of Decency decided to update the story so that Red gets a chaperone through the woods, and the woodsman--her husband--regularly belittles her in a smirky way when she's caught talking to wolves. That wolf would be played by Cary Grant... the woodsman? That's right! It's no accident Bellamy is in THE WOLFMAN playing just such an impotent hunter.


To drive the point slamming home, the titular night of the film is a long wedding night for Sten and Bellamy at Rumann's house. Upstairs: Sten, joylessly, is being 'prepared' for deflowering by the glum matrons of the clan upstairs in her room. Downstairs Bellamy gets drunker and his cronies (and even Sten's father) encourage him to get up there and lay some pipe like they're the sloppy seconds-craving would-be-rapist brothers of the groom in Peckinpah's RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. The message is clear: the boys get to drink and goad each other on in lusty gang rape-tinged misogyny while the women, depressed and apathetic as if dressing a deer, prepare the next virgin for her code-sanctioned marital assault. Again, the message is that not only does marriage legitimize sex so you can have it right under your parents' roof, it frees you from the uncertainty of 'taking possession' of your spouse in copulation. In other words, she doesn't get to say no --only the dad does on her behalf. Even screaming for help they'll just laugh and roar below.

Fundamentalist Christian adages against a woman's right to choose her own mate seem barbaric to most free thinking people these days but after the WEDDING NIGHT you may understand its origins better. It's not really the fault of the Bellamy - he's not a bad guy. He's been led to expect he will get a wife handed to him via her father, and his confusion when it's otherwise is not his fault --empathy takes the ability to think outside one's own immediate social mores, which he is mentally unable to do. Though many conservatives are desperate to pass bills that would revert woman's rights back to the patriarchs, nowadays at least, they can't get very far. The best they can do is close an abortion clinic now and again as they lament the loss of their old property, the Fertile Womb, so squandered in the hands of its wasted young women owners.


So yeah, drooling sexual relatives are written into the rocks of Plymouth but when a sensitive poet soul like Sten's comes along, that kind of violent burlesque of socially controlled reproduction is shocking and un-American. It's one thing if the girl is plain and not very bright and maybe can't get a date on her own. But if she's a smart, poetic beauty, her assigned Bellamy will crush her like an orchid under the plow. When choosing between the Bellamy for life (in Albany, too!) vs. Gary Cooper for a just one weekend in Manhattan, is there any real choice? You got to grab Cooper.

 

The worst that can happen is he'll dump you and you'll wind up destitute and abandoned on the streets of the East Village, but that is nothing in comparison to being kept down on the farm under the yoke of Bellamy's unconscious, never-been-outside-of-the-box sense of entitlement. Just ask One-Eye: (see: Bob Hope Vs. The Canadian Svengalis).


Thus the Coopers and Grants are like missionaries of pre-code enlightenment, bringing hope to the dark areas of the New England tobacco belt. Now more than ever, we need to ridicule our Bellamies, ban the incoming burkas of our immigrants, and rescue Mormon girls before they're married to lecherous cult leaders, or mangled and castrated by hideous outmoded practices. I don't blame the Bellamies, or even the Rumanns --this is all they know. But the chain's gotta break somewhere. For too long our tall beautiful men and fast-thinking wabbits have held back, given the Bellamies and the Elmer Fudds the benefit of the doubt, presuming their old ways must have some merit. Our reward has been a trail of broken Stens. I say no more! Not one Sten, Bellamy! Not one Sten...

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