Saturday, September 20, 2014

Black as the Pit from Pole to Pole


Funny how stereotypes change over time. Back in the first century A.D., Germans were considered synonymous with chaos and barbarism. Today they are more often identified with order and efficiency. The Scandinavians horrified Western Europe with their Viking raids back in the Middle Ages but nowadays, they are known primarily for their pacifism. The Englishmen of the Elizabethan era were considered to be rude, crude individuals as were the Spaniards of Cervantes's time. Yet by the Victorian era, Englishmen were known for being anything but rude and crude and today we are more likely to associate Spaniards with foppish mannerisms than with the rude behavior they displayed in Cervantes's day.

In short, stereotypes are not engraved in stone and they tend to change over time. The average historian knows this quite well. The average chauvinist should know it as well but he tends to deny it -- even when the popular culture proves him wrong time after time.

Consider the way Poles were portrayed in the 1935 movie The Wedding Night. If you were to ask the average American nowadays what ethnic groups they most associated with arranged marriages, agricultural labor and domestic violence, neither Poles nor Polish Americans would be among the first few ethnic groups to come to mind. Ironically, they would be more apt to associate Mexicans or Mexican-Americans with these traits -- and yet, in this movie, there are no characters of Mexican descent that I could see. Instead it was the Polish characters in this movie who acted out the type of stereotypes that most people today would associate with Mexican immigrants. Indeed, the Poles in this flick were depicted as rural folk who are hot-tempered, prone to arranging marriages and obsessed with controlling women. Moreover, they were also depicted as being so different from mainstream Americans that one would hardly associate them with today's Polish-Americans.

So is this a good thing? Not necessarily. Then again The Wedding Night told its story so convincingly that it never occurred to me, the son of a Polish-American woman, to question its image of Polish-Americans. If anything, I found the movie quite convincing in its heartbreaking portrayal of the problems faced by a young immigrant woman named Manya Novak (played by Ukrainian-born actress Anna Sten) who struggled to reconcile her loyalty to her Polish roots with her attraction to the modernity of the American way and I could not help but wonder how often the same story could be told today about many non-Polish immigrants.

But enough about that.

The movie started out in New York City as bored author Tony Barrett (played by Gary Cooper) found out that his latest novel was such a flop that even his best friend and publisher chose to have nothing to do with it. He talked his wife Dora (played by Helen Vinson) into vamoosing back to his family homestead in Connecticut where he discovered that he has a family of Polish immigrants as neighbors. He became intrigued by their quaint ways and in return, the family's oldest daughter (the above-mentioned Manya) became intrigued by him and his quaint ways. Nothing came of it though until Dora departed for NYC and Tony was forced to rely more and more upon his Polish neighbors for supplies. Along the way, he learned something about the work ethic from Manya and before long, she was performing as the unofficial muse for his new novel.

Then Manya's father caught on that Manya was spending a little too much time at the Barrett household for an engaged woman. Tony found out that Manya did not love the man she was engaged to marry and that the engagement was part of an arrangement between her father and her husband-to-be. However, Tony was powerless to stop her from going through with it.

Things got worse when a snowstorm stranded Manya at Tony's place and she was forced to stay the night. Even though Manya and Tony spent the night in separate bedrooms, that fact did little to spare Manya from the wrath of her father the next morning. Then the audience discovered that Manya was not necessarily going along with her father by choice. At the first sign of defiance, Manya's father showed no hesitation in slapping her and reminded her that she did not have the same freedom as an American girl. After all, she was a Polish girl, which meant Manya had no choice but to obey her father's wishes -- whether she liked it or not.

Then Dora returned and learned of the relationship between Manya and Tony. Though Tony insisted that everything was innocent and that Dora was the one who should be explaining her social activities in his absence, Dora suspected differently. She read Tony's unfinished novel and realized from his written words just how strong the bond between writer and muse had become. But Dora was not yet ready to step aside from her marriage and poor Manya was already in enough trouble with her father as it was. Once Dora spoke to her, things just got worse.

Soon afterward, Manya got married and it looked as if everything would be finally settled. But, alas, Manya's wedding night had one last nasty surprise left for the Novaks and the Barretts. And someone ended up paying a big price for said surprise...

I don't know what I expected from The Wedding Night but I found myself far more moved by it than I had expected. Perhaps it was because I identified a bit with Manya. Perhaps it was because I identified a bit with Tony (though I hate to admit that). But most likely it was because I liked the rather complex relationship it depicted between Tony and Dora. Dora was hardly the ideal wife but she was not unsympathetic either. A bad movie would have portrayed her in shades of black, but this film just settled for portraying her in shades of gray and as a result, I actually felt for both her and Manya. Tony had his moments too but I could not help thinking that if he had been a more responsible person and not so intent on putting Manya in an impossible position, things would not have gotten so bad.

It said a lot about the movie that although Gary Cooper played Tony as a sympathetic character, he too had scenes in which he was less than sympathetic. For example, the time he acted so priggish to his returning wife was not one of his better moments. Nor was his attempt to hit on Manya as if she were just a woman whose sole reason for existence was to please him and only him.

Towards the end of the movie, it became obvious that Tony felt strongly about Manya and that Manya felt strongly about him. But ultimately his feelings for her appeared to do her more harm than good. While it would seem naive to believe that Manya's life would have been happier had she never met Tony Barrett, it seems equally naive to believe that Tony bore no responsibility for Manya's fate. Perhaps this last part was why he was so quiet at the end of the movie. And why he was so eager to remember Manya as she had been in the comparatively happy past -- and not as she was in the present.

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