If sex and violence are the great staples of cinema, marriage is somewhere in between, and in some redolent and inextricable way, wedded to both.
Yet in that it implies a couple in mutual long-term interdependence over immediate gratification and the illicit thrills of courtship—a long haul rather than a short thrill—marriage as a specific cinematic subject, divorced from sex and violence, is a more rare or rarefied occurrence than one might expect, which is just one of many points made by film historian Jeanine Basinger (A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960, 1993) in her new book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage In the Movies.
A long-wedded writer herself (45 years, and so understanding, in some experiential manner, of the, um, mechanics of the situation), Basinger distinguishes Hollywood’s oft-times ambivalent or noncommittal attitude toward marriage: “Marriage… was the known, not the unknown: the dull dinner party, not the madcap masquerade […] the marriage film had to reflect what moviegoers already had experienced: marriage, in all its boredom and daily responsibilities.”
In short, marriage, without sex anyway, was a tough sell. Yet despite the fact of its seeming a humdrum, routine institution diametrically opposed to the fantasy-driven machinations of traditional Hollywood production, marriage still had deep reserves of narrative potential: “Because marriage was a finish line, not a starting place, it made a good background for other types of stories. It could be a supporting player […] used like a chemical element […] a status that can appear anywhere, at any time, in any film.”
As Basinger’s specialty is the studio era, the book feels inevitably middle-heavy. Only 20 pages are devoted to marriage in the silent years, and about fifty for the modern era (which Basinger dates from around the early/mid-‘60s to the present), leaving 300 or so pages for the studio section.
Though undoubtedly Hollywood’s classic years saw the greatest proliferation of marriage films—indeed, the solidification of “marriage film” as a familiar genre in its own right, with a specific set of conventions, as argued here—the portion on cinema’s early years seems too brief and limited. Where, for example, is Lois Weber, one of cinema’s earliest directors, man or woman, whose film Too Wise Wives (1921) seems especially relevant? And not even a mention of the perverted, and not altogether peripheral, mockery of marriage in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)?
Basinger’s approach to marital film conventions is indicated in the basic paradigm and paradox of the book’s title. Marriage in cinema has been treated traditionally as assent and/or denial, chase and/or escape, comic and/or cautionary. Basinger unpacks her arguments through similar categories, subcategories and intercategories, not only the “I do and I don’t” but the “‘without love’ marriage” and the “‘Oops, we’re not really married’ variation”, or the couple and their problems, broken down into “1. Money…2. Infidelity and /or adultery…3. In-laws and children…” Her explanation of the audience’s interaction with these conventions is finely put:
“The problems were [the audience’s] to give, and the movies were receivers, not definers. The audience was living the marriage definition, or had lived it, or was watching someone else live it. This shifted everything. Although there was generic definition onscreen, nobody needed to identify it or label it as such. Hollywood didn’t always avoid the truth; it just reshaped where it was headed. Audiences responded in kind. They knew truth, and they knew fantasy. The audiences of the past knew when they were escaping, and they knew what they were escaping from.”
This is a swift kick to a critical revisionism that sometimes oversimplifies classic-era film spectatorship.
Basinger covers a lot of movies—description after description after description—with examples ranging from the cartoonish “Ma & Pa Kettle” and “Dagwood and Blondie” series to key marriage films such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), or one of my personal favorites, Full of Life (1956), which she celebrates for its “new presentation of ‘realism’ for the postwar baby boom,” in its depiction of pregnancy especially. Full of Life was written by the late great John Fante, author of honest novels, and one of the only writers I can imagine mowing his own lawn.
The book reads in some ways like an overcrowded marriage of Hollywood synopses. I specify Hollywood, as a more aptly literal subtitle might designate the book’s emphasis on American/Hollywood films. While I appreciate the book’s focus, I expected a bit more on international marriage movies, represented here only through short descriptions of three films by big guns François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozo, and the recent Iranian film The Separation (2011). Basinger claims rather too reductively that “each in its own way reflects the cultures and attitudes of its own country of origin while still reflecting the same fundamentals as its American counterparts.”
Likewise, though I would agree that a “general reduction in audience interest on the topic” from, say, the’60s onward has contributed to a decline in movies about marriage as such, the modern section, like that of the silents, passes too quickly, particularly in an atmosphere ripe for debates about marriage equality in life and its depiction on film. A cursory mention of the lesbian relationship at the center of 2010’s The Kids Are All Right might have generated a deeper discussion on the possible expansion of marital film boundaries—whether, for example, they transcend, fulfill or disappoint the early homodomesticity of screen comedians Laurel and Hardy, whose interactions Basinger characterizes as “[p]erhaps the most lifelike movie example of a real married couple’s relationship.”
Yet I Do and I Don’t is a hugely abundant survey of a specialized, resilient and relatively modest genre. Marriage movies may not always be sexy, but they endure.