Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: I Do and I Don't

I Do and I Don't:  A History of Marriage in the Movies (2013) by Jeanine Basinger

"Embrace happy marriage in real life but keep away from it onscreen." The words were Frank Capra's but they could just as easily have come from any Hollywood director, past or present. And not just happy marriages but any kind of marriage, be it new or old, funny or serious, a tender refuge or a deadly trap, has always been a tricky topic for movie-makers. Why? As Jeanine Basinger argues in her new book I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies, marriage is too familiar and yet too mysterious for the movies. What makes a marriage work? Why should we care about a couple after they've stopped fighting their feelings? What can the movies tell us about marriage if it's a show we already have a front-row seat for?

Well, according to Basinger's book, the movies can tell us quite a lot about marriage and the fears and desires they represent. She digs into a trove of old movies, finding unexpected and powerful images. An old D.W. Griffith film about adultery in which the bored husband finds himself wrapping dollar bills into the blond curls of his mistress but is outraged that his daughter would seek similar excitement with a cheap Lothario. A scene between Ida Lupino and Robert Preston as an old couple that agree to separate but not before walking upstairs for one more night together. Starkest of all is an anecdote drawn not from fiction but from a documentary on the marriage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. After the couple separated, their children began showing them The Parent Trap in hopes that it would encourage them to get back together. As Lucille Ball said, "They must have shown us that movie about seven times before we had to sit them down and explain things."

If marriage has been stuck on the sidelines all these years, then marriage movies could have no better champion then Jeanine Basinger, a witty, knowledgeable academic with an unassailable reputation as one of the best film scholars around. Her former students range from Joss Whedon to Michael Bay and she's published many well-regarded books on Hollywood, most recently The Star Machine and Silent Stars. She ruefully comments at the beginning of I Do and I Don't that her friends warned her about tackling this topic, but she didn't listen. She canvassed her fellow cinephiles on the topic of movie marriage only to be met by puzzled shrugs and halfhearted mentions of The Thin Man.

The most endearing and intelligent aspect of Basinger's book is the way she follows her subject down the rabbit hole of obscure, forgotten films, proudly indifferent to things like Netflix availability or name recognition. So she gives Nick and Nora Charles, the most famous married pair in all moviedom the brush-off  ("The Thin Man is about a detective who solves murders...not about marriage"), but thoroughly analyzes the self-sacrificing wife of One Foot In Heaven. She gives some space to Brief Encounter but pays far more attention to David Lean's other adultery movie, The Passionate Friends. Movies like Chicken Every Sunday, The Captain's Paradise, Cass Timberlane, and The Very Thought of You all earn a write-up. Basinger isn't afraid to stick up for what she enjoys either, singing the praises of the Pitt-Jolie vehicle Mr. and Mrs. Smith, in spite of its lackluster critical reputation: "One of the most original commentaries on marriage, the marriage movie, and marriage counseling ever put on film."

The main problem with I Do and I Don't is that Basinger lives up to her stated intention of keeping the book between a scholarly text and a more casual coffee-table book rather too well. It feels like it's been stretched too thin, not comprehensive or structured enough for a tome, but too weighted down with serious intentions to be a light read. Basinger often tries to sketch out movie plots like linear graphs ("the movie either told the story of marriage in the popular, moving-forward, active mode...or they told it backwards as a flashback"), an approach that is thwarted by her own writing style. She's far more interesting when she goes off-script:
"The Bride Wore Boots uses several screen minutes to tell us what The Bride of Frankenstein tells us in a matter of seconds. Brought to life by the good doctor, Elsa Lanchester takes one look at her intended and lets out a blood-curdling shriek."
Basinger is no slouch when it comes to original and thoughtful analysis either:
"Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis...are a couple on the brink of divorce...The couple they represent is lopsided: Lewis madly loves Martin, but Martin is cool, indifferent to Lewis's ardor. As the years go by in their work together, it's clear Lewis becomes more and more manic in order to attract love and attention, while Martin gets more and more detached. In the end, Lewis turns to others (the audience) and goes crazy, while Martin suddenly realizes he's being upstaged and looks really angry. Their partnership is the comic visualization of divorce."
I can't help wishing that Basinger had either done this book as a loose series of essays on her chosen theme or as a compendium of "marriage movies," giving each one a proper place in the index. Instead, she opts for a footnote-heavy, digressive style that tries to subdivide into categories ("infidelity," "class differences," "addiction, etc.") but keeps wandering off. I also found myself getting really frustrated by the lack of an index in this book. If you're going to pelt me with observations on Too Many Husbands, by all means, but at least give me an index so I don't risk mixing it up with No Room for the Groom.


Despite its sometimes muddled approach, I Do and I Don't is a fascinating journey into a genre that's never really been defined before. For most romantic comedies, marriages is the destination, not the journey. For other films, marriage is a subplot, a glimpse behind the curtain. If somebody had challenged me to name my favorite "marriage movie" before I read Basinger's book, I might have named The Best Years of Our Lives, which looks sensitively at two marriages, one of impulsive romance and one of enduring love. One marriage survives but not without gaining bitter experience along the way ("How many times did I tell you I hated you and believed it in my many times have we had to fall in love all over again?"). And yet even this movie keeps marriage as part of a larger story, the story of troubled vets returning after World War II. Basinger makes a persuasive case that marriage has been a shadow subject on film all these years, something alluded to and joked about and despised and yearned for but so rarely understood. Let's hope that her book is a step towards shedding some light on the most elusive American dream of them all.

Final Six Words:

Rare, valuable glimpse into movie marriage

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from Alfred A. Knopf (Random House). It will be released on January 29, 2013. It is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and directly from the Random House website.


  1. I've been reading Basinger's "Star Machine" so am interested in what she's currently up to.

    She certainly nailed the Martin & Lewis relationship onscreen and off.

  2. "The Thin Man is about a detective who solves murders...not about marriage". I couldn't disagree more. However, I agree with Basinger that marriage is often an overlooked topic in movies, and seldom done well. It's nice to remember the films that really made a go of doing it right. I've also read Star Machine, and though I thought it was a bit too worshipful in some parts, it's nice to read someone unabashedly passionate about the old stars. Plus, she introduced me to Barbara Lawrence.

    Insightful review, thanks!

  3. The Lady Eve: Basinger throws in a lot of commentary on "symbolic" marriages like Martin and Lewis, Laurel and Hardy, etc. and it's one of the more interesting parts of the book.

    Laura: Well, to be fair to Basinger, she is trying to stick to a pretty specific view of marriage on film and she goes on to say that because Nick and Nora are so glamorized, they can't really give much commentary on domestic living, money issues, parenthood, quarrels, and all the other things that come with marriage. Which is true although I think the idea that marriage can be fun is still a valuable insight. Where I take issue with her is the idea that The Thin Man is about solving cases. Does anybody remember the actual cases from The Thin Man? I think it's about a couple that are witty and sophisticated and fun and have adventures together.

  4. I'm putting this book on my birthday wish list! Thanks!

    I'm especially going to be intrigued to see if she has anything to say about "Giant" -- it's a movie I grew up with, and Rock Hudson's Jordan Benedict telling Liz Taylor's Leslie that "If I live to be ninety, I'm never gonna figure you out" stuck with me so much that I determined I would never be the sort of person a husband could figure out. Not sure what that says about me, lol.

  5. Hamlette: "I determined I would never be the sort of person a husband could figure out." Nothing wrong with that ambition. Thanks for commenting. I don't recall her saying much about Giant sadly, probably because it's another movie that doesn't come under her definition of a marriage movie. If you're a George Stevens fan, she does spend quite a bit of time on Vivacious Lady and Penny Serenade.

  6. I'm a big fan of Basinger's work, and was happy to learn she's releasing a new book. Yay! Thanks for the heads up. :)

  7. I really enjoyed Basinger's 'The Star Machine' and 'A Woman's View', so am excited to hear more about this new book - will look forward to reading it! I do agree about the dismissal of 'The Thin Man', though - the marriage is far more memorable than the detective work. Judy

  8. Like Lady Eve, I have Basinger's "Star Machine". The subject matter here certainly does sound like a clever idea for a book. I do love that different movie relationships are analyzed. On a side note: The fact that Lucy and Desi's little ones kept throwing "The Parent Trap" at them is adorable.

    I doubt that I'll be buying this book but who knows. It's not that I wouldn't find the book entertaining, I've just got stacks of books on old Hollywood that I need to get to. I keep adding to that stack and now it's just looks unconquerable. : (

    Thanks for your honest review and all of the great info on this book.

  9. Silverscreenings: Glad to be of help!

    Movieclassics: I still need to pick up The Star Machine. One thing I do enjoy about Basinger is that her interests are so firmly rooted in the old studio system since I find it endlessly fascinating.

    Page: Honestly I found the Parent Trap story kind of heartbreaking--especially when you think about how confused they must have been because they're constantly being bombarded with this happy image of their parents as fun ol' Lucy and Desi onscreen. That and the fact that the parents in The Parent Trap are, once you take aside the kid-wish-fulfillment aspect, utterly loathsome. They are totally willing to just take a twin each and forget that they ever had another child.

  10. Hi Aubyn,

    Really enjoyed your review, and thank you for stopping by my blog today! It's interesting we each zeroed in on Basinger covering relatively obscure films -- I liked how you put it, "proudly indifferent to things like Netflix availability or name recognition." That's great! And Basinger doing this is so important -- I like to think of it as sort of "keeping the torch burning" so these lesser-known films aren't forgotten.

    I also got a kick out of her liking MR. AND MRS. SMITH, one of my favorite sort of "guilty pleasure" movies of recent years. I've seen it more times than I dare admit, LOL.

    Enjoyed your thoughtful comments on the book! Looking forward to her next topic, whatever it may be!

    Best wishes,