"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 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 heart...how 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.