I find it somewhat fitting that, as the Supreme Court of the United States considers marriage equality, I finished up film historian Jeanine Basinger‘s latest book, I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies. In her incisive, encyclopedic work, she takes readers through the history of “marriage movies” from the silents to today and deftly reveals their cultural implications, the ways in which they serve as windows into what marriage meant, and has come to mean, to so many filmmakers and film-watchers.
I Do and I Don’t, like all of Basinger’s books, is full of her signature wit and wisdom and is yet further evidence of her ability to synchronize so much of American film history. Even though she traces a chronological path through film history from the silent through the studio to the modern era, she is able to bounce back and forth between these eras to draw stunning comparisons between films separated by many decades and their accompanying social changes. Perhaps the only drawback to Basinger’s book is that it devotes a significant portion of its attention to the studio era, giving less to the silent and modern eras. Of course, this is not a surprise given that this period of film history certainly lies in Basinger’s wheelhouse. This book will obviously appeal to film lovers, be they practicing or armchair historians. It will also be an interesting read for those interested in the on-going conversations around gay marriage/marriage equality…or to observers intrigued by those who continue to vehemently point to marriage as some sort of penultimate, historical social contract. As Basinger shows, Hollywood hardly ever portrayed it in such a light. That audiences flocked to films that, as Basinger points out, essentially told the same story over and over, perhaps reveals that many members of the viewing audience really didn’t either. As a fan of Basinger’s work, I recognize that I’m a bit biased, but I Do and I Don’t is one entertaining read that I highly recommend. Read on for a few more of her insights if you’re interested.
Hollywood’s reticence to label a film a “marriage” film, even when it was the central plot point and often emphasizing comic or “erotic” elements is certainly telling, as are the ways in which marriage itself was frequently portrayed in these films. Basinger writes, “The bottom line was that the marriage movie was a difficult story to both tell and sell, because to find dramatic purpose, it has to become negative about itself in a positive way. It had to both link to and escape from reality, and it had to remember that the audience already knew its secrets” (xxvii). Of the three eras that Basinger covers, the silent era seems to be the most straightforward. I say seems to be because marriage in these films was often depicted as a problem to be overcome. One of the more interesting filmmakers of this era was Cecil B. DeMille, who most contemporary viewers remember for his lush biblical epics. However, during his prime, he was far more famous for his “marriage movies” that boasted glamorous production values and a wealth of sin that was morally tidied up at the end. As Basinger puts it about films like DeMille’s, “A story about infidelity unfolds, confirming an audience’s real-life knowledge about what might go wrong in a marriage, as well as giving them a glimpse of licentious freedom” (11). Or more harshly put, “[Audiences] were willing to pimp marriage out as an excuse to see clothes and furniture and places they would never see any other way” (19).
In the second part of her book, Basinger turns her attention to the studio era, which happens to be the most interesting section. Here, she consistently argues that viewers did (and must continue to) pay attention to the subtexts that ran throughout marriage movies: “Underneath every movie story runs another story, and it often contradicts or questions the one on the surface” (31). One might quickly sum up the subtext: marriage is awful/no it’s not, or marriage is awesome/no it’s not. For Basinger, the “I Do” movie marriage is one in which a couple meets, falls in love, marries, undergoes hardship, but ultimately affirms their love for one another. The “I Don’t” version…well…you can probably guess what happens in these. The marriage movie became so “formulaic” during the studio era that Basinger is able to boil it down to three consistent components: the couple, their problems, and their situation (81).
Throughout the majority of the second section, Basinger analyzes each of these components through hundreds of films. In terms of the film couple, she analyzes the way(s) in which they often “meet cute,” their suitability for each other, how they get along, etc. While this might seem to be a rather simple analysis, Basinger writes, “[…The] simple definition of a married couple is that they are husband and wife. For the movies, though, they also need to be something more metaphoric or emblematic” (85). As such, marriage movies were often perfect vehicles for “star pairings” which relied extensively on audience familiarity with the stars married to one another on screen…and often off as well.
Basinger also identifies seven problems that movie couples consistently faced: money, infidelity and/or adultery, in-laws and children, incompatibility, class, addiction, and murder (132-133). Her discussion of infidelity in marriage movies is just fascinating. Basinger writes, “Some of the movies’ most beautiful and memorable scenes involve infidelity. […] Infidelity was everywhere onscreen, which is really fascinating, since, because of censorship, technically it couldn’t be anywhere at all (unless someone was going to die and pay for it)” (147). American filmgoers liked to disavow the existence of class structures in the United States about as vehemently as they would public deny their interest in infidelity. Movies, once again, provided the perfect escape: “The story of a marriage was an excellent way to fulfill the goal of discussing class without discussing class, and to tell an audience that they were upwardly mobile” (187).
Marriage movies feature a married couple facing a wide array of problems set in different situations. For Basinger, the situation was essentially the setting against which these couples are married and in which they face their troubles. Few situations influenced marriage movies (and real life marriages) as drastically as the time during and after World War II. (Post)War-time marriage movies actively (re)defined the nature of that relationship and its composite “roles” even as real-world couples were engaged in the same task.
Towards the end of the second section, Basinger begins making comparisons between marriage movies and sitcom marriages and discusses the ways in which the latter began to dominate the discussion. This helps lead her smoothly into the modern era where, today, according to many observers, television stands on equal footing with cinema. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Basinger lists Friday Night Lights’ lead couple, Eric and Tammy Taylor, as one of the most “successful,” honest portrayals of “movie marriages.” She writes, “The ‘big seven’ problems that I could clearly identify in marriage movies didn’t swamp the Taylors or interfere with their daily lives. […] The Taylor marriage was a marriage not governed by genre rules or assaulted by plot development” (331). A disappointing reality of this third and final section, however, is its revelation that there is, essentially, no there there. Contemporary marriage movies talk about the institution at length but never arrive at any conclusions. Others simply re-tread old themes that have been treated better in studio era films. That marriage has so clearly declined in importance across a wide swatch of society (divorces are rampant, people are waiting longer to get married, couples have children out of wedlock, etc.) is a point to which Basinger repeatedly returns in this section. What Basinger fails to point out are the benefits that marriages bestow on couples in terms of legal and financial rights and privileges, the very things that are so often abused in marriage movies and for which so many people are fighting today.