Jeanine Basinger knows a thing or two about marriage. After all, the genial chair of film studies and curator of the cinema archives at Wesleyan University has been married to the same “saint of a guy” for 45 years.
And after screening “marriage movies” for three years, the film historian knows even more about the subject on screen. The result: a witty, dense and exhaustively researched study of how Hollywood portrayed married life for more than 100 years.
“I Do and I Don’t” is not a heavily foot-noted academic tome. Rather the author, currently at home on sabbatical in her native South Dakota, has written irresistibly about movie stars, movie stories and movie business strategies.
An unabashed fan, Basinger writes for lovers of movies who want to talk about them. That’s why, she told the American-Statesman by phone, she made sure that many of the films mentioned in the book may be seen on TV and DVD.
But when the author of nine other books, including the award-winning “Silent Stars,” decided to write about marriage in the movies, film scholars Molly Haskell and David Thomson warned her away from the thorny topic.
Yet “the complexities and contradictions” of matrimony cinema were what made Basinger want to write about it. And her entertaining history shows how audiences and filmmakers have shaped, mirrored and defined each other on the subject.
When she asked friends and colleagues for titles of their favorite marriage movies, the professor says, “They just stared at me. Almost always someone came up with ‘The Thin Man,’ but that’s a detective, not a marriage, movie.”
None could come up with a list of honest-to-god marriage movies. Judging from this 384-pager illustrated with movie posters, stills and ads, the author did. But to her surprise, she found relatively few sound movies solely about married life and even fewer as time went on.
Almost without exception, she discovered that Hollywood sold movies about married couples as “love” or “romance” films — the industry’s cash cow. If marriage, which audiences knew way too much about off-screen, wasn’t mentioned in ads, there’s “a constant yammering” about wedded life throughout film history. Much is negative and astonishingly misogynistic.
“Movies present courtship as a battlefield and marriage as a field of dead bodies after the war is won,” Basinger writes. “Bickering is an Olympic sport for married people in the movies,” and a true marriage film always asks the key question: “What happened to us?”
In “Janie Gets Married” (1940), Robert Benchley says, “Marriage is being locked in a box car with a mad horse.” And when in “Trapeze” (1956) Katy Jurado tells Burt Lancaster, “Some day you’ll find the right woman and get married,” he snaps back: “Nobody finds the right woman.”
Silent films presented marriage as a familiar situation, and audiences accepted it that way. The concept even appeared in titles like “A Little Band of Gold” and “Fatty and Mabel’s Married Life” (1915) with Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, one of Hollywood’s first mismatched married couples.
Before talkies, comedy, spectacles and cautionary tales characterized the marriage movie. Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Cheat,” about a wife who loses a charity’s money gambling on Wall Street and borrows from a rich Oriental who brands her bare shoulder before she shoots him, was so popular it was made three times between 1915 and 1931. What’s fun is that the veteran Basinger doesn’t hesitate to render an opinion such as: The British film “Brief Encounter” may be “the finest adultery movie ever made” (even though there’s really no sex) and “The most lifelike movie example of a real married couple is … surprise! Laurel and Hardy.”
Also she asserts that “one of the best courtship scenes in any marriage film is in “The Facts of Life” (1960) between old pros Lucille Ball and Bob Hope while “one of the best portraits of a married relationship that has been seen in the motion picture” is that of F.B.I. jefe J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and co-worker Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) in the biopic “J. Edgar” (2011).
Basinger, author of the companion book for PBS’ 10-part series “America Cinema: One Hundred Years of Filmmaking,” delves into how studio marriage films dealt with the poverty of the Depression, the prudish Production Code, which declared marriage sacrosanct, World War II when 11 million men left home in 1942, the coming of TV with family sitcoms and the sexual revolution.
A marriage movie staple was The Couple. Using University of Texas professor, film historian and author Thomas Schatz’s term “genius of the system,” Basinger details how studios created pseudo-marriages (dubbed “love teams”) like Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake as Blondie and Dagwood that the public took to heart.
And, of course, The Couple had one or more of seven Problems: Money (“Money kills love. ”); Infidelity and Adultery (“Someone will get the itch, and it probably won’t take seven years.”) and In-laws and Children (”The movies clearly teach the ideal mate would be an orphan.”).
Then there were Class Differences (“…marrying uptown brought trouble”); Incompatibility (“He eats a potato, and she eats a po-tah-to.”); Addiction (Audiences preferred celebrity to ordinary addicts.); and Murder (“Women just don’t see it coming.”).
If “the marriage movie flatlined … but somehow never died” in more than a century of filmmaking, Basinger salutes the superb ones like “Dodsworth” (1936) and such performances as Joanne Woodward’s in “Mr. And Mrs. Bridge” (1990) that depict married life with complexity and depth.
Ironically, one of her favorites comes not from the big screen and Hollywood but from TV and Texas: “It’s possible that there’s never been a more honest and natural marriage portrayed on film or TV” than that of Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton) in ‘Friday Night Lights.’”
“I loved that show, and I loved that marriage,” Basinger says. “I really believed they were married.”
I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies
Alfred A. Knopf, $30