When I decided to write a book about how the movies depicted marriage, I knew I was taking on an unfashionable and unwieldy subject, but I wanted to explore how commercial movies told the story of marriage and used it to draw audiences into theaters. In selling their movie dreams, Hollywood studios understood that the best way was always to connect as directly as possible to the audience's real-life experience, but then draw them up and out of it and into a dream world. First, the friendly reality...then the luxurious escape hatch. Start with a poor little girl working in a department store or a box factory--preferably some "poor little girl" like Joan Crawford. Take her out of that store upward and onward to furs, jewels, penthouses, caviar, champagne and Clark Gable. (Now you're talking "audience values.")
A tale about marriage, however, was a story in which film-makers could not easily dictate an escapist path. It was the dangerous intersection where movie-makers and movie-goers faced off as equals. These movies were talking to an audience who knew the subject, knew the subtext, knew the reality, and there was a limit to what they'd believe, and also to what they wanted to be told. Whenever a marriage came onscreen, it needed to be linked to questions that audiences could clearly recognize as issues in their own lives. (Who wears the pants? Did you choose the right mate? Do you have enough money? Are you keeping your marriage vows? Do your in-laws interfere? Can you trust each other? Do you want a divorce?)
Marriage became a screenwriter's nightmare. It was a finish line, not a starting place. It had no built-in story arc. It just went on, day after day, month after month, year after year. ("Marriage ain't a party dress," Beulah Bondi warns Joan Crawford in The Gorgeous Hussy. "You gotta wear it mornin', noon and night.") To tell a story about it, a problem would have to be created to threaten, destroy, undermine, question or somehow subvert the status of wedded bliss. Mates would have to die. Houses would have to burn down. Wars would have to sweep over cozy and secure little worlds. Lovers would have to betray, turn mean, to be replaced by new lovers. Children would have to disappear, never appear, die or run away.
A marriage movie would have to sell disappointments to be credible, but it would have to bring uplift at the end to sell tickets. Screenplays had to make a marriage kill itself--and then find a way to rush in with some trumped-up emergency, wipe the blood off, and resuscitate it. (No wonder Frank Capra once said, "Embrace happy marriage in real life, but keep away from it on screen.")
For over three years, I watched a constant stream of movies that were either about marriages or had marriages somewhere in them. (One of the biggest problems I had was deciding what was actually a marriage film and what was another kind of film, but with an interesting marriage in it. For instance, Penny Serenade (1940) is fundamentally about domesticity, day to day, and thus is a marriage film. The Thin Man series are whodunits with a sexy married relationship: plenty of cocktails and kisses, but very little domesticity.)
The bottom line of what I learned was that the marriage movie was a difficult story to tell and to sell, but the business found a way for it to become negative about itself, but in a positive way, to both link to and escape from reality, to ask real questions, and then tear off for some glamorous shenanigans. This both reassured audiences and entertained them.
Movies ignored marriage and embraced marriage, the topic was everywhere and nowhere, the genre that dared not speak its name, the ghost that hung over the happy ending of every romantic comedy. As a subject, it existed to be achieved (jolly comedy, great love story), destroyed (death, murder, tragedy) or denied (divorce). If it was achieved, the movie was over. If it was destroyed, it was no longer there, gotten rid of and abandoned once and for all. If it was denied, it was only temporarily shelved (for some fun) and could be reassuringly restored. The more I studied it, the more I realized the history of marriage in movies was an example of how audiences and filmmakers influenced each other, reflected each other, and defined each other. It was also an example of how the movie business solved a story problem by embracing contradiction. "I do," the marriage movie said. And also, "I don't." I decided that it was that very contradiction and complexities that made the marriage film worth writing about.
Jeanine Basinger is the author of I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies.
Mr. Dodsworth has just sold his automobile factory, and Mrs. Dodsworth has packed for a glorious European vacation. They've got money (plenty of it), good health, and all the time in the world. As they are soon to realize, however, they are two people going in different directions. He's ready to take it easy, but she's raring to go, having had her fill of ladies lunches, bridge games and garden clubs. She's looking for the excitement he's already had, but she won't be looking for it in automobile factories. Dodsworth is a mature story about a dutiful couple who acted out a happy marriage by the rule book society gave them, only to end up bewildered and alienated.
The Marrying Kind has location shooting in the streets of New York and two stars you can believe are real people, Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray, a Hepburn and Tracy for the masses. Their story begins in the divorce court. ("Our marriage is not a sick one," they tell the judge, "it's a dead one.") Through flashbacks, with a seamless blend of comedy and tragedy, Holliday and Ray show that it's hard to make a go of it when there's no money, a cramped apartment, and a real tragedy to live through. They are shattered by life and luck, but in the end they manage to hang on to their love. It's pretty much all they have.
It's a peculiarly melancholy truth that audiences like movies about marriages in which one member, usually the husband, is trying to kill the other one. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why this plot appeals. A classic example is Gaslight, in which Charles Boyer is trying to drive Ingrid Bergman mad (a variation of the theme). Boyer is seductive, handsome, clever and manipulative. Bergman is innocent, beautiful, radiant and vulnerable. He's also cruel, and she's also naive. As events unfold, Bergman (who won an Oscar for her performance) slowly changes from a confident woman aglow with love into an uncertain wraith, confused, insecure, frightened and pathetic. And all because she married the wrong man.
In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the battle of the sexes goes nuclear. The story is a clever twist on a familiar situation. Two people wed immediately after a hot, whirlwind courtship, and six years later, they are bored and indifferent. Each is in for a surprise. Although he's a "big-time contractor" and she's a "Wall Street success," they're both secretly something else: a top-of-the-line assassin with a stash of deadly weapons, his in the garage and hers behind the oven. Forced to redefine their relationship, they find compatibility in killing people and blowing things up. As a comment on marriage, this movie is downright brilliant. (Its stars have been together ever since, even though, perhaps significantly, they have never actually wed.)
Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney are the epitome of a swinging sixties couple: modern, sophisticated and witty, but they could be Blondie and Dagwood if the Bumsteads drove a Mercedes, lived in Europe, ate foie gras instead of meatloaf, and were casual about their wedding vows. Their story is still a marriage movie. Wed 12 years, Hepburn and Finney bicker their way back and forth across time, calling each other "bitch" and "bastard," soldiering on in a marriage that manages to endure in a world that no longer values its original ideals. (Bonus: Fashionistas can see Hepburn upgrade from blue jeans and a red sweater to the very best Givenchy could hang on her skinny frame.)
The universality of marriage is well illustrated by this superb Iranian film. Although it's about the clash between traditional customs and attitudes in modern Iran, it is also a movie about marriage. The setting may be strange, but the domesticity is familiar. There are two marriages, each with familiar problems: quarrels with in-laws, issues of control, difficult children, basic incompatibilities, money shortages, et.al. A Separation tells an audience what decades of American marriage movies have also told it: in a marriage, who knows what or who to believe? What brought these people together in the first place, and who knows what any of it really means? Marriage, it seems, is an international mystery.
If I had to select only one Hollywood movie about marriage, this is the one I would pick. Not because it's the best, not because it's the most original, and not because it's the most honest, but because it's the most typical. It sums up the genre, finding that sweet spot of deception that Hollywood marriage movies could always locate. It tells the truth (this couple have no money, no future, a sick kid, and the mother-in-law from hell) and it also lies (but they're Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard, so that mother-in-law will repent and a charitable airplane will fly in serum for the dying child). This isn't your life, audience, but take your mate out to the movies tonight and pretend that it is.