Marriage is familiar and what people go to the movies to escape, so filmmakers have never captured it well
Once upon a time, I decided to write a book about marriage in the movies, and I had no idea that might prove to be a problem. Both Molly Haskell and David Thomson told me it would, but I didn’t listen. I had even been warned about it by filmmakers. (Frank Capra said, “Embrace happy marriage in real life, but keep away from it onscreen.”) I had read research in which executives such as Sam Briskin, RKO’s production chief, complained about the married couple in John Ford’s “The Plough and the Stars”: “Why make a picture where a man and woman are married? The main thing about pictures is love or sex. Here you’ve got a man and woman married at the start — who’s interested in that?” I didn’t pay any attention. I just wanted to write a book about marriage in the movies.
I started out by asking friends and colleagues to tell me their favorite marriage movies. In almost every case, they stared at me blankly and had no answer. A few imaginative souls came up with the “Thin Man” series or “The Awful Truth,” but that was about it for the suggestion pile. Of course, the “Thin Man” movies and “The Awful Truth” aren’t really marriage movies; they have marriages in them, but that doesn’t make them marriage movies. “The Thin Man” is about a detective who solves murders. He has a wife, and she tags along, looking extremely chic, and the two of them are utterly charming together whenever they cohabit the screen. But the movies are not about marriage per se; they are about who murdered whom while other guests at the table were dining on breast of guinea hen. As for “The Awful Truth,” it’s a delightful screwball comedy in which a married couple gets divorced in the first few minutes and spends the rest of the movie romping around and insulting each other until they fall in love all over again. There’s no domesticity on display.
In short, no one came up with a list of real marriage movies for me. But why? Why weren’t people bombarding me with titles, the way they’d always done with every other subject, whether I wanted them to or not? I knew perfectly well that movies told stories about marriage. Starting my research, I read the original reviews of hundreds of movies in Variety and the New York Times and combed through my extensive collection of vintage movie posters, magazines, pressbooks, and reviews from the era of the studio system.
The first thing that struck me came as a surprise. In plot terms, there were relatively few sound movies that were only about the state of being married. And even though fan magazines such as Photoplay ran monthly columns (“Brief Reviews”) designed to give readers a quick reference guide to plot types, there was no generic category designated as “marriage movie” (“domestic drama” sometimes, but never “marriage movie”).
This advertising practice was consistent. The September 1939 issue of Photoplay indicates how clearly (and easily) the guidelines worked: “Dodge City” (Western); “Bridal Suite” (madcap comedy); “Big Town Czar” (gangsters); “Clouds Over Europe”(mystery); “Back Door to Heaven” (social-message picture); “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (propaganda); and “The Wizard of Oz” (musical fantasy). (Variety also identified movies by type. “As Husbands Go”  was “a drawing room comedy-drama.”) In these columns, any movie built around a big-name star was identified as such (“a Shirley Temple film” or “the latest Deanna Durbin”), or even as imitative of a successful star (“a Sonja Henie film without Henie”). Sometimes movies were defined by other movies (“kind of a ‘Mr. Deeds’” or “another ‘Informer’,” because “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” was a box-office hit and “The Informer” was an Oscar winner). But there was no “marriage movie,” and advertising conformed to this practice.
For example, the 1951 film “Close to My Heart” is a marital soap opera in which a husband (Ray Milland) has a serious conflict with his wife (Gene Tierney) over adopting a child. Magazine ads feature a large picture of Milland and Tierney, his lips hovering over hers in a hot embrace. Shown full-face, Milland looks suave and handsome, and Tierney, in profile, looks willing and submissive. The tag line says, “This thing called love … and the wonderful things it makes happen … There’s the best reason in the world for everybody to see this picture: It’s great and makes you feel great!” Nobody’s doing the dishes, taking out the garbage, changing any diapers, or mentioning “marriage.” Down in the corner, however, there’s a very small photo of Tierney holding a baby. Beside it runs the line: “We’re not going to tell you how Danny fits into this picture … Let’s simply say that he’s one of the reasons that moviegoers of every age, everywhere, have taken ‘Close to My Heart’ close to their hearts.” Looking at this ad, potential ticket buyers would inevitably focus on the hot-looking Milland and Tierney. As to that kid hovering way down in the corner — why is he there? Are Milland and Tierney by any chance married? The ad writers are not going to be the ones to tell us.
Movies about married couples were almost without exception sold as “love” or “romance” instead of “marriage.” Romance was the motion-picture cash cow, but any kind of misdirection would do. In “The Homestretch” (1947), a couple marry outside their own class backgrounds and suffer for it. (“Your kind of romance!” said the poster.) In “Over 21″ (1945), a middle-aged pair struggle with the changes World War II brings to their marriage. (“Theirs is the kind of fun that makes the world go round!”) “An Innocent Affair” (1948; also known as “Don’t Trust Your Husband”), starring Fred MacMurray and Madeleine Carroll, tells a discouraging tale of imagined infidelity, but it was sold as “a saucy, glossy comedy.” In “Rachel and the Stranger” (1948), in which William Holden purchases and weds an indentured servant (Loretta Young), the story was marketed as “an unusual pioneer picture”; and when a postwar GI (Holden again) and his youthful, pregnant wife (Jeanne Crain) can’t find housing or enough money to live on in “Apartment for Peggy” (1948), the movie ads claimed that the story had “humor, wisdom and sentiment.” No mention of marriage woes and pressures. Even “Pitfall” (also 1948), a film noir in which a husband (Dick Powell) strays, shoots a man, and messes up his relationship with his wife, was disguised as “a strong domestic drama.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning Best Film, “Rebecca” (1940), based on Daphne du Maurier’s famous book, featured an unlikely marriage, a possible murder, and a mansion haunted by an ex-wife. Ads told would-be audiences that the film was about “a man … a young girl … gloriously in love … a great dramatic romance.” “The Very Thought of You” (1944) was a World War II release starring Dennis Morgan and Eleanor Parker, a tender story of the problems a young couple encounter when they marry after a brief courtship just before he ships out. The film conveys an honest wartime sadness that adds up to a depressing portrait of a dysfunctional American family, but the ads trumpeted happily: “Want to see one great big honey of a picture about Rookies and their Cookies? … Here’s a screenful of huggin’ and kissin’ where every hug and kiss feels like it’s meant for you! Want to have some — what we mean — fun?” Perhaps the ultimate in deception in movie advertising was for “Madame Curie” (1943). Boasting the presence of “the romantic stars of Mrs. Miniver” (Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon), the prevue trailer describes the wedded union of the Nobel Prize–winning scientists Pierre and Marie Curie as “a strange journey into the unknown … the love story of the most exciting woman of her day.” No mention of radium, science, or the Periodic Table of Elements.
Even when the subject was implied in the film’s title, the ads misdirected. “Father Takes a Wife” (1941) is a story of a wealthy older man (Adolphe Menjou) who weds a famous actress (Gloria Swanson) over the objections of his grown-up children. “There’s glamour on the screen again because Gloria’s back!” the advertising campaign claimed. The film was categorized as “romantic comedy” and variously described as “hilariously amorous … about two lovebirds … a screaming comedy.” “Marriage Is a Private Affair” (1944), starring Lana Turner, was dubbed “a wartime romance” in movie review columns, though it’s actually the story of a hasty wartime marriage that goes on the rocks. The sales poster featured a very large (and beautiful) drawing of the luscious young Turner at the peak of her new stardom. Under her name in giant letters is the film’s title in a smaller type. The tag line says, “It’s So Romantic!” and a corner box notes Lana’s 35 costume changes.
When a movie really absolutely was a marriage film and nothing else, the advertising still skirted the issue. The 1940 movie “Penny Serenade,” starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, is the story of a marriage gone on the rocks; it’s a marriage movie if there ever was one. Yet Photoplay labeled it “a romantic love story … a Dunne-Grant co-starrer.” The original sales trailer made for a Clark Gable/Myrna Loy/Jean Harlow film about marriage, “Wife vs. Secretary” (1936), also totally avoided its main subject. “In this gay story of love and laughter,” says the copy, “which one did he choose?” — there’s no mention of the fact that he’d already chosen one of them several years before the story began. “Wife vs. Secretary” was sold as “an ultra modern story about three people in love.”
Reading about these movies, and noting how they avoided the label “marriage,” I remembered back to when I worked in a small-town movie theater in the early 1950s. We showed up at 5:45 p.m. to pop the corn, vacuum the rugs, lay out the candy bars, set up the ticket machines, and prepare to open the house at seven. My job was always to answer the phone and wrangle the 20 or so chatty calls about that night’s “show” (as we called it). Nobody needed to ask what time the feature started. It had been starting at 7:30 p.m. — in boiling heat, torrential rain, and below-zero cold — for well over 25 years. Callers had only two questions: “Who’s in the movie?” and “What kind of movie is it?” They weren’t hard to answer. All I had to do was nail down the star (Betty Grable = songs, legs, and Technicolor) or the genre (Western = horses, guns, and cowboy hats) and I was home free. Stars and stories were all I needed to know.
As I thought about those days and those conversations, I realized that there was one word I had never used in explaining or selling a movie: “marriage.” I never described a “show” as a “marriage movie.” What’s more, neither did anyone else. I didn’t remember — then or now — anyone claiming they’d just seen the latest “marriage movie” or “the best marriage movie ever made.”
Why would everyone — in both the movie business and the audience — want to avoid the label “marriage”? Marriage was presumably everybody’s business. People were either born into one, born outside of one, living in one, living outside of one, trying to woo someone into one, divorced from one, trying to get divorced from one, reading about one, dreaming about one, or just observing one from afar. For most people, it would be the central event — the biggest decision — of their lives. Marriage was the poor man’s trip to Paris and the shopgirl’s final goal. At the very least, it was a common touchstone. Unlike a fantasy film or a sci-fi adventure, a marriage story didn’t have to be explained or defined. Unlike a Western or a gangster plot, it didn’t have to find a connection to bring a jolt of emotional recognition to an audience. Marriage was out there, free to be used and presented to people who knew what the deal was. Perfect!
But evidently not so perfect. Capra and Briskin and the movie ad men were onto something. Marriage, after all, was the known, not the unknown: the dull dinner party, not the madcap masquerade. It was a set of issues and events that audiences knew all too well offscreen. Unlike the wide-open frontier of the Western, offering freedom and adventure, or the lyrical musical, with its fantasy of release through singing and dancing, or the woman’s film, with its placing of a marginalized social figure (the woman) at the center of the universe, or the gangster movie, with its violent excitement and obvious sexual freedom, the marriage film had to reflect what moviegoers already had experienced: marriage, in all its boredom and daily responsibilities.
Although marriage seemed at first glance to be a natural movie story form, I began to realize that it wasn’t that easy to deal with. Indeed, even on the simplest level, a marriage story was a screenwriter’s nightmare. Telling the story of a marriage meant somehow being able to unlock a secret — the vast mystery that explains what She sees in Him and why He should put up with Her. Such a movie had to show what happens when a couple close their doors at the end of the day and the unexplained dynamic between them — partly about sex, which couldn’t even be shown — would unfold. And there were bigger problems. When most marriages go downhill, it’s because the partners, for whatever reason, have begun to turn against each other. Screenplays, therefore, 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.
Marriage was both a rigid social contract and a state of mind. When turned into a movie, its goals became restrictive and evasive. They were hard to quantify and demonstrate. “Happiness” may seem like a straightforward goal for a story’s characters, but only if they’re moving toward it, not when they’re supposed to be already there. Happiness is no easier for a film to define and pursue than it is for an individual in real life. Unlike a war film, a marriage film couldn’t win. Unlike a woman’s film, it didn’t offer an adventure or experience of freedom that most women couldn’t achieve in real life.
Worst of all, marriage had no story arc. It just went on, day after day, month after month, year after year. Marriage took time, and movies had no time to give to it. A good movie was usually a story in a hurry — good pacing being one of its best characteristics. Marriage took years to develop and mature. Novels could be written about marriages, and plays could crystallize their tensions into significant scenes of dialogue; but movies … what were movies to do in 90 minutes?
Excerpted from “I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies” by Jeanine Basinger. Copyright © 2013 by Jeanine Basinger. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Jeanine Basinger, a professor of film studies and founder and curator of The Cinema Archives at Wesleyan University, is the author of (among other books) "The Star Machine," "Silent Stars" and "I Do And I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies." More Jeanine Basinger.
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