Break up to make up

Clas­sic films’ real­is­tic and ridicu­lous por­tray­als of mar­riage.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book­world@wash­ Charles Matthews is a writer and ed­i­tor in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

I DO AND I DON’T A His­tory of Mar­riage in the Movies By Jea­nine Basinger Knopf.395 pp. $30

Most of us give mar­riage a try at least once, and about half of our at­tempts, ac­cord­ing to di­vorce statis­tics, end in fail­ure. So films about mar­riage should pro­vide a blend of the fa­mil­iar and the con­flicted that movie mak­ers and au­di­ences love.

Yet as film his­to­rian Jea­nine Basinger ob­serves in “I Do and I Don’t,” the “mar­riage movie” isn’t com­monly re­garded as a genre in it­self. It’s usu­ally frag­mented into sub­gen­res such as the “sit­u­a­tion com­edy” (e.g., “Adam’s Rib,” in which hus­band-and­wife lawyers Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hep­burn square off in court) or the “domestic drama” (e.g. “Dodsworth,” in which Wal­ter Hus­ton and Ruth Chatterton face a midlife mar­i­tal cri­sis). Where Basinger’s book is most use­ful is in help­ing us see the the­matic and struc­tural pat­terns that unite such movies with scores of oth­ers. Where her book is most provoca­tive is in sug­gest­ing the ways in which mar­riage movies both re­flect and shape our at­ti­tude to­ward mar­riage it­self.

Most of Basinger’s book fo­cuses on the pe­riod from 1934 to 1968 dom­i­nated by the Pro­duc­tion Code, which pro­claimed: “The sanc­tity of the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage and the home shall be up­held.” The “wig­gle room” in this dic­tum, Basinger ob­serves, al­lowed film­mak­ers “to shape mar­riage as sad, doomed, and threat­ened from many di­rec­tions, but able to be brought back to life at the end to, ev­i­dently, re­spect the ‘sanc­tity’ of the in­sti­tu­tion.” As a re­sult, “the mar­riage film is . . . a great ex­am­ple of how au­di­ences liked to be lied to about things they knew from their own lives.”

One of Basinger’s paradig­matic mar­riage movies is “Made for Each Other” (1939), star­ring James Ste­wart and Ca­role Lom­bard as a cou­ple who marry in haste and spend the rest of the film in not-so-leisurely re­pen­tance, ha­rassed by, among oth­ers, Ste­wart’s dis­ap­prov­ing mother. Things go from bad to worse un­til Lom­bard asks, “Oh, Johnny, what’s hap­pened to us?” This is, Basinger ob­serves, “a key ques­tion al­ways asked by the true mar­riage movie.” Lom­bard and Ste­wart de­cide to split up, but a cri­sis, the ill­ness of their child, brings them back to­gether and even al­lows Lom­bard to form a bond with her bat­tle-ax of a mother-in-law. “This pat­tern of pre­tense to­ward hon­esty, capped off by ex­ag­ger­ated res­o­lu­tion, was the ‘I do’ mar­riage movie pat­tern. Af­firm, ques­tion, reaf­firm, and re­solve.”

Then Basinger jumps ahead al­most 30 years to di­rec­tor Stan­ley Do­nen’s “Two for the Road” (1967), in which “the au­di­ence is asked to re­al­ize that a happy mar­riage is not only elu­sive but prob­a­bly also an il­lu­sion.” Fred­eric Raphael’s script gives us “the story of a mar­riage in a world in which mar­riage has grown un­nec­es­sary, fea­tur­ing a cou­ple adrift in­ter­na­tion­ally in a world of easy money and sex.” Au­drey Hep­burn and Al­bert Fin­ney quar­rel and break up and have af­fairs and re­unite, though they’re still quar­rel­ing at the end of the movie. But they’re to­gether, just as Lom­bard and Ste­wart were. “Two for the Road” fits the pat­tern of “Made for Each Other”: “Af­firm, ques­tion, reaf­firm, and re­solve.”

Basinger’s sur­vey of mar­riage movies of the Pro­duc­tion Code years takes in dozens of films through­out which one theme pre­dom­i­nates: “that mar­riage is all most cou­ples will ever have: it will be chil­dren, a home, and each other.” When trou­bles come, they have one or more of th­ese causes: money (too much or too lit­tle of it); in­fi­delity (e.g., David Lean’s “Brief En­counter,” which Basinger says “may be the finest adul­tery movie ever made”); in-laws and chil­dren (as in “Made for Each Other”); in­com­pat­i­bil­ity (con­flict­ing ca­reers, a need to con­trol, a fail­ure to com­mu­ni­cate); class (mar­ry­ing “out­side your tribe, your age group, or your own so­cial level”); ad­dic­tion (drugs and al­co­hol); and mur­der (“When you marry a mur­derer, your mar­riage is in trou­ble,” as Joan Craw­ford, for ex­am­ple, finds out by mar­ry­ing Jack Palance in “Sud­den Fear”).

But when the code col­lapsed and was re­placed by a rat­ing sys­tem, movies were no longer forced to hold mar­riage sacro­sanct: “Sud­denly mar­riage it­self be­comes the equiv­a­lent to crush­ing poverty dur­ing the De­pres­sion or drug ad­dic­tion in the 1950s. It’s hope­less, it’s un­fair, and it’s a sit­u­a­tion that can’t sus­tain you, and that you can’t sus­tain.” As an ex­treme con­se­quence, we get what Basinger calls “nu­clear mar­riage” movies, such as “The War of the Roses” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” in which cou­ples, played by Kath­leen Turner and Michael Dou­glas in the former and Brad Pitt and An­gelina Jolie in the lat­ter, do their damnedest to kill each other.

In our age, the mar­riage movie has given way to TV se­ries that fo­cus on mar­riages, such as “Mod­ern Fam­ily.” The shift be­gan in the early days of tele­vi­sion with sit­coms like “The Donna Reed Show,” “Fa­ther Knows Best” and “I Love Lucy.” To­day we re­gard the first two as sen­ti­men­tal pe­riod pieces, while “I Love Lucy” re­mains a clas­sic. Basinger shrewdly ob­serves that through the show’s slap­stick rou­tines, “au­di­ences could feel the real ten­sion in Lucy and Desi’s mar­riage ... and de­cide . . . that here was a real mar­riage, and also know that, at their core, the mar­riages of Donna Reed and Robert Young were false.” Basinger also cred­its tele­vi­sion with one of the most “hon­est and nat­u­ral” por­traits of a mar­riage in ei­ther film or tele­vi­sion, that of the Tay­lors, played by Kyle Chan­dler and Con­nie Brit­ton, on the se­ries “Fri­day Night Lights.”

Com­pre­hen­sive and clev­erly writ­ten, Basinger’s book is not only a nec­es­sary ad­di­tion to our un­der­stand­ing of movies about mar­riage, but it’s also a re­fresh­ingly clear-headed book about mar­riage it­self.


Au­drey Hep­burn does the work of push­ing while Al­bert Fin­ney, play­ing her hus­band, stays at the wheel in a scene from “Two for the Road.” Like other movies in the Pro­duc­tion Code era, it had to up­hold the “sanc­tity” of mar­riage.

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