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.