The cover of Jeanine Basinger's I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies features Carole Lombard and Jimmy Stewart in a still from Made for Each Other (1939) and, boy, is it gorgeous. Each star with their ambiguous facial expressions, sensual proximity, and debonair dress, the image speaks to an embodiment of classical Hollywood and its underlying ethos of subtle subversion masquerading as affirmation. In fact, much of Basinger's new book consistently functions in this manner, as one cannot help but be enveloped by the 139 stills and illustrations that so vividly render the period, almost to the extent that Basinger's prose becomes secondary. Although Basinger claims that her aim—defining historical parameters for explicating depictions of marriage in the cinema—must necessarily revolve around content, the physiological qualities of this particular period of Hollywood cinema holds more resonance than the narratives proper. Discounting a romanticized view of the period runs the risk of stripping away its seductive nature and its ability to transform the domestic; after all, isn't this a primary motivation for watching a film about two human beings in love? To have the resonance of daily human contact and interaction transcended through cinematic time and space?
If this initially seems a roundabout way to discuss Basinger's book, it's because her treatment of the subject is too straightforward for more provocative taste. Rather than historicizing with a revisionist eye, Basinger takes a more traditional historical approach, placing film after film within different or overlapping taxonomies. Much like fellow film historian David Bordwell, her writing is strong, the vision clear, but the parade through periods and themes of filmmaking is more soporific than enlivening, since the categorizations read as matter of fact, instead of being motivated by reaching audacious ends.