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.
Nevertheless, these initial complaints aren’t meant to suggest the book lacks by way of interest; far from it. As an historical addition to classical Hollywood filmmaking, the amount of titles discussed and revisited are staggering. Basinger claims to have spent three years watching films for the explicit purpose of writing this book, and it shows. An excellent opening chapter cunningly explains how the silent era established an inextricable link between subject and viewer, primarily through character types and strong thematic conviction. Lengthy discussions of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915) and D.W. Griffith’s The Battle of the Sexes (1928) help establish these initial bonds for viewers that “liked to sit in the dark and observe marriages as sexy, rich, glamorous, and exotic.” Nevertheless, these films and their characters weren’t simply high-order escapism, but surrogates for audiences to play out their own marriage/relationship highs and woes.
If the focus thus far seems curious for a book whose title implies discussion of the topic beyond simply Hollywood cinema, the concern is warranted; very little attention is given to international cinema beyond singular films from maestros like Truffaut, Bergman, and Ozu. Even here, discussion is limited to beginner levels, as the writing assumes a reader’s unfamiliarity with the films: “Where Bed and Board is a soufflé, Scenes from a Marriage is a blood pudding. It’s intense.” In what amounts to just a handful of pages, Basinger essentially parallels these films to their North American counterparts, seeking to understand if “these marriage problems are unique to America?” and arrives at the all-too easy conclusion that “marriage films transcend cultural differences.” Instead of exploring world cinema at length, the bulk of Basinger’s work is devoted to defining exactly what constitutes a marriage film and then considering various films through thematic ties, such as money, infidelity, and class differences. Each of these topics (along with four others) receives their own sections, with Basinger providing examples and relatively detailed explanations for each one and its presumed attraction and effect on viewers. Analysis ranges from informative and witty (“The marriage of Nick and Nora Charles was the one most moviegoers coveted. The one with the cocktails, the furs, the noisy parties, the fun, the excitement—and all the money”) to unnecessarily cheeky (“One of the great lessons of the ’class’ marriage movie is for mothers in the audience: don’t send your sons to New York to bring home a straying sibling. It’s like war—you can end up losing all your boys”). Moments such as this make the book feel less than revelatory.
If Basinger’s methodological means lack revelation, they’re compensated through several canny observations, mostly related to on-screen personas. She aligns Abbott and Costello, in their failure to communicate, as offering a riff on the marriage template. Though such homoerotic elements were made explicit in action movies of the past couple of decades, Basinger is deft in providing this link, which suggests buddy movies as derivative of the marriage film (now wouldn’t that be a book!). Likewise, her excellent pages on Brief Encounter (1947) as the ultimate infidelity movie—only without actual infidelity—read like an historian set on finding curious links and bonds through revisionist close-readings.
The final, relatively brief section is devoted to contemporary Hollywood cinema and its disavowal of the marriage film, where “marriage becomes increasingly irrelevant or used as a background conceit.” Instead, the marriage narrative became more suitable for television, derived from 1950’s shows like Father Knows Best and I Love Lucy. Basinger devotes a few pages to discussions of Friday Night Lights and Modern Family, deeming the former “one of the finest shows ever presented on marriage.” The book ends on a rather lukewarm note, claiming that “in over one hundred years of filmmaking, the marriage movie flatlined…but somehow never died,” a claim which doesn’t receive sufficient explication in the concluding chapter. From this somewhat unsatisfactory end, it becomes necessary to call for a book that’s not so quick to dismiss the formal qualities of these fantasy-charged social representations—an endeavor that would undoubtedly fuel the fine work Basinger has provided here.
Jeanine Basinger’s I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies will be released on January 29 from Knopf. To purchase it, click here.