I can’t give you the exact numbers, but a vast amount of entertainment today revolves around marriage; whether it’s the act of getting married, detailing what happens while one is married, or how people are affected by the death of a marriage. Yet, there’s not a defined genre entitled “marriage movie.” Author Jeanine Basinger seeks to answer what is it about marriage that fascinates, and dominates our entertainment, and what do movies ultimately say about our need to put a ring on it. I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies is probably my favorite book I’ve read this year. I haven’t read Basinger previously, but I’m determined to read her other published works. She not only details the history of marriage in the movies, and the genre she labels “the marriage movie,” but inspires you to find and enjoy these types of films. My ClassicFlix queue grew by at least 80 movies after reading this book. You don’t have to be a film major to pick up this accessible history, but it will make you question the next film couple you see.
Ever since movies were made, marriage has been the easiest thing to throw into a plot. It’s sitting down to codify and analyze it that presents the problem. What is it about marriage and married life that audiences find so compelling, and yet screenwriters can only recycle a handful of issues? Basinger asserts that audiences go to the movies to find catharsis, and by seeing the sins of a marriage (adultery or addiction) we can feel better about being married, or not. Similarly, we’re also rewarded by seeing depictions of beautiful stars, beautiful homes, and idyllic relationships…if only for a brief time.
I Do and I Don’t is broken up in to three basic sections covering the silent era, Hollywood under studio rule, and the modern era. As the work moves forward through time, Basinger asserts the basic tenets of a marriage movie: the couple, the problems, and the situation. Each is further broken down into its parts and explored. Basinger excels at keeping the tone light, many of these films are comedies after all, and presents plenty of examples from popular culture. There’s no verbose words, or long, winding discourses on theory. This is a book that anyone can pick up and discover how Hollywood has shaped relationships.
It’s easy to discover that marriage hasn’t changed, even if the technology and the country have. During the 1930s, we saw the rise of the flapper, and the struggle for women to assert their sexuality. A key portion of the text is devoted to how women were portrayed in the 1940s during World War II. Women were at a threshold; forced to go to work and receive a taste of freedom only to hand it back to the men once the war was over. I Do and I Don’t doesn’t focus solely on film as the 1950s sees the rise of the sitcom and the supposed perfection of the nuclear family. The title comes off as a misnomer in this section, but Basinger gives quite a bit of page space to those classic black and white television shows, specifically I Love Lucy and The Donna Reed Show, that strengthens her assertions.
Obviously, the book explores the dichotomy in women themselves, and the movie industry’s give and take attitude towards them. A woman can be unfaithful and die, while a man can do the same thing and find a way to make his wife happy and be forgiven. When Basinger explores couples, we see how the various problems they face can change the entire tone of the film. Marriage movies about addiction are usually dramas or thrillers, whereas money problems or infidelity could span both tragedy or comedy. Of course, the distinction is that Hollywood could only treat serious topics, like addiction, seriously. The screwball comedies of the 1930s didn’t have worries about money, as they generally swirled around the wealthy; this would change though with the rise of WWII. Marriage concerns like infidelity, miscommunication, and incompatibility have wormed their way into every genre under various guises. The sheer amount of combinations is mind-boggling, and yet audiences continue to eat them up.
Basinger previously wrote a book about the star machine, and Hollywood’s ability to create star personas, so it makes sense that she would delve into the effect marriage movies had on the “star couple.” Prime examples of this would be the pairing up of William Powell and Myrna Loy, or Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon; couples who worked together so well, fans felt they just had to be married in real life (seen in the case of the obsessive devotion of Powell/Loy fans). These pairings worked in favor of the marriage movie, as they reestablished ideals about marriage, hidden under the guise of beautiful stars who were big box-office draws. The idea of celebrity and marriage go hand-in-hand, and I can only imagine what Basinger would say about the role of marriage in celebrities off-screen.
I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies is an exhaustive (but by no means exhausting) look at marriage in entertainment. I would have appreciated some exploration in the role of same-sex relationships, and that’s really my only nitpick about the work. She mentions the movie The Kids Are All Right which was a studio effort to depict same-sex marriage, but never sufficiently explains the future of marriage movies with it. Other than that, the book is flawless. I couldn’t put it down, and that hasn’t happened to me in a while. The book has strong momentum, and never gets bogged down in minutia. I recommend reading it, whether you dream of being a bride or are content to be a bridesmaid.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.