Marriage In The Movies: A Look At Hollywood's Phantom Genre

Jeanine Basinger has been happily married for 45 years, so she knows a lot about how to make a marriage work. Basinger, the founder and director of the Film Studies Department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, also knows a lot about marriage movies, and what makes them work.

"People in the audience are familar with marriage, whether they are married or not, so it's a problem if it's just too fake," Basinger says."If their problems are solved too early, if there is no serious problem, if they do not behave the way married people actually behave."

Moviegoers' familiarity with the concept of marriage is a blessing and a curse: Audiences can relate to the concept immediately, but they also can spot what's phony a mile away, and they won't tolerate fantasy in the way they'd tolerate it in another genre.

In her new book, "I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies" (Knopf; 395 pp., $30), Basinger meticulously dissects just about every American movie from the sound era that is about marriage. That, all by itself, proved to be a challenge.

"Marriage just isn't there in the history of film in the way that other genres are. It's kind of a phantom genre, the genre that dare not speak its name," says Basinger, whose previous books were about the film "It's a Wonderful Life," silent stars, the star system, women's movies, World War II combat films, Shirley Temple and Anthony Mann. "When you do historical research through the advertising materials or movie magazines of the past ... films are all clearly labeled by genre. ... But there is no marriage film.

"People went to the movies to escape and have fun and excitement or maybe a sad ending where they could cry, a story that takes them out of their lives in some way. But marriage is the only story that the audience knows better than the filmmakers. Hollywood felt ... they needed to sneak up on the audience a little bit ... to tell the marriage story in a kind of covert way."

Marriage Themes Buried

Basinger found that film marketers, aware of audience familiarity with the concept, buried marriage themes in promotional materials.

So for example, the poster for the 1934 version of "The Painted Veil," which is about a marriage derailed by infidelity, plays up the casting of Greta Garbo — "the star whose flame fires the world!" — and makes no mention of marriage. The poster for the 1939 drama "Made for Each Other" prominently displays its stars, Carole Lombard and James Stewart, and promises "heartbreak, laughter, melodrama." Inconspicuously, down in the corner, is a small photo of a baby. The 1941 drama "Penny Serenade" hid its central message — that some marriages are doomed without children — under pretty music, flashy subplots and great casting, including Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.

Basinger also found that movie lovers she talked to often didn't know what a "marriage movie" is. She gave as an example a film such as "The Thin Man." That movie series, about a married couple who solved crimes, isn't a marriage movie but a whodunit.

"The average person talking about a film is not a historian or critic or analyst. They're just an average person. They remember what they remember. With 'The Thin Man,' you remember William Powell and Myrna Loy as the husband and wife. Who ever remembers the plot of a detective movie?" she says. "It's a triumph of stardom that they remember, but those films are not about marriage."

Still, marriage is all over the film scene. After spending three years watching movies and plowing through reams of misleading advertising and promotional materials, Basinger zeroes in on hundreds of movies, bad and good, whose plots are about marriage, marriage and only marriage.

These movies have common conflicts that set husbands and wives against each other: money, infidelity, in-laws and kids, class differences, incompatibility (competition, control or communication), addiction and, most ominous, one's desire to murder the other. Also, marriage movies can be divided in two groups: the "I do" movies, about a marriage, and the "I don't" movies, about divorce.

"Dodsworth," from 1936, starring Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton, is an example of both, the story of a long marriage that finally, slowly and sadly falls apart. "The marriage does not endure even though it has endured for years. When Dodsworth sells his auto factory, he's very rich. He and his wife take a Grand Tour to Europe and everything changes," Basinger says. "It tells the story of a couple who had never really understood one another or communicated to each other. ... Removed from its small-town cocoon of regular life, it just completely falls apart."

Another great marriage movie is "The Marrying Kind," the 1952 comic drama starring Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray. The story begins in divorce court and moves backwards, to discover the answer to the ultimate question hovering over every divorce movie: "What happened to us?"

"It's hilarious and deeply touching. There is a lot of honesty in it," Basinger says. "Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray are a Hepburn and Tracy for the masses." Another marriage movie that gets high praise is "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge," the 1990 drama starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, which "depicts a steady relationship that has no real communication between its couple," Basinger writes in her book. Another excellent marriage movie is "Two for the Road," a 1967 Audrey Hepburn-Albert Finney road movie about a couple and their troubled 10-year marriage.

The Ideal Couple

Basinger says that the best model for a married couple in American movie history isn't a married couple at all, but the comic team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

"They are together. They know each others' moods and rhythms. They are a pair who has accepted each others' flaws. They move through the world and they bicker and are cranky. But let something threaten the two of them from the outside, and they pull together instantly and go on the attack," she says. "They endure. They are side by side in completely unified action."

In the modern day, the sexual revolution took a lot of steam out of another genre, the romantic comedy, slowly crippling that genre and strengthening the footing of marriage movies. But at the same time, in the last few decades, TV has stepped up strongly in honest depictions of married couples, in ways that movies are incapable of.