Reviews — From the August 2013 issue

The Commitments

Love and marriage at the movies

Discussed in this essay:

I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, by Jeanine Basinger. Knopf. 432 pages. $30.

Before Midnight, directed by Richard Linklater. Sony Pictures Classics. 108 minutes.

Couples speak their own language, an invented tongue that deepens or dies out over time. Couples in the movies must convince us of this, their culture of two, whose hidden etymologies extend far below what is said or shown. It is a task undertaken in the hope of making love real for an audience; but not too real, not so real as to spell out in full what exists privately and provisionally — a vocabulary as feathered and elusive as a bird of paradise dancing, under some distant jungle cover, for his mate. A viewer should only pick up the accent, recognize its counterpart in her own life, perhaps even find some relief from whatever silence or tangled syntax is waiting at home.

Real but not too real, writes Jeanine Basinger in I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, is how we like our on-screen romance. Marriage, a somewhat other story, is both the driver and the obstacle of much romantic narrative. In her discussion of the marriage movies generated by Hollywood, Basinger identifies a central paradox: the best ones satisfy both the desire for marriage and the desire to escape marriage.

Beginning in 1934, one of those desires had a clear mandate. A clause of the Motion Picture Production Code (known as the Hays Code), enforced as part of a Catholic-driven campaign to clean up the cinema and ward off government censors, stated that in any Hollywood movie, “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.” Over the previous two decades, Hollywood had developed its own, equally clear perspective on the matter, knocking out a spate of silent comedies, Basinger writes, that “presented marriage as hell.” For storytellers under the Hays Code, the only thing worse than hell was a happy marriage. What’s the point of a picture where love and sex, the movies’ dirt-flecked, dangling carrots, have already been peeled and paired with house vinaigrette? “Embrace happy marriage in real life,” Basinger quotes Frank Capra as saying, “but keep away from it onscreen.”

Basinger devotes the bulk of her book to the Hays Code period, roughly the 1930s through the mid-1960s. The cover photo is a black-and-white publicity still of James Stewart and Carole Lombard taken for their 1939 film Made for Each Other. The couple are in profile, their eyes cast toward an unseen horizon, ahead and slightly up — Stewart amenable to what he sees, Lombard ecstatic in key-lit surrender, head back, lips parted, hair breaking down her back in sculpted waves. You might not guess, given the photo’s richly shadowed glamour, that Made for Each Other was, as Basinger suggests, a new kind of marriage movie, one designed to be “realistic.”

The quotes are Basinger’s, and they come and go throughout her rough articulation, in I Do and I Don’t, of the real and the realistic in marriage movies. It’s often said that only those two people sharing a relationship know its real story, but anyone who’s been one of those two people might point out that such knowledge is far from guaranteed. The pursuit of what’s realistic on-screen, then, begins from a point of flat impossibility, and presses on — one might say romantically — with that in mind. And yet marriage stories, in reflecting a social contract whose terms and clauses are well known, require a certain correlation with the world. It was with movies like Made for Each Other that Hollywood began to engage directly with a subject that until then had served as a pretense for broad comedy and cautionary tales. “To find dramatic purpose,” Basinger writes, the marriage movie

had to become negative about itself in a positive way. It had to both link to and escape from reality, and it had to remember that the audience already knew its secrets.

Stewart and Lombard are already married when we join them, just two kids in a crowded New York City apartment, taking on malignant bosses, meddling in-laws, money woes, health crises, children, and other grave disappointments. They struggle to the point of a split, and there ask the question Basinger says is posed by every “true marriage movie”: What happened to us? The idea is that the audience both does and doesn’t know; it’s a question traditionally resolved without the benefit of a real answer.

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is the author of This Is Running for Your Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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October 2019