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I Do and I Don't
Cover of I Do and I Don't
I Do and I Don't
A History of Marriage in the Movies
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From one of our leading film historians and interpreters: a brilliantly researched, irresistibly witty, delightfully illustrated examination of "the marriage movie"; what it is (or isn't) and what it has to tell us about the movies--and ourselves.

As long as there have been feature movies there have been marriage movies, and yet Hollywood has always been cautious about how to label them--perhaps because, unlike any other genre of film, the marriage movie resonates directly with the experience of almost every adult coming to see it. Here is "happily ever after"--except when things aren't happy, and when "ever after" is abruptly terminated by divorce, tragedy . . . or even murder. With her large-hearted understanding of how movies--and audiences--work, Jeanine Basinger traces the many ways Hollywood has tussled with this tricky subject, explicating the relationships of countless marriages from Blondie and Dagwood to the heartrending couple in the Iranian A Separation, from Tracy and Hepburn to Laurel and Hardy (a marriage if ever there was one) to Coach and his wife in Friday Night Lights.
A treasure trove of insight and sympathy, illustrated with scores of wonderfully telling movie stills, posters, and ads.



From the Hardcover edition.

From one of our leading film historians and interpreters: a brilliantly researched, irresistibly witty, delightfully illustrated examination of "the marriage movie"; what it is (or isn't) and what it has to tell us about the movies--and ourselves.

As long as there have been feature movies there have been marriage movies, and yet Hollywood has always been cautious about how to label them--perhaps because, unlike any other genre of film, the marriage movie resonates directly with the experience of almost every adult coming to see it. Here is "happily ever after"--except when things aren't happy, and when "ever after" is abruptly terminated by divorce, tragedy . . . or even murder. With her large-hearted understanding of how movies--and audiences--work, Jeanine Basinger traces the many ways Hollywood has tussled with this tricky subject, explicating the relationships of countless marriages from Blondie and Dagwood to the heartrending couple in the Iranian A Separation, from Tracy and Hepburn to Laurel and Hardy (a marriage if ever there was one) to Coach and his wife in Friday Night Lights.
A treasure trove of insight and sympathy, illustrated with scores of wonderfully telling movie stills, posters, and ads.



From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    In the silent-film era, movies told the story of marriage straightforwardly, as a familiar situation--and audiences cheerfully accepted it as such. The idea that marriage might be unappealing at the box office, or perhaps a depressing plot development, didn't seem to exist in the same way it did later, in the studio-system years. Silent-film makers presented marriage as something audiences could and would recognize, and therefore enjoy seeing on the screen. In embracing the subject, they had available current history, past history, imaginary history . . . different tones, attitudes, moods . . . myriad events and characters . . . the works. Although it was a rigid or fixed social event, marriage could still be used flexibly. It could be the main event, the comic relief, or the tragic subplot. And, of course, it could always be linked to the surefire box-office concept of love.

    Unlike in later decades, many silent movies openly carried the concept in the title: The Marriage of William Ashe (1921); The Marriage Maker (1921); Man, Woman, Marriage (1921); The Marriage Chance (1922); Married People (1922); The Married Flapper (1922); The Marriage Market (1923); Marriage Morals (1923); The Marriage Cheat (1924); Marry in Haste (1924); Married Flirts (1924); The Marriage Circle (1924); Marriage in Transit (1925); Marry Me (1925); The Marriage Whirl (1925); Married? (1926); Marriage License (1926); The Marriage Clause (1926); Marriage (1927); Married Alive (1927); Marriage by Contract (1928); Marry the Poor Girl (1928); The Marriage Playground (1929); and Married in Hollywood (1929); etc. And this doesn't include titles with the words "bride," "groom," "wife," and "husband."

    The marriage film found its basic definition in the silent era, and had no trouble doing so. Why would it? All anyone had to do to tell a story about marriage was to present a couple in love, get them married in the first scene (or open with them already married), set them up in a home of some sort, give them a recognizable problem, make the problem worse, and then resolve it. Couple, situation, problem, resolution: this is the pattern silent audiences saw and embraced, and their responses to it were clear. They would laugh at it. Or they would cry over it. Silent films were a beautiful art, and they were never simpleminded, but many of them often presented marriage in a basic mode, happy or sad. They went bipolar: raucous comedy or stark tragedy.

    Both types could be shaped into cautionary tales. The comedy version provided audiences with release as they laughed at their own problem in a safe form, and the tragic one warned them things could be much, much worse. In other words, the pattern for stories about marriages was simple enough: Was it going to be a yes or a no version? Was it "I do" or "I don't"? Would it divert or warn?

    This "bipolar" approach to the basic setup (couple, wedding, home, problems) was a useful business discovery. It was one thing to treat marriage as a joke--that was predictable. The really significant thing was to accept it as a failed enterprise. Once it became clear that viewers had no trouble accepting the idea that marriages could turn into problems, that romance could fail, movies could show marriage as a disappointment without offending married couples. Up there on the screen, marriage didn't have to be sacred. Entering a movie theater apparently was an absolution. Long before they had arrived in their seats, boy had met girl, boy had got girl, and boy had married girl. That part was over, and they apparently felt it was now okay for all hell to break loose on the screen. Nosy...

About the Author-
  • JEANINE BASINGER is the chair of film studies at Wesleyan University and the curator of the cinema archives there. She has written nine other books on film, including A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960; Silent Stars, winner of the William K. Everson Film History Award; Anthony Mann; The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre; and American Cinema: One Hundred Years of Filmmaking, the companion book for a ten-part PBS series.

Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    December 15, 2012
    Exhaustive, entertaining take on how the silver screen has portrayed wedded bliss and wedded misery. Marriage was a problem for Hollywood and its main business of putting people in theater seats. True, it was familiar to the audience, but familiarity is not entertainment and escape. So Hollywood had the task of making the mundane exotic while still reassuring the audience that marriage was a good thing. The marriage film "had to become negative about itself in a positive way," writes noted film historian Basinger (Film Studies/Wesleyan Univ.; The Star Machine, 2009, etc.). Sin and tragedy might occur, but in the end, marriage would endure. With prose both light and irreverent--an irreverence often aimed at the ham-handed plot manipulations the genre would at times use--the author traces how filmmakers tried to achieve these dual purposes. With detailed synopses of films both great and not-so-great--from Gaslight and Adam's Rib to the Ma and Pa Kettle series--Basinger shows how a small number of plot devices or problems could be endlessly redesigned, reinvented and redeployed to both entertain and reassure. These problems might be realistic--money (too much or too little), infidelity, in-laws, incompatibility, class--or more far-fetched--addiction and murder ("When you marry a murderer, your marriage is in trouble"), but every marriage movie would have at least one of them. The main pleasure here is Basinger's explication of how the movies and stars of the studio system years made all this work. She also touches on how television took over the marriage story via the sitcom and how today's marriage films deny the closure and reassurance of their predecessors. A fascinating, fact-filled story of marriage and the movies.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    February 15, 2013

    Director Frank Capra once said, "Embrace happy marriage in real life, but keep away from it onscreen." Here Basinger (film studies, Wesleyan Univ.; The Star Machine) asks: What is a marriage movie, and how has its depiction evolved from silent cinema to the 21st century? She defines marriage movies as primarily focused on the couple's relationship, particularly the reasons why one marries, what makes a good partnership, and couples who do or don't work together. While they have over the years portrayed infidelity, addiction, even murder, studios have had to adjust to society's changing mores, production code censorship, and audience appetite for "star pairings." Basinger covers such diverse topics as screwball comedies, same-sex marriage, marriage on television, and nightmare visions of marital discord, such as in The War of the Roses. Some of the most perceptive treatments of marriage recently have come from abroad, notably the Oscar-winning 2011 Iranian film A Separation. VERDICT Basinger's thorough and lively popular history covers classics like Citizen Kane and Dodsworth while unearthing obscure and unjustly neglected films. This book is an excellent "viewer's advisory" to an often overlooked subject. Recommended.--Stephen Rees, formerly with Levittown Lib., PA

    Copyright 2013 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    December 15, 2012
    Film historian and biographer Basinger tackles a subject, marriage in the movies, that proved to be trickier than she'd suspected. Nailing down movies that are fundamentally about marriage, it turns out, is not that easy. The Thin Man, for example, is about a married couple, but it's not about marriage; on the other hand, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the Pitt-Jolie actioner, is, according to Basinger, one of the best and most original film commentaries on marriage ever made. The book is evenly divided between defining the marriage movie and exploring the evolution of Hollywood's handling of the theme: a movie like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), for example, with its frank discussions about sexuality and its daring-for-the-time intermingling of two married couples, probably couldn't have been made even a handful of years earlier. But, then, some of the earliest movies about marriage could be pretty daring, toowitness The Cheat, the story of a controlling husband and his unfaithful wife that was so popular it was made three times between 1915 and 1932. A thoughtful and insightful examination of one of film's most popular themes.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2012, American Library Association.)

  • O Magazine

    "A witty look at how films portray marriage, and how these onscreen contradictions mirror the institution itself."

  • Los Angeles Times "A breezy, fun excursion into Hollywood's presentation of matrimony . . . deeply personal."
  • The Boston Globe "Fascinating . . . The real fun comes from the splendidly crafted, creative, compelling critiques that make you want to see many movies again or for the first time."
  • USA Today "Written by the esteemed Wesleyan University academic and cinematic soothsayer Jeanine Basinger . . . an insightful account of how films have represented wedlock, both holy and unholy, through the years . . . Basinger has a gift for zeroing in on tantalizing details that bring a visual medium to readable life."
  • Salon "Lively . . . knowing and illuminating . . . Hollywood movies of the studio era were not, as Basinger takes pains to point out, produced by naifs. Many of them convey sophisticated references to sexual intercourse, prostitution, even homosexuality--if you know how to interpret them. That some of us still do is often thanks to popular scholars like Basinger . . . hilarious, spot-on."
  • Slant Magazine "[Basinger's] writing is strong, the vision clear . . . the amount of titles discussed and revisited are staggering . . . informative and witty . . . deft."
  • San Francisco Chronicle "A spikily opinionated voice congenial to a diverse readership: barbed observations for the casual fan and a hog heaven of footnotes for the tenure track cineaste."
  • Entertainment Weekly "Thanks to her impeccable research and thoroughly entertaining prose, Basinger provides a take on matrimony that is never less than fascinating. Nimbly moving through history, she illustrates the lengths to which Hollywood has gone in order to make the institution of marriage exciting enough to attract audiences looking for escapism . . . A riveting lesson in history and pop psychology, one that will appeal to film buffs of just about every stripe, not only those interested in happily ever after."
  • Kirkus "[An] entertaining take on how the silver screen has portrayed wedded bliss and wedded misery . . . The main pleasure here is Basinger's explication of how the movies and stars of the studio system years made all this work . . . fascinating, fact-filled."
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A History of Marriage in the Movies
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