I Do And I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine Basingerby Jeanine Basinger

ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4

Only rarely would the marriage film try to tell the audience directly, with no subtext, something married couples already know but not everyone wanted articulated: marriage and romantic love are not the same thing.

As a work of non-fiction, I Do And I Don’t occupies a peculiar space between academic and popular writing. Wesleyan University film professor Jeanine Basinger sets out “an overview of how commercial movies told the story of marriage” with the purpose of defining the “marriage movie” as a distinct genre, and particularly as a genre separate from romantic comedy. Basinger watched over three hundred films, and reviews more than a century of cinematic history, beginning in the silent era (with a strong focus on the work of Cecil B. DeMille), placing a heavy emphasis on the studio system in the middle of the book, and concluding in the modern era with an aside into television. As Basinger herself acknowledges, although there are moments of critical analysis, the work is largely descriptive in nature, and lacking in sufficient in-text citation (though it has an extensive bibliography) to be considered scholarly. Arguably, however, this focus on description is permissible because Basinger is seeking to define a genre, which she does by providing clear qualifications and numerous examples. The significance of defining marriage movies as a separate genre is largely implied rather than discussed, but simply creating a clear definition of the genre provides a strong basis from which future film critics can develop the idea.

Although not perfectly scholarly, I Do And I Don’t is not your average work of popular non-fiction either. Those without a strong interest in either film history or cultural representations of marriage will be likely to find the long lists of examples extremely tedious. Film buffs on the other hand, will come away with a long list of movies worth watching. Basinger isn’t afraid to highlight her lesser-known favourites, or criticize titles or performances she believes are overrated, showcasing her incredible knowledge of American cinematic history (don’t skip the footnotes in this one).  The less scholarly tone also frees Basinger to unleash her sense of humour, and marriage movies provide plenty of low-hanging fruit, even leaving romantic comedy aside.

The key question asked by the marriage movies, and defining Basinger’s genre is “what happened to us?” Basinger provides seven answers, which are the key the marriage movie plot. Ranging from most to least realistic, they are money, infidelity, family, incompatibility, class, addiction and murder. They also solve the problem of how to portray marriage in the movies, which has an inherent challenge in that “marriage had no story arc. It just went on, day after day, month after month, year after year.” Without these issues to impose a problem-structure story arc, marriage simply wasn’t interesting. Even with these issues, the idea of a “marriage movie” was not deemed appealing. Hollywood has a long history of conflating marriage and romance, using the “love story” to sell movies that were hardly romantic, as Basinger demonstrates by reviewing movie posters and film advertisements that assiduously avoid using the word “marriage.” Overall, Basinger paints a clear and detailed picture of a film industry that simultaneously provides contradictory images of marriage, “selling love” on one hand, and “knocking marriage” on the other.

 

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