I Do and I Don't“The more I studied it, the more I realized that although marriage was indeed a very difficult topic to locate and identify in movies, its history was an example of how audiences and filmmakers influenced each other, reflected each other, and defined each other.” (xxviii)

Jeanine Basinger, Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University and author of the new book I Do and I Don’t: a History of Marriage in the Movies, seems to have seen every movie ever made. Divided into three sections, ‘The Silent Era’, ‘Defining the Marriage Movie in the Studio System’ and ‘The Modern Era’, Basinger’s work seamlessly and knowingly guides us through cinema’s past, looking for Hollywood’s answer to the marriage question: why? Why indeed? Well… Basinger doesn’t really know, and neither does anyone else, seemingly. Because there isn’t a why, because there’s just a because. How do you sell a ‘because’ to American movie audiences, how do you sell domesticity? How do you make ninety minutes out of what constitutes the closing scene of countless Hollywood rom-coms? Well… it turns out you can’t, not really – unless you stick it in the background of something more exciting, something with more blood, more sex, more laughs. And Hollywood is skilled at doing this. Audiences know what it’s like to be married, they know its days and nights, they know how it ends. Thus, Basinger tells us, movie studios since the early days distrusted this and were unsure of how to sell marriage to the general public. Yet just because the marriage film, as its own genre, was not a common one, didn’t mean that Hollywood wasn’t speaking to it all the same. To find cinema’s voices, to locate its various opinions on marriage, turns out to require a lot of investigating, a lot of digging around, and a lot of film watching. If we can trust any film scholar to do this to the full, and with immense wit so as to make reading the findings enjoyable, it’s Jeanine Basinger.

Author of highly-acclaimed book The Star Machine amongst others, Basinger suggests certain criterion, certain questions that we can ask that will determine whether a film is a marriage film or not, of which there turn out to be incredibly few. One major question is whether the film’s story still would exist if the presence of a marriage were to disappear. And once a film is proven to be a marriage film, is it told through a marriage, the “I do” method, or through a divorce, the “I don’t”. Basinger further elaborates on what a marriage film is by listing and addressing the common story conflicts that occur within them. Usually, the marriage is found in the plot goal of a film, or, a married couple serves as the main characters of the story and so their marriage comes into play within it. We are provided with seven categories of marriage film problems: money, infidelity/adultery, in-laws and children, incompatibility, class, addiction, and my personal favorite, murder. She begins by discussing the desire of early marriage-believer audiences to see their real-life commitment endorsed on screen, by viewing stories that depicted marriage as a positive rather than a negative, and goes on from there.

The content of I Do and I Don’t is high in quality; Basinger uses film upon film, from every one of Hollywood’s decades to prove her points, and the progression of her ideas is logical and persuasive. What distinguishes this particular reading experience, for this reader at least, is Basinger’s tone: it is at once personal yet warmly authoritative. One gets the feeling that she can’t be fooled by anything, even though she respects that the essential goal of storytelling is to momentarily fool its audiences. Her writerly voice is also extremely funny, some moments causing the reader (well, this one at least) to laugh out loud. The film synopses, given in one or two lines that precede the succinct and thought-provoking analyses Basinger provides, are so witty and clear that the films at hand, no matter how many decades have passed since they were made, are made to seem fresh and relevant.

After the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936)

After the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936)

One slight low note of the work is a case of a strength being so strong that it becomes a weakness: Basinger’s film knowledge is so vast, her ability to make references so great, that at some moments, it is quite possible to confuse some of the titles she mentions and momentarily lose track of her train of thought. This goes hand in hand with another slight low note of lack of organization: the book’s three chronological sections make sense, but within them, there is not always a clear line of reasoning beyond the individual examples of films at hand. While the arguments Basinger makes are strong, they would be more so if better divided, other than the marriage film problem division she uses for some of the middle section (i.e. “Addiction,” “Murder” etc.).

Upon the book’s conclusion, the reader is left with a sense of having been exposed to a topic that has been, up until now, a largely undiscovered country in terms of film studies: the marriage film. One might wonder, too, why now would be the ideal time to dive into the field; after all, do people even get married anymore? Is it still an issue? Of course they do, and of course it is, and perhaps now is exactly the right time to reaffirm the issue of marriage in art as an issue still relevant of study. If we can learn anything by studying marriage on film in 2013, it is perhaps that marriage is a way of putting realistic and personal context upon stories on the big screen. Characters fight in wars, plan murders, seek out financial success, and many other things, and these pursuits may assume a majority of a film’s screen time. But to give these stories more realism and more relatability on the part of the viewer, marriage is more often than not, weaved into these stories. The eternal ‘because’ of marriage could offer stability, however temporary, amidst a film’s various unpredictable twists and turns. And isn’t this what marriage does in reality? Basinger proves by example (i.e. dozens and dozens of films) that marriage, although deemed unexciting by studios, was often placed in the backgrounds of films’ plotlines, and it is so often present throughout the history of cinema, that it demands further evaluation. I Do and I Don’t is undoubtedly a key contribution to this research journey and will ideally spark future attention in the next generation of Film Studies scholars.

Jeanine Basinger, I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012).

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About The Author

Jude Warne recently earned her BA in cinema studies and art history from New York University. She currently works at NYU Stern School of Business and is earning her MA in humanities and social thought at NYU. Her hero is A.O. Scott of The New York Times.