I Do and I Don't Book Review - Then Again, You Should!

Here’s my book review of I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies by Jeanine Basinger. Basinger is professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, my alma mater, and during her tenure there, she’s been mentor to many of the Hollywood filmmakers who are today referred to as the Wesleyan Mafia. She is one of the most influential of our present-day film historians.

I Do and I Don't by Jeanine Basinger (Knopf)

I Do and I Don’t is a critical survey of studio pictures from the silent era up through recent times. Movies in America were formally censored during the ’Thirties and ’Forties, the main reason that even into the ’Fifties, all screen married couples slept in twin beds. The rich ones had separate bedrooms, perhaps for other reasons. But Basinger emphasizes that Hollywood’s view on marriage evolved over the decades for primarily commercial reasons – to appeal to the people – most of them women – who bought tickets.

Mack Sennett's silent film Fatty and Mabel Adrift, 1916 (Wikimedia)

First off, if you’re considering writing a screenplay about your happy marriage, forget it. Even before the talkies, moviemakers understood that happy couples are just plain boring. Conflict is drama, as Aristotle once said. And the most hilarious romantic comedies are the same, with the volume turned way up.

Prof. Jeanine Basinger (Bill Burkhart)

Basinger tells us that marriage movies are rooted in problems, including money, infidelity, children, illness, death, and forced separation.

In every era, the studios were skilled at giving the audience what it wanted but might not admit – namely stories about their secret fears and suppressed desires. In the movies, any misbehavior, any sin, any abusive behavior can be indulged in, as long as the responsible party is punished before the lights come back up. That way, the audience can leave the theater feeling both satisfied and self-righteous.

Classic rom-com Adam's Rib (Warner Home Video)

Take for example George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib, in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are trial lawyers married to each other and squared off as opposing counsel on the same case. In the famous massage scene, Tracy gives Hepburn a playful slap. She takes it the wrong way, and the scene ends as she gives him a swift kick in the ankle. If that movie were made today, you know her aim would be higher.

Gerald Everett Jones (Gabriella Muttone Photography, LaPuerta Books)

Gerald Everett Jones is the author of Bonfire of the Vanderbilts and host of the GetPublished! Radio show.

Listen to the podcast of this review:

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