Jeanine Basinger-I Do And I Don't
Knopf Publishers

          Jeanine Basinger is a rare film scholar who brings to her subject the enthusiasm of a lifelong fan. She’s not afraid to write conversationally, punctuating her thoughtful points with often-hilarious asides. And while it’s clear that she loves movies of Hollywood’s golden age, she can view them from two viewpoints simultaneously—as a moviegoer of the period when they were made and as a savvy film buff of today. This is what makes I Do and I Don’t so enjoyable to read. It lacks the dry tone of a dissertation or the panoply of footnotes that mark most scholarly tomes, but it charts new territory in the study of American cinema and makes us think about films we thought we already knew. If that isn’t scholarship, I don’t know what is.

          In her introductory chapters, Basinger explores the fact that no one  categorizes domestic dramas or comedies as “marriage movies” and seeks to understand why. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Hollywood sold audiences  romance but not marriage, even though that was the ostensible goal of most romantic stories. She then identifies the ingenious formula that Cecil B. DeMille created and propagated in such famous silent films as Don’t Change Your Husband, The Affairs of Anatol and Why Change Your Wife.

          “Cecil B. DeMille brought glamour to the cautionary tale,” Basinger writes. “With a title like Why Change Your Wife he didn’t waste any time putting up the safety net. He used a set of opening title cards to denounce divorce, in case anyone should misunderstand. And then he proceeded to interest everyone in the topic by having his leading man and woman do it—and divorce was a scandalous choice at that time… He gave the marriage movie goals. He elevated the couple and their home into wealth way beyond the audience’s wildest ideals, but remembered to ground their problems in the ones anyone could have. He linked their broken dreams to escapist living conditions, then shattered their security, and ultimately restored it by reminding them that what those people up there on the screen did was not for them out in Peoria. DeMille united comedy, caution, and clothes…and he nailed down the pattern of serenity, chaos and restored order that wouldn’t be abandoned by marriage movies for decades to come.”

          She later refers to his canny commercial formula as “Give ‘em what they want, then take it back and say it’s naughty, but you can come again tomorrow for a little more.”

          In the bigger picture, she cannily identifies Hollywood’s use of subtext, especially during the period following the enforcement of the Production Code: “Stifled by censorship pressure, eager to attract and hold on to the very widest possible audience, moviemakers shrewdly hinted, covered up, misdirected, double-talked and became vague. They’d show what they wanted to show in the way they wanted to show it, and then deny it in dialogue if necessary. Underneath every movie story runs another story, and it often contradicts or questions the one on the surface. This skill was very useful in tales involving marriage, particularly in the years of censorship. It allowed movies to deny love and still confirm it, to indicate sex but never show it, and to say marriage was hell but we should all want and respect it.”

          Throughout this entertaining book Basinger cites specific films, both famous and obscure. She even brings her narrative up to the present day, while admitting that the “marriage movie” has all but disappeared in recent decades, a reflection of major changes in our society. (She also neatly dismisses what passes for entertainment in at least one arena thusly: “The romantic comedy was a movie staple in the 1930s. It was meat-and-potatoes filmmaking, a form that Hollywood could practically do in its sleep… whereas today it’s apparently the most difficult challenge for moviemakers. Alas, they keep on trying. Romantic comedies today are called ‘romcoms.’ This is perhaps the explanation of why they’re no good: we can’t even bring ourselves to say the two words. We have no faith in either category, much less the unification of the two. The ‘romcom’ is just about what its name suggests: something truncated, cut down, and therefore diminished. ‘Romcom’ implies a little bit of love but not too much, and a little bit of comedy, but not too much (‘not too much’ being all they can give).”

          The text embraces the modern era and even acknowledges the influence of television, from the comically exaggerated (yet indelible) marriage of Lucy and Ricky in I Love Lucy to the naturalistic relationship depicted in Friday Night Lights. But the book’s beating heart lies in the golden age of Hollywood, and that’s where Basinger’s perceptive analyses resound most forcefully. The text is liberally illustrated with well-chosen stills from the films under discussion.

          I Do and I Don’t is both illuminating and entertaining, a rare combination for any serious film book. It just might change the way you look at movies of the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

          Full disclosure: Jeanine Basinger is an old and cherished friend, but I have no need to overstate my reaction to her latest book. I devoured it from cover to cover.

          I DO AND I DON’T: A HISTORY OF MARRIAGE IN THE MOVIES by Jeanine Basinger (Knopf)