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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

          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.”

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

          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
. 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

          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.

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.


by Jeanine Basinger (Knopf)

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