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Bridal Showcase: How Hollywood weddings have captured the ever-changing role of women in American culture

How Hollywood has chronicled the woman in white.

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By Ann Hornaday
Sunday, February 7, 2010

Since the birth of cinema, movies have been besotted with weddings. Plug "wedding" into a keyword search on the film Web site imdb.com, and you come up with more than 2,157 hits -- happily, 500 more than the number for "funeral."

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And why shouldn't Hollywood love a good wedding? With its swirl of heightened emotions, its simmering leitmotifs of love and loss, fear and hope, all swathed in a frothy confection of pink roses, white butter cream and queen-for-a-day tulle, the wedding provides an irresistible trope, from the ditziest rom-com to the bloodiest gangster epic. It's a tiny three-act drama in microcosm (the incident-filledrun-up to the ceremony, the ceremony itself, the aftermath) that can give audiences insta-catharsis. And whether a marriage is meant to be or doomed to fail, there's something viscerally satisfying about a wedding, in all its reassuring ritual.

(And not just on the big screen: From "General Hospital's" Luke and Laura and Princess Diana in 1981 to the bride-zillas of today, weddings are surefire hits on television -- just wait until Jon and Kate get remarried.)

Over the years, Hollywood has provided us with film weddings -- and wedding-themed movies in which the main event remains tantalizingly off-screen -- that have stayed burned into our memories. And that staying power goes right to the heart of our cultural identity: We cherish them not just as classic examples of courtship at its most idealized but also as trenchant social commentaries. If they initially charmed audiences with gorgeous movie stars, dreamy romance and zany comedy, they endure because they're such revealing reflections of their times. And those refracted images aren't always dewy-eyed or romantic, especially when it comes to the women wearing the gowns.

Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section at the Library of Congress, says that although marriage was being portrayed as the bedrock of American society well into the 1920s, by the late part of the decade, cracks were beginning to show, echoing the economic insecurity that followed the big Wall Street crash.

"You get to the Depression, and it's like a switch gets flipped," he says. "You see so many films in which marriage is portrayed as a trap for men, and you see film after film about women chasing after men as a source of economic support. But love never enters into the equation." Mashon notes that the cynicism permeated every genre, from musicals such as "Gold Diggers of 1933" and "42nd Street" to hard-boiled gangster movies and such soignee comedies as "Dinner at Eight." In that 1933 movie, Mashon says: "Wallace Beery plays a powerful industrialist who needs a pretty thing on his arm, and Jean Harlow, his wife, needs to be kept in the manner to which she's become accustomed. But there's no love between them."

In what might be the most iconic wedding movie of the 1930s, "It Happened One Night," Claudette Colbert plays a madcap heiress who runs away from the film's climactic wedding scene, leaving her fortune-hunter groom to be with her true love, played by Clark Gable. The screwball idea of romance in "It Happened One Night" was to be found not in a traditional hearts-and-flowers wedding, but in its escape. That message was too subversive for Hollywood's voluntary Production Code, which started being enforced shortly after that movie was released. Censors began to crack down on what they perceived as Hollywood's unwholesome attitude toward matrimony, and marriage assumed its role in the movies as the unquestioned redoubt of all that was stable, normal and moral. By 1940, when Katharine Hepburn starred as the high-WASP princess Tracy Lord in "The Philadelphia Story," there was no question that the terribly sophisticated, slightly tipsy high jinks would end in a wedding.

In that film, the high-and-haughty Miss Lord is saved from marrying a self-righteous parvenu at the last minute by her suave, devil-may-care ex-husband, played by Cary Grant at his Cary Grantiest. The fun of the film is in the pre-wedding jitters and reversals, including a drunken flirtation between Tracy and a journalist played by Jimmy Stewart.

With its old-money Main Line setting and arch banter, "The Philadelphia Story" is all effervescent chatter and winking innuendo. But a few sober ironies float under the champagne bubbles. Hepburn, notorious in Hollywood for her prickly independence, had been declared "box office poison" by theater owners just two years before the film opened; she herself optioned the play as her comeback vehicle -- one in which her fierce autonomy is forcefully brought to heel. "Oh, Dexter, I'll be yar now. I promise to be yar. ..."

***

Hollywood wouldn't give audiences as memorable a movie wedding for 10 more years, with the comedy "Father of the Bride," in which Spencer Tracy plays the beleaguered father of incandescent bride-to-be Elizabeth Taylor. Ostensibly, the story had to do with a middle-aged man grappling with loss and, by extension, his own mortality ("Who giveth this woman? But she's not a woman. She's still a child. And she's leaving us. ...").

At least in "It Happened One Night" and "The Philadelphia Story," Colbert and Hepburn played characters with a certain headstrong self-reliance. But the title of "Father of the Bride" says it all: The focus isn't on Taylor's bride but on Tracy's grumpy dad, who gruffly narrates the goings-on. It's as if, on the heels of World War II and its era of economic independence for so many women, movies needed to remind them of their "proper" place -- on the margins of a story and under the wing of a man, whether it's Daddy or Hubby.


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