Most of us give marriage a try at least once, and about half of our attempts, according to divorce statistics, end in failure. So films about marriage should provide a blend of the familiar and the conflicted that moviemakers and audiences love.

Yet as film historian Jeanine Basinger observes in “I Do and I Don’t,” the “marriage movie” isn’t commonly regarded as a genre in itself. It’s usually fragmented into subgenres such as the “situation comedy” (e.g., “Adam’s Rib,” in which husband-and-wife lawyers Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn square off in court) or the “domestic drama” (e.g. “Dodsworth,” in which Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton face a midlife marital crisis). Where Basinger’s book is most useful is in helping us see the thematic and structural patterns that unite such movies with scores of others. Where her book is most provocative is in suggesting the ways in which marriage movies both reflect and shape our attitude toward marriage itself.

Most of Basinger’s book focuses on the period from 1934 to 1968 dominated by the Production Code, which proclaimed: “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.” The “wiggle room” in this dictum, Basinger observes, allowed filmmakers “to shape marriage as sad, doomed, and threatened from many directions, but able to be brought back to life at the end to, evidently, respect the ‘sanctity’ of the institution.” As a result, “the marriage film is . . . a great example of how audiences liked to be lied to about things they knew from their own lives.”

One of Basinger’s paradigmatic marriage movies is “Made for Each Other” (1939), starring James Stewart and Carole Lombard as a couple who marry in haste and spend the rest of the film in not-so-leisurely repentance, harassed by, among others, Stewart’s disapproving mother. Things go from bad to worse until Lombard asks, “Oh, Johnny, what’s happened to us?” This is, Basinger observes, “a key question always asked by the true marriage movie.” Lombard and Stewart decide to split up, but a crisis, the illness of their child, brings them back together and even allows Lombard to form a bond with her battle-ax of a mother-in-law. “This pattern of pretense toward honesty, capped off by exaggerated resolution, was the ‘I do’ marriage movie pattern. Affirm, question, reaffirm, and resolve.”

Then Basinger jumps ahead almost 30 years to director Stanley Donen’s “Two for the Road” (1967), in which “the audience is asked to realize that a happy marriage is not only elusive but probably also an illusion.” Frederic Raphael’s script gives us “the story of a marriage in a world in which marriage has grown unnecessary, featuring a couple adrift internationally in a world of easy money and sex.” Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney quarrel and break up and have affairs and reunite, though they’re still quarreling at the end of the movie. But they’re together, just as Lombard and Stewart were. “Two for the Road” fits the pattern of “Made for Each Other”: “Affirm, question, reaffirm, and resolve.”

’I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies’ by Jeanine Basinger (Knopf)

Basinger’s survey of marriage movies of the Production Code years takes in dozens of films throughout which one theme predominates: “that marriage is all most couples will ever have: it will be children, a home, and each other.” When troubles come, they have one or more of these causes: money (too much or too little of it); infidelity (e.g., David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” which Basinger says “may be the finest adultery movie ever made”); in-laws and children (as in “Made for Each Other”); incompatibility (conflicting careers, a need to control, a failure to communicate); class (marrying “outside your tribe, your age group, or your own social level”); addiction (drugs and alcohol); and murder (“When you marry a murderer, your marriage is in trouble,” as Joan Crawford, for example, finds out by marrying Jack Palance in “Sudden Fear”).

But when the code collapsed and was replaced by a rating system, movies were no longer forced to hold marriage sacrosanct: “Suddenly marriage itself becomes the equivalent to crushing poverty during the Depression or drug addiction in the 1950s. It’s hopeless, it’s unfair, and it’s a situation that can’t sustain you, and that you can’t sustain.” As an extreme consequence, we get what Basinger calls “nuclear marriage” movies, such as “The War of the Roses” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” in which couples, played by Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in the former and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in the latter, do their damnedest to kill each other.

In our age, the marriage movie has given way to TV series that focus on marriages, such as “Modern Family.” The shift began in the early days of television with sitcoms like “The Donna Reed Show,” “Father Knows Best” and “I Love Lucy.” Today we regard the first two as sentimental period pieces, while “I Love Lucy” remains a classic. Basinger shrewdly observes that through the show’s slapstick routines, “audiences could feel the real tension in Lucy and Desi’s marriage . . . and decide . . . that here was a real marriage, and also know that, at their core, the marriages of Donna Reed and Robert Young were false.” Basinger also credits television with one of the most “honest and natural” portraits of a marriage in either film or television, that of the Taylors, played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, on the series “Friday Night Lights.”

Comprehensive and cleverly written, Basinger’s book is not only a necessary addition to our understanding of movies about marriage, but it’s also a refreshingly clear-headed book about marriage itself.

Charles Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.


A History of Marriage in the Movies

By Jeanine Basinger

Knopf.395 pp. $30