When is the last time you watched a rom-com about a married couple? Aside from the occasional indie and rare mainstream flick, Hollywood seems to have retired this subject matter, despite the success of TV shows such as Mad about You, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The King of Queens.
Yet I came up with this list of famous 30s and 40s rom-coms about married couples in just two minutes:
Married: Topper, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, My Favorite Wife, and I Was a Male War Bride
Separated/Divorced: The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, and His Girl Friday.
Those familiar with these titles might notice that these are just some of the marital rom-coms starring Cary Grant. In comparison, I came up with three mainstream marital rom-coms in the past three decades altogether—with help.
Even if married couples in 2014 are more likely to attend animated flicks with their kids, as my husband theorized, that doesn’t explain what Hollywood is producing for those without kids. And I’m not buying that we’re all boring enough to only like films about ourselves. We don’t all cook meth in our basements or fight to the death in dystopian universes. We don’t watch The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones because they remind us of barbeques with our buddies. I discovered most of my favorite marital rom-coms when single. Is it possible that Hollywood thinks singles’ imaginations fertile enough to envision shooting webs out of their wrists or being born in Middle Earth, but not to conceive of being married?
Whatever the reasoning for the endangerment of the marital rom-com, the result is unfortunate: there’s a sameness to romantic comedies now that simply didn’t exist in the 30s or 40s. While there are only so many ways we can meet and fall in love, there is an infinite variety of methods for teasing, imitating, and torturing those we know well.
One of Cary Grant’s best marital rom-coms is The Awful Truth (1937), a film my friend Tonya introduced me to many years ago that I’ve been recommending ever since. Grant’s and costar Irene Dunne’s impeccable timing and believable performances make this one of the funniest screwball comedies I’ve ever seen.
In the film, Jerry (Grant) and Lucy (Dunne) suspect one another of infidelity. Lucy decides to trust Jerry, anticipating Elvis’s famous song about suspicion in explaining her reasoning. Jerry, however, can’t trust her, and the two divorce. But since they’re both still in love, they can’t help sabotaging one another’s new relationships.
I have so many favorite moments from this film. One is when Jerry plays a song for his dog (during his custodial pet visit) to annoy Lucy as she’s meeting her new fiancé’s mom. In another Jerry pays the orchestra conductor to re-play a song just to watch his wife trip as her fiancé tries to lead her in a rambunctious dance.
And there’s the scene when Lucy, aware of Jerry’s pride, shows up at his fiancée’s house pretending to be his wasted sister.
She begins the visit by demanding a drink and ends by performing a Marilyn Monroe-over-grate move for Jerry’s soon-to-be in-laws (years before that famous siren’s).
But perhaps the scene I enjoy most is when Jerry gushes about how much his hard-partying wife will appreciate Oklahoma, where her fiancé lives:
“Lucy, you lucky girl,” Jerry says. “No more running around the night spots. No more prowling around in New York shops. I shall think of you every time a new show opens and say to myself, she’s well out of it….”
“I know I’ll enjoy Oklahoma City,” Lucy replies stiffly.
“But of course,” he answers, “and if it should get dull, you can always go over to Tulsa for the weekend.”
Contrast these scenes with those in 1997 rom-com My Best Friend’s Wedding, technically a film of the single-gal variety, but adopting some situations from the marital rom-com. Yes, Rupert Everett is glorious in it, and Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts are effective rivals.
But the message is appalling: you’ll lose the guy if you’re dedicated to your profession and unwilling to ditch your education/career for his. No matter, therefore, how funny some of Roberts’ antics seem, I can’t laugh at the antiquated, offensive cliché of the desperate single woman, as the film asks me to do. But I do laugh at the partners in The Awful Truth, both so anxious to get each other back that they’re willing to forgo pride to do so. Due to his unreasonable suspicions, Jerry looks like more of a buffoon than Lucy, but neither comes out of the experience unscathed. (Of course, since Lucy trusts Jerry, we don’t know whether he just likes his space, or has cheated and the filmmakers have given him a pass for sexist reasons.)
The Awful Truth is just one of many delightful 30s marital rom-coms. There are so many more. Until current Hollywood producers come to their senses and resuscitate the subgenre, you’ll be stuck with the half-attempts at marital rom-coms like My Best Friend’s Wedding, in which the humor is only at the woman’s expense. (Forget viewing films about long-term relationships between unmarried couples–an even rarer subgenre.) So give some classic marital comedies a try. You’ll be glad you did.
Incidentally, next Sunday and Monday (March 16 and 17th), I’ll be participating in a classic detective blogathon hosted by Movies Silently. Please check out my entry in this Sleuthathon at my blog next week. I’ll be reviewing The Mad Miss Manton (1938), featuring Barbara Stanwyck as a Sherlock Holmes-Paris Hilton hybrid. And be sure to view the entries of my much more knowledgeable blogging peers!