Proud as I am of New York for approving gay marriage (see my dissection of THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, here) I can’t help but see marriage itself as some kind of burlesque of 50s American ideals. Why get married at all? Anyone?
As my old guitarist’s South African mom used to say to us, “you can have sex without getting married now, so why waste your time getting permission from some dumb church?” In her day you got married so you could have unlimited sex and your parents and society couldn’t cockblock or disown you. That reason is gone. The reason now is either to make having kids more respectable, or to have big MAMA MIA wedding, OR for the civil benefits of your partner’s health insurance, hospital visits, inheritance, etc… but the reason of ‘legitimacy’ has become less and less clear in the haze of post-70s permissiveness and rampant divorce rates. Perhaps if you’re gay there’s still that longing to be accepted by the social order, to be recognized with a little certificate.
In that sense the marriage bureau is like the Wizard of Oz, giving out degrees in lieu of brains, medals instead of courage, and watches instead of a heart. But just because they now let gay couples on the Titanic, doesn’t mean it’s not still gonna sink.
The title of this post is one of the books Mortimer Brewster wrote about marriage prior to himself getting married and hauling his aunts and cousin off to Happydale Sanitarium in Capra’s ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). The bulk of the film’s action occurs at his aunts’ house while his new (and very ready) bride Elaine (Priscilla Lane) waits in a cab on the way back from their Brooklyn city hall marriage (I was once married in the same place!) before going to Niagara Falls. Mortimer precedes to stall, “I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!” Elaine’s parents justifiably still give her shit over Mortimer based on his anti-marriage books (“Marriage: A Fraud and a Failure” is another title) and Mortimer is already secretly dreading the post-coital reviews (he’s a drama critic and a symbolic virgin terrified of his opening night) and dodging the issue by focusing on his aunt’s penchant for murder and all this other business.
The question remains: if Mortimer was so anxious for his honeymoon then surely the murdering aunt issue could wait, as it has for decades–but instead he has to postpone everything and try to get his aunts committed, which is a process long enough he should send the cab away. What a stall! But it figures that a man so scared of the laws of civil union that he writes more than one book about it would be bound to screech his own post nuptial ‘finalization’ to a halt to micro-manage his spinster aunts.
Mortimer is, in short, not free, and for such a person–always waiting for the big other to sanction his deeds–marriage is ‘more’ than just a legal formality that enables one to have sex, at all! Without the paper he wouldn’t dare even consider it. Here the idea of marriage represents submission to a patriarchal Other, the symbolic father who even manages one’s bedroom maneuvers – or so Mortimer seems to wish, as it would relieve him of his performance anxiety… in a sense a marriage in the ‘old world arranged” schemata was a business relationship between two fathers. The girl’s virginity sold off like the dad was some odious pimp. No doubt Mortimer would feel more comfortable with such an overbearing patriarch, because without one he has to quickly step in, and he’s a nervous wreck. He schemes to get his family committed, quickly, before he leaves, are so hare-brained he’s like a one man version of Hildy and Walter in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, stalling and distracting the move towards domesticity from a place of fearful stasis.
Other comedies, even through the mid 60s, dealt ironically with marriage and the way for example a preacher who marries couples while forgetting his license expired can create havoc, affecting the actual relationships themselves. In Edmund Goulding’s WE’RE NOT MARRIED this happens over a series of vignettes where scheming gold diggers and stay-home with the baby husbands alike are suddenly delivered from their misery, and thus compelled to admit they may not be miserable at all, or at any rate prefer big other-sanctioned misery to the terror of freedom. In films like THIS COULD BE THE NIGHT marriage is a sticky fly trap that is the dreadful cost of falling for a pious virgin; it’s like a vortex of gravity that finds you even if you’re standing stock still.
Take for example the symbol of the engagement ring. The reason the ring is ‘expensive’ – with a big diamond – is exactly the reason diamond bracelets were given to Mae West in those old 1930s movies – the mistress got the bracelet as long term payment for sexual services rendered in past, present and implied future. The ring basically says to the woman now you can put out on the sly to this dude if you want without being a slut, because if he bails you can at least hock the ring and/or use it sue him for breach of promise. Without the stigma of sex out of wedlock, the whole idea of engagement should have ceased to have any meaning. It’s archaic. The ring in itself has been cheapened, punked out to capitalist head games and Tiffany’s commercials ‘a month’s salary can last a lifetime’ – or at least ten minutes of happiness. To use the old get the cow for free metaphor, it’s a down payment on the cow so you can have a few tastes of the milk in advance.
The true ambivalent roots of marriage stem from the alleged separation of church and state: a marriage is a civil union done in a church (it doesn’t have to be, but God is usually mentioned). We see Catholic priests ranting about the wrongness of marriage between same sex couples, but at the same time the priests freak out if the state meddles in their affairs, or asks them to pay taxes, or gets on their case about molesting children. Women are expected to want marriage more than men, as it protects their honor – they can have children and not be shunned, and so forth. But it’s man’s own confused attitude towards sex, confounded by church hypocrisy, that’s the source of the shunning. Man lures a women to bed, then shuns her for sleeping with him. Imagine a car salesman who follows you around yelling that you were a sucker after selling you a car! Crazy, right? But that’s what these doofus boys do in these films… beg for sex than scourge the girls who give it to them as sluts – it says something not about boys and girls but the genetic con job of sex, does it not, your honor?!
In the pre-code era, the ideal was to be divorced, which meant as a woman you could sleep around all you wanted without being branded a whore – the ‘seal’ had been legitimately broken, so what you did with the envelope after that was your affair. But why is virginity priced so highly in the market guide when the ideal was once to lose it as fast and honorably as possible? The closer you look the less any of it makes rational sense. But if you examine marriage is a force of social control and oppression, bingo!
A really fascinating movie that looks at this split is an Italian period sex farce called BELLE EPOQUE that climaxes with a wedding right at the end of the Spanish Civil War:
When the bridal parties arrive at the church, they find the priest has hung himself (offscreen), because the Republic has come to power. The affianced are left without direction, until Manolo declares they should just consider themselves married and go catch their train. With the decline of the Catholic church and rise of the Republic, the lovers find they have neither “official” sanction of their wedding vows, nor repressive authority to rebel against. Once they are, via the secular Republic, “free,” they find themselves adrift, loosed from the mores through which their actions had “meaning.” (Popmatters)
In other words, the church in the context of this film is as a symbolic Father who makes premarital sex more pleasurable by forbidding it, forcing lovers to sneak around and operate on a dual level system of selective amnesia.
Marriage is something to be longed for as the ultimate expression of love – and to be avoided as the official beginning of the end of that love. What hormones hath joined together let spoken words and public records drown in cement. Time will tell if, once gay marriage is so cemented and all the feeble knee-jerk backlash wanes, things will really change. As Burt Lancaster said in Visconti’s THE LEOPARD, “marriage is six months of fire and 40 years of ashes.” It’s like ordering a gerbil by means of state decree to live longer than five years, or that suicide is a capital offense — it really means nothing – just the social order signing the bottom of biology’s smudgy canvas and expecting to win the art show. Don’t get fooled, Cary Grant! Jump in that taxi and leave the corpses of elderberry homeless receding in the rear view, or else revel in the freedom to die… alone like Yvette Vickers… at your leisure. There is no difference.
This rant isn’t meant to deride Friday night’s victory. I am proud of our New York gov’ment. It means so much more than merely marriage, and the fight is far from over, but it’s a good fight, and the pride belongs to anyone not living in fear of their neighbors, or looking to books older than they are to find out how people they don’t even know should live.
Further Reading: Pre-Code Marital Mores in “Dizzy from the Altitude, Happy to Plummet.”