February 21, 2013
We’re Not Married – US, 1952
Some time ago, I came across the peculiar story of an area in China that had practically a 100% divorce rate. According to the story, the residents were being relocated due to the construction of a dam, and in order to make the transition as smooth as possible, the central government had promised new houses to every person who was single. Apparently, most husbands and wives decided that two homes would be better than one, so almost all of them filed for divorce. I mention this because once the divorces were final, each of these couples had to face the same question as many of the characters in Edmund Goulding’s 1952 film, We’re Not Married: What do we do now?
In the film, an overzealous justice of the peace marries six couples a week earlier than he is supposed to. We only see the first couple, and their reasons for getting married aren’t exactly what most would consider romantic. If I understand their situation correctly, they are getting married so that they can become the hosts of a morning radio show that purports to follow the daily happenings of a perfectly loving married couple whose morning banter is conveniently replete with the names of household products. To get a sense of the rapidity with which they mention their sponsors, think of Laura Linney in The Truman Show, and multiply by about fifty. How anyone could stand listening to it is beyond me.
Two and a half years after the celebrities’ “wedding,” the justice’s mistake comes to light, and the governor elects to inform five of the six couples of their situation in a letter. This way, it is reasoned, each couple can decide for themselves what to do. In a rather clunky narrative device, we watch as the judge and his wife remember the couples that tied the knot that week under the guise of returning the money they spent on the wedding. Their discussion allows viewers to see each couple’s demeanor just before they got married and to see the differences between then and now.
Unfortunately, what unfolds is only mildly interesting. Ginger Rogers and Fred Allen start things off as the radio stars, the Gladwyns. Their part of the film starts out humorous, becomes alluringly caustic, and then settles into an overly-long radio show. It’s somewhat interesting to see how radio shows were produced back in the day, but the scene goes on far too long. Marilyn Monroe has a bit part, playing a model whose husband is perhaps just a little too eager for her budding career to be over. Monroe has one absolutely priceless moment before the film quickly moves on to another unsuspecting couple.
The film has several opportunities to treat the situation with the drama that it deserves. However, every time it hints at serious marital problems, it backs off and settles for overly simplistic moments of humor. For example, there are hints of infidelity in the segment of the film that stars Paul Douglas and Eve Arden. However, instead of exploring the hurt that Arden’s character is clearly feeling, the film elects to show her husband’s fantasies of returning to the single life. It’s fun, but ultimately disrespectful, relegating his wife’s anguish to being nothing more than an inconvenience that can easily be overcome. Only the film’s final segment, starring Eddie Bracken and Mitzi Gaynor, approaches real drama. In it, Bracken plays a young soldier named Willie Fisher, who learn the news about his wedding just as he is about to be shipped overseas. Making his situation worse is the fact that his wife has just learned that she is pregnant. The drama comes from Fisher’s understandable concern that society will treat the child differently now. Of all of the stories the film presents, theirs seems the most realistic and they the most deserving of the audience’s empathy.
Unfortunately, the film only finds the right tone intermittently. It often resorts to humor to keep viewers involved instead of using realism to explore the characters emotions and motives. The result is a film that is occasionally fun, yet ultimately forgettable. Part of this is no doubt due to the time in which the film was made, for a serious film about infidelity and divorce would have been hard to make during the years in which the Hayes Code was enforced. Still, I have to wonder just how audiences responded to the unconvincing simplicity with which the film resolves these characters’ plights. In truth, I found myself sighing aloud much more than laughing, and I felt disappointed just as often as I felt moved or amused. A classic symptom of “mixed-bag-itis.” (on DVD)
*As for the Chinese residents I referred to at the start of this review, their story does not end as happily as We’re Not Married. For one, the government did not have enough houses for everyone that was now eligible for one. More importantly, the divorces gave many residents a chance to take a fresh look at their lives, and many people apparently didn’t like what they saw. It is said that many men opted to run off with their much younger mistresses, leaving their ex-wives and children alone and impoverished. To the men, the divorce was a new start. To the women, it was only supposed to be temporary.
The lesson from real life seems to be: Be careful what you wish for. The message of We’re Not Married: Saying “I do” cures everything. If only that were truly so.