History Through Hollywood: Love
or: How Classic Hollywood Done Me Wrong
My sister got married last weekend, and after all the happy dust settled, classic Hollywood wriggled its way into my brain-spotlight as it so often does. Watching my sister with her wonderful husband reminded me of all the classic couples and love stories snuggled on celluloid, and how our ideas of love, weddings, and marriage have changed, or not, over the years.
The History Through Hollywood series looks at old films as inadvertent time capsules packed with the norms and customs, both quotidian and grand, of a bygone era. Old movies are full of history hiding in plain sight, and you can learn a lot without meaning to, and usually without even noticing.
Traditions change and cultural mores shift; what was once commonplace might now seem totally weird. For example, when was the last time you saw a man wearing sock garters? And have you ever noticed that no one drinks wine in old films but instead opts for cocktails? (Find out why here.) In terms of this post, it must be said that one big way things have changed is that classic Hollywood love is almost exclusively heteronormative; you can read more about that here.
This series is also my attempt to explain why old movies can sometimes seem so very different from today’s films. With a little context, a “boring,” and “tame” old film can suddenly shimmer (watch for those cross-dissolves, people!), and something that seems utterly alien can suddenly make sense (why are so many wives going to Reno?) You can read my other History Through Hollywood posts about sex, doughnuts, those odd English accents, fashion, divorce, and the ever-smoldering cigarettes here.
Inspired by the joy and love at my sister’s wedding, this History Through Hollywood takes a look at classic love and the crazy, wonderful ideas you can pick up if you watch classic films, and even worse, believe them!
- Love is a dance or a sparkling conversation.
Ladies, if I’ve learned anything from classic movies, it’s that if you and your beau dance beautifully together or banter like two hardboiled reporters, marry him! Immediately.
First, the dancing. Even if you’re strangers, or you hate each other, if you’re in sync on the dance floor, put a ring on it. You’ll see this often in old movies: two characters who don’t really know each other or perhaps even dislike each other accidentally end up on the dance floor. They amaze everyone, including themselves, with their glorious performance. At the end of the dance, they look at each other in stunned confusion. Only soulmates could achieve such harmony and bliss on the dance floor! So naturally they get married.
This also applies to harmony in the swimming pool in Esther Williams’ films. Once she performs a water duet with a man, you know that happily ever after is assured!
No one better personified the terpsichorean path to love than Fred and Ginger. The romance in their movies generally follows this trajectory: amusing meet-cute, immediate dislike on her part and immediate infatuation on his. He pursues, she rebuffs, and their path to love is littered with obstacles. But then they come together for a dance…
Often Astaire literally pulls Rogers into the dance as she attempts to elude him. The first section usually follows the pattern of Astaire pursuing as Rogers spins away. But soon she can’t help but melt into the movements with him, and as they float together in achingly perfect harmony, Rogers begins to fall in love. And can you blame her?
When the music stops, sometimes the spell is broken, and it’s back to a milder version of their one-sided affair. But there is always another dance, and another, and each time they fall more in love until they embrace as the ending credits roll.
Astaire and Rogers certainly weren’t the only famous dance team in classic movies, and most of the great choreographers also used dance to tell the love story. I’m very partial to real-life couple Marge and Gower Champion, for example, and I’ll watch Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, and Vera-Ellen dance with anyone. But Rogers and Astaire used dance to tell a story better than anyone else. Dances in their films aren’t just music breaks; they’re integral to the romantic plot.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a world-class dancer to partake in this dance-well, love-well tradition. You see it all the time–when a couple moves delightfully together it’s basically a guarantee that they’ll end the film with a kiss.
But maybe you have two left feet and it’s your mind that waltzes, dips, and spins in perfect coordination with another. That’s acceptable, too. (And perhaps preferable, since chatting is more common and quite a bit easier than epic choreographed dancing.)
Some of our most beloved screen teams perfected this sublime verbal choreography just as surely as Fred and Ginger perfected their routines. And just like the dancers who fell in love almost against their will as they performed together, so the verbal version often starts with clever animosity before blossoming into witty love.
Relentless sarcasm and teasing don’t usually work so well in real life, but in classic movies, couples that are meant to be often start their relationship with acerbic barbs and cutting repartee. It’s smart, it’s fast, and it’s delightful.
One of the greatest examples of the fast talking dame in perfect sync with her swift-speaking fella is His Girl Friday (1940), where ex-spouses Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant demonstrate their brilliance at badinage.
Their repartee flies back and forth in famously fast, overlapping quips; the dialogue is so dense and rapid that I always feel a little tired after watching the movie. Exhilarated, but worn out from trying to follow these two masters. After watching Russell and Grant banter back and forth, you know immediately that bumbling Ralph Bellamy, who plays Russell’s fiancé, is utterly wrong for her because their conversations are slow and gentle, dull and plodding, compared to the spitfire sarcasm of the destined couple Russell and Grant.
Poor Bellamy is cast in the same sort of bumpkin role, once again opposite witty Cary Grant, in The Awful Truth (1937). Not only is Bellamy left behind verbally when Irene Dunne and Grant get going, but he also fails at dancing with Dunne. He leads her on a mortifying jig while Grant grins at the mismatch. He already knows that Bellamy can’t keep up verbally, and he’s gratified to find out that he can’t dance well with Dunne, either.
Some of my favorite fast-talking pairs with beautifully linked brains include Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne and Grant, Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray, Myrna Loy and William Powell, and Ginger Rogers and Claudette Colbert with assorted clever fellows. They are a joy to watch.
The dancing and banter seem to have been Old Hollywood’s way of testing and demonstrating a couple’s suitability physically and mentally. Nowadays, movies cover the same territory, but the couple sleeps together and texts instead of dancing and chatting. Not to sound too old and crabby, but I rather miss classic Hollywood’s method.
- An immediate dislike is a prerequisite to eventual, lasting love.
It’s the old Mr. Darcy/Elizabeth routine. If a character finds another person insufferable at first, chances are they’ll end up at the altar in about 80 minutes. Or if a character decides immediately that a possible suitor is completely wrong for her, you can bet they’ll end the film in a classic clinch, cheeks smushed together as they beam at the camera.
So the next time you meet someone who can’t stand you, or hurls darts of witty insults your way, just hang on. You’ll probably get married.
Take a look at Calamity Jane, The Gay Divorcee, We’re Not Dressing, Bringing Up Baby, Captain Blood, Easter Parade, Easy to Wed, Funny Face, Foreign Correspondent, Hit the Deck, How to Steal A Million, Love Before Breakfast, Neptune’s Daughter, The Band Wagon, The Harvey Girls, or just about any movie to see what I mean.
This about sums it up:
- If his clothes coordinate with yours, lock it down.
This is a subtle indicator of true love, but it’s very rarely wrong. It might be that his shirt matches your shoes, or that his overall color scheme coordinates just perfectly with your own; bottom line, if everything goes together, book your wedding venue.
Sometimes costume designers sneakily forecast perfect pairs even before the characters realize they are falling in love. The overriding reason for these prescient costume choices was probably not to hide romantic clues, but to make a scene look pretty, as it wouldn’t do to have the characters clashing, and to help create the characters. Clothes are useful at building “types,” so when a soon-to-be-couple appears in similar styles or colors, you know that they click on a deeper level, too. Regardless of the original intent, sometimes by examining costumes you can find subtle cues suggesting which characters will end up together, and which ones are not meant to be.
Some of my favorite examples of costumes telegraphing the love plot are in Summer Stock (1950). Destined couple Judy Garland and Gene Kelly match or coordinate to an alarming degree. At the same time, just to make sure we get it, Kelly clashes with his original girlfriend Gloria DeHaven, who coincidentally looks great next to her future love, Garland’s fiancé Eddie Bracken!
- Don’t marry someone you’ve just met. Or do!
The evidence is conflicted on this one, and there is quite a bit of it to sift through because it seems as though every movie features a very fast love story.
Some of the speed of Old Hollywood romance can be blamed on the medium. If you’ve only got ninety minutes to tell a story, and your couple has to end up engaged or married (read History Through Hollywood: Vice for more on that), you can’t date for three years.
But even so, it does seem that romances happened faster back then. No eighteen-month engagements or decade long courtships, that’s for sure. Indeed, usually a long engagement is seen as a very bad sign.
For example, in The More The Merrier (1943) when Charles Coburn learns that Jean Arthur has been engaged to pompous Richard Gaines for a whole 22 months, he asks if she is “engaged to be married” or just “engaged to be engaged,” and he expresses doubt that they will ever actually get married.
Characters move so quickly in old films that a week from meeting to marriage sometimes seems like a conservative timeline. They just seem to “know” really quickly and they don’t waste time worrying about learning each others’ middle names or basic personality traits. It’s an insanely optimistic view of love: soulmates are everywhere, you know within three seconds, and everything will be amazing forever and ever. That’s Hollywood for you!
This super-fast romance is especially prevalent in films produced during WWII, and I imagine this reflects the very real rapid courtships that were happening across the country at the time.
It was not uncommon for a soldier on the eve of deployment or on a few days leave to meet a gal, marry her, and then have to leave her behind, all in a matter of days. People didn’t have time to wait, and the stories on screen reflect that new reality.
It must have been a glorious morale booster to see such plots flashing across the screen, and quite comforting to think that a lonely, exhausted soldier could find his true love in a matter of minutes, and have it all wrapped up in a quickie marriage before he has to board his train! (Or made official thanks to a quick stop in Reno on the way to his deployment, as in The Major and the Minor (1942)). After all, if it’s on the silver screen, it must be true.
I’m sure these fast romances worked well for some, but there was a sharp rise in the divorce rate once the war ended, mostly attributed to these quickie marriages that linked men and women who were basically strangers, and then separated them until after the war. (For more on divorce in classic movies, visit this History Through Hollywood post and this one about the housing shortages during the war that also contributed to fast marriages.)
Overall, the probability of marital happiness seems to depend less on how quickly characters become a pair and more on the genre of the film. Basically, fast courtships work out great in comedies and musicals, and go disastrously wrong in dramas and horror films.
This conclusion is neither groundbreaking nor particularly clever, but it’s important to note that genre is a fundamental characteristic that still dictates a lot of what we see onscreen. (How many times have you heard someone say they didn’t like a movie because it wasn’t what they thought it would be?)
Crazy-fast love works quite well in The Major and the Minor, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (where it’s about two hours between meeting and marriage), The More the Merrier, On an Island With You, Moon Over Miami, Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, and dozens and dozens of other films.
And sometimes one’s first snap-romance goes poorly, but it is immediately replaced by a second one that works. See what I mean about murky evidence?
Also, you can generally tell what kind of marriage it will be by when it happens in the movie. If it’s early on, chances are good that it was a mistake; you’re not going to spend 75 minutes watching newlyweds be deliriously happy! No, there is probably a dark secret or a horrifying twist that occupies the rest of the film. But if they get engaged or married right before the credits roll, you can bet that it was a fantastic decision. Or so we hope, since we don’t see it. It’s the old “happily ever after” ending in all of its vague glory.
If a character doesn’t meet and marry someone within a matter of hours, there’s a good chance they decide to re-marry their original spouse. They were right all along, they just got confused! Besides being a fun twist on a romantic comedy, these “comedies of remarriage” had a very practical component.
As I discussed in History Through Hollywood: Vice, the Production Code didn’t allow for any sex during courtship (or really any after marriage, either), but the rules could be loosened when the couple had already been married. There is no chastity nor spotless reputation to protect, so they can get away with much more “risqué” behavior (unchaperoned evenings, flirtier repartee, and overall a thrilling familiarity) than a virginal pair.
Of course, even the divorced couples behave like cloistered nuns compared to what goes on in today’s movies, but at the time, their path to remarriage seemed delightfully daring! If you’re interested in some of these narratives of re-marriage, I’d recommend The Philadelphia Story and its re-make High Society, The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, and The Palm Beach Story.
The speed with which Old Hollywood brings its couples together can be dangerous, since another tenet of Old Hollywood Love is…
- Pretending to be someone you’re not is the best way to find your soulmate.
It’s particularly efficacious to lie about your financial situation and family background. And when in doubt, masquerade as an aristocrat. Everyone loves a fake countess, and a princess will be the toast of the town! It worked for Claudette Colbert in Midnight, Carole Lombard in The Princess Comes Across, Ginger Rogers in Roberta, Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, and for many other duplicitous dames.
Even if you don’t pretend you’ve got a title, definitely don’t show up as yourself. That’s no way to catch a beau!
False and mistaken identities are as old as stories, but Hollywood loves ‘em, especially in screwball comedies. It goes like this: you pretend to be someone else or lie outrageously about some aspect of your life. That will entice your true love, who will fall for you, somehow sensing the real “you” underneath. Then she won’t even care when she finds out that you’ve been lying to her from the moment you met! If you think about it, it’s a lovely, though counterintuitive, and probably disastrous plan.
Such cheerfully two-faced romances occur in Love in the Afternoon, To Catch a Thief, Neptune’s Daughter, My Sister Eileen, Charade, How to Steal A Million, Easy Living, My Man Godfrey, Moon Over Miami, Barbary Coast, Virginia City, The Lady Eve, The Major and the Minor, and several dozen other films featuring less than truthful protagonists.
Since everyone is pretending to be someone they’re not, keep a close watch on your assets, because according to classic Hollywood…
- Gold diggers are everywhere.
The true gold diggers, the really cold-hearted dames, never get ahead, but classic Hollywood is full of women who try to be gold diggers but whose fine feelings win out in the end. It’s the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold-thing, but easier to redeem. This narrative was very popular: besides the Gold Diggers series (1929, 1933, 1935, 1937, and 1938), many screwball comedies like Hands Across the Table, Midnight, and later movies like Moon Over Miami, The Palm Beach Story, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire follow this faux-gold digger plot.
Usually, the woman is sick and tired of being poor, or she is determined to marry rich because she watched her parents’ love disintegrate as they struggled to make ends meet. She’s “through with love,” and just wants financial security. And diamonds. Lots of diamonds.
Her resolution is tested when she falls in love with a non-millionaire. Either she ends up marrying for love, and therefore proving that she was never really a nasty gold digger, or she gets a very happy surprise when her non-millionaire turns out to be loaded. He was lying about it the whole time! She forgives him at once. See the previous tenet of Old Hollywood love. Next up:
- Age differences are irrelevant.
See nearly every post-1950 movie starring any of the Old Guard as they become progressively craggier: Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, etc. Despite their advancing years, they still romanced actresses who were decades younger, sometimes painfully so.
This is by no means a relic of a past age, either. Age differences are still incredibly common onscreen. See this recent Buzzfeed article for a great illustration of the double standard.
Once you’ve found your true love and gotten over any doubts concerning the twenty-five years between you, forget the year-long engagements that seem so common today, because…
- Engagements were short, and weddings were simple.
You’ve got maybe a month before you’re married, so no time to order that designer dress and wait ten months for it to arrive! And don’t worry about booking that perfect venue with an 18-month waiting list. You’ll get married at home (the majority of fancy movie weddings), or at city hall, or at church.
It’s not an economic issue to bypass a huge wedding—some of the wealthiest characters choose city hall or that always adorable “wake-up-the-nearest-justice-of-the-peace” 3AM option.
Elopements are a very common occurrence in old films. Weddings were just about the bride and groom getting married, so no one bats an eye when a couple takes off in the middle of the night!
If there is a “reception,” it will most likely be at home. The ceremony will probably take place in the morning, giving you and your new spouse plenty of time to get to Niagara Falls. If you’re wealthy, don’t forget to display your wedding loot for your guests to admire!
So much silver!
The room devoted to wedding presents inspires a memorable musical number in High Society when Celeste Holm and Frank Sinatra are so overwhelmed by the finery that they burst into “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
Dancing, chatting, hate-turning-to-love, matching outfits, false identities, quick courtships and faster marriages, gold diggers, age differences, and weddings. That’s love, Old Hollywood style!
If you’d like to know more about some of the movies I mentioned, check out my reviews on The Blonde at the Film, and follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, and Facebook. You can find my other History Through Hollywood posts here. As always, thanks for reading!