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Rules of Engagement

Hollywood's View of Dating, Marriage and Divorce

Christine Alice Corcos 2001-2004

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Valentine's Day normally means love at first sight, romance at a glance. Lovers, even in this day of prenuptial agreements, rarely think about the legal consequences of Cupid's arrow. How does Hollywood deal with the laws of love? Many studio-made comedies provide some answers.

The Dating Game

Bringing two people together often results from some illegal action. In That Funny Feeling cleaning lady Sandra Dee appropriates executive Bobby Darin's apartment when she thinks he's out of town. Returning unexpectedly he finds her in possession of his digs, but instead of turning her in to the police, proceeds to romance her. In Come September, Sandra Dee returns as the young girl who convinces Gina Lollobrigida to insist that long time boyfriend (they meet every September) Rock Hudson marry her.

The prospect of a baby on the way is a frequent impetus for marriage: the man in the case implores the woman to "give your baby a name!" Consider Doctor, You've Got to Be Kidding! in which Sandra Dee (again) finds out she's pregnant by George Hamilton but refuses to marry him. In 1967 when this comedy was made, that was pretty racy stuff!

In movies like Libelled Lady (1936) a newspaper editor tries to put a young woman in a comprising position when she files a suit for libel. The story is updated somewhat in Easy to Wed (1946). In That Wonderful Urge (1948) heiress Gene Tierney tries to compromise Tyrone Power as a joke; ultimately it turns into real love, though not until after various threatened lawsuits and a jail scene.

When They're Not Really Married

The "they're unintentionally living in sin" theme was popular before the 1970s (when living together without benefit of clergy really got popular). We're Not Married (1952) features five couples who discover a problem with their marriage licenses: the judge who married them years ago did not have valid commission. He decides to notify them and each couple re-examines its relationship to see if re-marriage is really in the cards. Among the actors in this amusing film are Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe, and Eve Arden. Alfred Hitchcock had a go at this theme in 1941 with his comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, in which lawyer Robert Montgomery (who apparently never goes to the office) and wife Carole Lombard discover that because of some weird local rules, their marriage isn't valid.

When They're Really Still Married

The opposite of unintentional cohabitation without benefit of clergy is unintentional bigamy, and Hollywood has also treated that subject, often using as raw material the Enoch Arden theme. Since Alfred Lord Tennyson first wrote his epic tale of lost love (1865) the plot device of declaring someone dead simply because s/he's been missing for several years has intrigued screenwriters. In My Favorite Wife (1940) lawyer Cary Grant (Nick Arden) having had his wife Ellen (Irene Dunne) declared dead, plans to marry socialite Bianca Bates (played by Gail Patrick). That very day Ellen returns from seven years of life on a deserted island, along with her sole companion, Stephen Burkett (played by Randolph Scott). Is Ellen legally still alive? If so, is Nick's new marriage valid or not? My Favorite Wife was remade in 1963 with less subtlety as Move Over, Darling with James Garner and Doris Day in the Grant and Dunne roles (an earlier remake in 1962, Something's Got to Give, featured Marilyn Monroe but was never finished). The serious side of the Enoch Arden story is explored in the Return of Martin Guerre and Sommersby.

When They Split Up

Comedies about divorce rarely end with the actual divorce of the squabbling couple, undoubtedly due to the Hayes Code which decreed morality in Hollywood feature films. Dramas usually end with great unhappiness for all concerned.

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne make a charming pair in The Awful Truth (1937) in which as a divorcing couple they make havoc of each other's remarriage plans until they decide they are meant for each other after all. Splitting up the marital assets allows a fight over custody of the dog; she gets custody, he gets visitation rights.

Similarly, in 1951's Let's Make it Legal Claudette Colbert and Macdonald Carey are a divorcing couple who think better of the idea, particularly since neither wants to see the other in a new relationship. Similarly, Divorce, American Style (1967) and How to Break Up a Happy Divorce (1976) show us that sometimes couples really are meant for each other.


Breaking up is always hard to do, and Hollywood mimics all the ways we've thought of to do it, and comes up with a few we haven't, or shouldn't. Among the common reasons for divorce is adultery, which Hollywood treats comically in movies like Any Wednesday (1966) in which Jane Fonda is the "kept woman", Jason Robards the adulterous husband who writes her off as a business expense and Dean Jones as the ultimate love of her life. Philandering, or suspected philandering,is a time-honored Hollywood plot, especially when it serves as the McGuffin for a great deal of self-discovery, as in Good Neighbor, Sam (which also pokes fun at the advertising business, which itself loves Valentine's Day). The Palm Beach Story (1942) stars Claudette Colbert as a woman who divorces her inventor husband in order to marry a millionaire and get the money to launch her ex-husband's career.

Another common reason for ending a marriage is desire for financial gain, which can sometimes be, well, murder, if divorce is not an option. Before we had The Wars of the Roses (1989) which pokes vicious fun at divorce settlements we had Divorce, Italian Style (1961) in which Marcello Mastroianni, tired of his wife, decides to murder her and Arrivederci, Baby (also known as Drop Dead, Darling! (1966)), on the same theme. Equally Walter Matthau's impoverished playboy in A New Leaf (1971) plans to do in his wealthy bride until he falls in love with her. Jack Lemmon, in How To Murder Your Wife (1965), is a cartoonist who always uses his own life as the basis for his work. When he kills off his cartoon hero's wife and his real life wife disappears after a spat, he's tried for murder. In a memorable scene he convinces the all male jury to acquit him by appealling to their longing for bachelorhood. It's a closing statement that rivals Amanda Bonner's (Katharine Hepburn) in Adam's Rib (1949).

Finally, taxes can lead to romance in various movies, such as in The Mating Game (1959) in which tax collector Tony Randall tries to ascertain why farmer Paul Douglas hasn't paid Uncle Sam in years, but is distracted by Douglas' attractive daughter (Debbie Reynolds). But for more discussion of this question you'll have to wait until the next essay, The Taxman Cometh.


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