Monday, August 19, 2019

Hollywood Invents The Adulterer's Loophole

Hollywood filmmakers have long preferred to accentuate the pitfalls of marriage while ignoring the important and often sublime benefits of marriage.  Baseball would look like a pretty bad idea if films about baseball almost always highlighted the worst players.   The Pride of the Yankees (1942) would not make you love baseball if it did nothing but show you Lou Gehrig's fumbles and fouls.

Marriage is not for fools.  Yet, films show us the sad fate that fools face in marriage.  Let's be honest, fools face a sad fate in most everything they do.  I say this as someone who has, at times, been a fool.

The biggest fool is someone who marries someone they never should have married in the first place.  We see that often in films.  A man who knows he's in a marriage with the wrong person can be a miserable wretch.  And what should that man do if he suddenly meets the exact sort of person he should have married?  Does he shrug his shoulders and walk past the person?  It can feel like you're drowning in an ocean and suddenly an angel appears, smiling and aglow, and tosses you a rope.  You grab the rope, right? 

Filmmakers have seen this as the great adulterer's loophole and have exploited this as often as they can.  But this is shamefully dishonest.  These desperate situations, though they create good drama, are not common and certainly shouldn't be used to make adultery acceptable.  Filmmakers have been able to carefully and perfectly construct these scenarios in a way that life rarely does.  Adultery is far more often a shallow, frivolous and self-indulgent act.

Nonetheless, fair or not, films in this category have succeeded in presenting a persuasive argument for adultery.  Take, for instance, The Wedding Night (1935).  Tony Barrett (Gary Cooper) has married a woman who enjoys a fast and affluent lifestyle.  He later describes his life with his wife, Dora (Helen Vinson), as "madness."  He has become spent in this demanding and unfulfilling relationship.  Worst of all, he has become washed up in his career as a novelist.

But then he meets a Polish farm girl, Manya Novak (Anna Sten), who is loving and full of life.  Manya inspires a passion in him that he never felt before.  As he spends time in her company, he becomes reinvigorated as a writer and he falls deeply in love.

There's Always Tomorrow (1956) introduces us to a cruelly neglected husband, Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray).  Clifford is a highly successful toy manufacturer.  He is an important man in the office, but his family shows no interest in him at home.  Clifford's wife, Marion (Joan Bennett), is the worst, acting as if her husband doesn't exist.  Clifford is frustrated.  He tells Marion:
I am tired of the children taking over.  I'm tired of being taken for granted.  I'm becoming like one of my toys.  Cliff, the walkie-talkie robot.  Wind me up in the morning and I go to work.  Wind me up again and I come home at night, eat dinner and go to bed.  Wind me up the next morning and I work all day to pay the bills. . . I'm sick and tired of the sameness of it, day in and day out.  Don't you ever want to get out, move around?. . . Every time I plan anything for us, you find some excuse. . . The children mean more to you than I do.  When we were younger, we did so many things together.  We had fun.  No two days were alike.  Life was an adventure but now. . .
"If life were always an adventure," Marion dryly replies, "it would be very exhausting."  That's all she has to say to her husband after he has poured his heart out to her.  She just doesn't care.

Clifford has fun again when he meets an old friend, Norma Miller Vale (Barbara Stanwyck).  Can the man be faulted if he takes this pleasant relationship further and has an affair with Norma?

But these films present only a spiritual adultery.  Tony and Dora never have sex.  Clifford and Norma never have sex. 


In The Suspect (1944), mild-mannered shopkeeper Philip Marshal (Charles Laughton) is constantly being tormented by his horror show of a wife, Cora (Rosalind Ivan).  He meets sweet and tender Mary Gray (Ella Raines), who has the beauty both inside and out that Cora so dismally lacks. 

The couple develops a deep love for one another and Philip wants to divorce his wife to marry Mary.  Philip sets out to arrange the divorce in a civil and reasonable manner.  He tells Cora:
Cora, if we could come to some sort of understanding, it might help us.  Now, listen, if we face things honestly, we'd admit that we have never been happy together.  We haven't been happy not once in all the years we have been married.  It's not anyone's fault.  We have tried to rub along together.  Over and over again, we've tried.  And it isn't that I do this or that you do that.  Don't you know that, when two people are shut up together and they don't love each other, everything they do becomes hateful just because they do it. . . All I say is that we have some good years ahead of us, both of us.  Why can't we live them happily apart from each other?. . . Let me go, Cora.

But Cora is not about to let him go.  And, worse, she promises to ruin him and his lady friend with exposure and scandal. 

So, Philip murders Cora.  And I cannot imagine that anyone watching the film could blame him.  IMDb member Spikeopath wrote:
How delightfully off, that a film that features a wife murderer. . . should be so restrained and actually beautiful.  The Suspect in principal is about a decent man pushed to do bad things by his awful life when hope then springs from an unlikely source.  The moral shadings here are most intricate, Laughton's Philip Marshal is a completely sympathetic and fascinating character, the makers deftly toying with our perceptions in the process. . . Murder as justifiable homicide?  Ridding the world of bad people is OK?  Rest assured that [the film] is far darker than it appears on the surface."
When in the throes of a bad marriage, a man is capable of doing anything. 


In Avanti! (1972), Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) and Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills) meet at a romantic island resort in Italy.  Unfortunately, the two are not on vacation.  Their parents, who had rendezvoused at the resort for an adulterous affair, died in an automobile accident, leaving it to family members to claim their bodies. 

Wendell regularly phones his wife Emily in Baltimore, but their conversations are always curt and businesslike.  It figures why he'd be taken by the affectionate and free-spirited Pamela, especially considering the enchanting atmosphere of the island.  Tony Macklin of The Journal Herald wrote, "When the rigid Armbruster warms up on a sunny rock and begins to shuck the cold, American, uptight existence for a lazier, livelier life, Wilder is telling us something that is more than just fun."  Since the Production Code is no longer in effect, the couple is allowed to wind up in bed together in the third act.  Wendell and Pamela agree in the end to turn their happy adulterous romp into an annual ritual.  Unlike the other films, this one concludes with no pain and no mess.

Adultery happens to good marriages.  A stable and loving marriage can have a sameness at times.  An affair can be, by comparison, fresh and exciting.  But don't let movies fan the flames of temptation.  Adultery is not beautiful.  Adultery is not glamorous.  Adultery is not exotic.  Adultery is, if we're honest, ugly. 

And we already know that murder is pretty bad, right?

A less glamorous depiction of adultery can be found in a 1957 British film, Woman in a Dressing Gown.

Reference source

Tony Macklin, "Avanti's incongruities give pleasure," The Journal Herald (February 12, 1973).

No comments:

Post a Comment