Marriage, Once Upon a Time
A Screwball Comedy Hints at Better Days
Saturday, July 10, 2004 2:51 am
In very old movies a married couple is usually seen to sleep separately, husband in one twin bed and wife in the other. Nowadays we snicker at this — and rightly so. Though the motive to this contrivance may have been modesty, the effect of it is prudery. The marriage bed, after all, is the proper place for sex. By showing one bed we would affirm what is right; by showing twin beds, on the other hand, we clumsily imply that sex has no fit role in a good clean world.
Sometimes, however, an old movie can be not prudish but simply naive, and naive in a way that does affirm what is right. Case in point: My Favorite Wife. This movie, having been made in 1940, does have that silly nonsense with the twin beds; but it also has a particularly wonderful moment of sense.
Nick is married to Ellen. One day Ellen is lost in a shipwreck. Seven years later, Nick has her declared legally dead so he can remarry. The very day that he remarries, Ellen — who has been recently rescued from an island — comes home. She learns from her mother-in-law that Nick has remarried and that he has gone away on his honeymoon. Ellen resolves to go after Nick. Her mother-in-law asks: "What are you going to do?" Ellen answers: "Well, I don't know, but I hope I'm not too late."
"Not too late"? Huh? What can she mean? Nick has already met, dated, wooed, and married another woman. Wouldn't it seem rather too late already? What does Ellen hope to do?
Why, what else? She hopes to get there before the marriage is consummated.
See, once upon a time, it was understood that sex sealed a marriage bond. Not as the icing on the cake, mind you, but as an unprecedented act that literally made husband and wife one flesh. Until sex had occurred, the marriage was — as the term had it — unconsummated. Incomplete. And so, if Ellen gets there before Nick and the new wife have sex, then the new marriage will not be sealed. Of course there will be some messy legal things to take care of, but in a certain sense nothing irrevocable will have happened.
Ellen presumes that Nick and his new wife have not had sex yet. Of course in 1940 people had sex outside of marriage; but Ellen implicitly accepts the ideal of chastity. More to the point, she implicitly accepts the ideal that sex is a significant component not of love but of marriage — an almost legalistic component. That is: sex has a role outside of pleasure. Ellen is not preaching to us; she is merely acting on a common understanding — a common understanding that has, of course, been destroyed in past decades.
Now, I'm not saying that everyone in 1940 was a saint when it came to marriage, nor that everyone understood marriage as it was scrupulously defined in, say, the Catechism. Please! But need I say it? In 1940 society had standards. However sinful the audience may have really been, they would not have been even momentarily confused when Ellen said "I hope I'm not too late." They would have understood; whereas I, in 2004, must decode her statement as if I were some cultural archeologist.