Classic films show what marriage was. Facts show its death.
Summary: The family is dying as American society evolves. See these classic films to see how much we have changed. Films provide a mirror in which we can see ourselves, past and present — if we look. This post then describes the result of these changes, and a wise man’s explanation of how this happened.
Films of the dark ages, before feminism
In the dark ages it was seen as women’s job to persuade a man to marry her as shown in many classic films. John Wayne made many of these, playing the strong loner pursued by a beautiful and spirited young woman. For example, see Tall in the Saddle (1944) starring Ella Raines, Angel and the Badman (1947) starring Gail Russell, and Hatari (1962) starring Elsa Martinelli. The women get their man in these.
The most dramatic stories in this genre were about strong but unsocialized (even feral) men lured into the rat race by lovely women. Here are three classics of the genre.
One of the classic films of this genre was Mogambo. It was directed by the great John Ford, starring Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, and Ava Gardner. Gable plays a man who fled civilization for the freer and harder life in Africa as a great white safari leader. The film was adapted by John Lee Mahin from the 1928 play “Red Dust” by Wilson Collison. An earlier adaptation — Red Dust, also starring Clark Gable — was closer to the play.
Kelly and Gardner blast into Gable’s life, competing to lure him into domesticity. It is complex problem in biochemistry, eventually resolved with tact and wisdom by Gable and Gardner. Compared to this and similar films of the era (e.g., The Night of the Iguana), most dramatic films these days are like cartoons.
Two underappreciated gems from the dawn of the modern era.
Here are two films from Hollywood’s transitional era, when they were still making films about the traditional domestic order — but their doubts about its desirability were growing fast. Some showed convention bourgeois life either through a slightly comic lens — the first of these two films (plus Doris Day’s 1960’s films). Some showed conventional life as a necessary choice in our hard world.
Father Goose (1964).
Father Goose starred Cary Grant, Leslie Caron, and Trevor Howard. Based on the short story A Place of Dragons by S. H. Barnett, it won an Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.
Cary Grant plays a man who exchanged the job of college professor for that of heavy drinking beachcomber in west Pacific (the New Guinea area). He is drafted during WWII into working as a coast-watcher behind Japanese lines. By the fortunes of war, he becomes responsible for group of teenage girls — along with a beautiful cultured spinster (Leslie Caron).
These are two lonely souls — “Miss Goody Two Shoes” and the “rude, foul-mouthed, drunken, filthy beast”. They fight, arrange a détente, and then marry. It was back to the rat race for Cary Grant, with years ahead of him as husband, father, and war hero (hopefully not posthumously).
A Thousand Clowns (1965).
A Thousand Clowns starred Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, child actor Barry Gordon, and Martin Balsam (who won an Oscar for his performance). Both the screenplay and the original play are by Herb Gardner.
Robards, an imaginative middle-aged iconoclast, drops out of the rat race — the dreary tedium of employment and conventional life — but learns that as a result he will lose custody of his nephew. The spirited and desirable Barbara Harris attempts to persuade him to change his mind, with herself as a reward for domesticity.
This is one of the few films from Hollywood in which the outsider’s life is seriously described as a valid path. The conversation of Robards with his brother — a successful advertising executive — is a rare moment in Hollywood in which normal reality (the life most of us lead) appears on the big screen.
At the end of this post are two quotes from this insightful and disturbing film.
Fast forward to today.
Today all of this has become politically incorrect. A film with a woman chasing a man seeking marriage would be harpooned by critics and denounced by feminists. As was Leap Year, one of the few romantic films in recent years. Superlatively done, it starred the wonderful Amy Adams as a woman pursuing her dream of marriage and family. It got a Rotten Tomatoes score of 21% (“an unfunny script” — since romance today is only realistic as a comedy). Rightly so. Women increasingly abandon that role, choosing instead to pursue their own destiny — sometimes with a friend along “with benefits.”
Without women running the family game, American society has begun to take a new form. Men are dropping out of the rat race, with the employment rate of men 25-54 in a long-term decline. Fewer are marrying. Hence women’s complaints in a thousand articles about the “Peter Pan Syndrome: A Man’s Fear of Commitment”.
“These are highly educated, very successful women and one after another they were saying they couldn’t find a partner. How could it be that all these amazing, attractive intelligent women were lamenting about their ability to find a partner?”
— Marcia Inhorn, Professor of Anthropology at Yale. From Women are freezing their eggs for feminism.
The result: in 2005/06 less 60% of US adolescents (11, 13, and 15 years old) lived with both birth parents, per the OCED Family Database). That was the lowest level among OECD nations. That number is probably lower today.
This problem was seen by the wise long ago.
Allan Bloom saw this trend in its early stages and clearly described its origins in Closing of the American Mind (1987).
“Locke believed, and the events of our time seem to confirm his belief, that women have an instinctive attachment to children that cannot be explained as self-interest or calculation. The attachment of mother and child is perhaps the only undeniable natural social bond. It is not always effective, and it can, with effort, be suppressed, but it is always a force. And this is what we see today.
“But what about the father? Maybe he loves imagining his own eternity through the generations stemming from him. But this is only an act of imagination, one that can be attenuated by other concerns and calculations, as well as by his losing faith in the continuation of his name for very long in the shifting conditions of democracy. Of necessity, therefore, it was understood to be the woman’s job to get and hold the man by her charms and wiles because, by nature, nothing else would induce him to give up his freedom in favor of the heavy duties of family.
“But women no longer wish to do this, and they, with justice, consider it unfair according to the principles governing us. So the cement that bound the family together crumbled. It is not the children who break away; it is the parents who abandon them. Women are no longer willing to make unconditional and perpetual commitments on unequal terms, and, no matter what they hope, nothing can effectively make most men share equally the responsibilities of childbearing and child-rearing. The divorce rate is only the most striking symptom of this breakdown. …
“More than two hundred years ago Rousseau saw with alarm the seeds of the breakdown of the family in liberal society, and he dedicated much of his genius to trying to correct it. He found that the critical connection between man and woman was being broken by individualism, and focused his efforts, theoretical and practical, on encouraging passionate romantic love in them. He wanted to rebuild and reinforce that connection, previously encumbered by now discredited religious and civil regulation, on modern grounds of desire and consent. …
“He set utter abandon to the sentiments and imaginations of idealized love against calculation of individual interest. Rousseau inspired a whole genre of novelistic and poetic literature that lived feverishly for over a century, coexisting with the writings of the Benthams and the Mills who were earnestly at work homogenizing the sexes. His undertaking had the heaviest significance because human community was at risk. In essence he was persuading women freely to be different from men and to take on the burden of entering a positive contract with the family, as opposed to a negative, individual, self protective contract with the state. Tocqueville picked up this theme …and attributed the success of American democracy to its women, who freely choose their lot. …
“This whole effort failed and now arouses either women’s anger, as an attempt to take from them rights guaranteed to all human beings, or their indifference, as irrelevant in a time when women do exactly the same things as men and face the same difficulties in ensuring their independence. Rousseau, Tocqueville and all the others now have only historical significance and at most provide us with a serious alternative perspective for analyzing our situation. Romantic love is now as alien to us as knight errantry…”
I have no idea how these trends will play out, or what their consequences will be. I am alarmed that so few are thinking about these matters. We just assume our ideology will bring us to a wonderful future. Such assumptions have wrecked other nations.