Monday, September 28, 2015

Consolation Marriage

An interesting and little-known pre-Code is coming up on TCM tomorrow morning at 6:15 AM: Consolation Marriage. It deserves a viewing and a blog post.

Irene Dunne plays Mary, a working girl trying to make her way through the late 1920s with her boyfriend Aubrey (Lester Vail). Unfortunately, he decides that he would be happier marrying into wealth. So he runs off with a rich girl and leaves poor Mary alone. While Mary is licking her wounds, she runs into Steve (Pat O'Brien). He's a newspaperman who has just suffered the same fate as his girl Elaine (a young Myrna Loy) has left him for a better-off partner. There's an obvious solution for these two jilted lovers that you should be able to figure out.

Ah, but there's a twist. Mary and Steve do decide to get married, but they have an agreement that it's going to be a more or less "open" marriage. Not so much in the sense that they're going to be sleeping around, but more that if either of them decides they don't want to be in the marriage any longer, they can just up and end the marriage. Seems like a pretty daring idea for the early 1930s, even taking into account that Hollywood movies probably had more divorces in them than America as a whole. That having been said, the marriage seems to be a reasonably happy one, and one that obviously includes sex, since Mary ultimately has a baby. (I suppose that in true Hollywood tradition, they could have had sex exactly once and that's what produced the baby.)

For a movie like this to be interesting, however, there's going to have to be some dramatic conflict. In Penny Serenade, that conflict involved killing off the poor little child. Consolation Marriage isn't going to be so mean here. And, in fact, it comes up with a more interesting dilemma. Aubrey and Elaine both return to announce that they're not happy with their marriages, and both of them would be happy running off with their old lovers. A fun solution would be for Aubrey and Elaine to marry each other and then live together with Mary and Steve, but the cinema of the early 1930s couldn't be that daring. Instead, what we get is a dramatic conflict over whether Mary, Steve, or both of them will go back to their old lovers. And who's going to take custody of the baby?

Consolation Marriage is an interesting idea, even if the execution isn't always perfect. But it's that idea that makes it so well worth watching, at least once. Most of us who are into old movies know well about Joe Breen's enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 and how, before then, movies could do things that were more daring. But even then, a lot of what was done is pretty tame compared to what you can show on screen today. The sort of marriage practiced by Mary and Steve, however, is different, and that's one of the things that makes the movie worth a watch.

I don't think Consolation Marriage has been released to DVD here in North America, so you'll have to catch the rare TCM showing.

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