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 four classics of the genre.
Fifth Avenue Girl (1939).
A millionaire sees that his family is falling apart. He wants his playboy son (Tim) – young, handsome, talented – to settle down and take over the family business. The son enjoys his life of endless fun, and has no interest whatsoever in work and responsibility. Being a smart dad, he does not lecture or threaten or bribe. He brings in Mary Grey (Ginger Rogers) as his secretary. Young women have been socializing young men since before the invention of fire.
One typical line. She tells the son that his dad is old and needs someone to fill his shoes, but “they’re probably too big for you.” Another exchange, showing that “negs” work for girls as well as guys…
Mary: “I understand you play polo.”
Tim: “Yeah. What’s that got to do with it?”
Mary: ‘Nothing. It’s just that I’m amazed.”
Tim: “You’re amazed at what?”
Mary: “I’m amazed to discover that horses have better breeding than the people who ride them.”
Tim decisively proves Mary wrong. He takes the reins at the firm, successfully fires it up, and marries her.
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 free and hard 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. I prefer this version.
Kelly and Gardner blast into Gable’s life, competing to lure him into domesticity. This complex quadrangle (Kelly is married) is eventually resolved with tact and wisdom by Gable and Gardner. The characters are all recognizable as people like you and me. There are no cardboard cut-out bad guys to make the moral choices easily understandable by children.
Compared to this and similar films of the era (e.g., The Night of the Iguana), most dramatic films of our time are like cartoons.
Two 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.
- Bachelor Mother (Ginger Rogers and David Niven, 1939).
- Bright Eyes (Shirley Temple, 1943).
- Tall in the Saddle (John Wayne, 1944).
- Angel and the Badman (John Wayne, 1947).
- Hatari! (John Wayne, 1962).
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.
For More Information
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about romance, about marriage, about feminism, about women and gender, and especially these…
- Why men are avoiding work and marriage.
- Will today’s young men marry? America’s future depends which of these answers is right.
- Movies show the hidden truth about romance & marriage: they’re dying.
- For Father’s Day: revolutionary words that will forever change the American family.
- Recommendation: nine of the best American romantic films.
- Modern movies show the hidden truth about romance & marriage: they’re dying.
- Classic films show what marriage was. Facts show its death.
Some insights about life from A Thousand Clowns.
The famous speech by Arnold Burns, a successful advertising executive, to his brother.
“I have a wife and I have children, and business, like they say, is business. I am not an exceptional man, so it is possible for me to stay with things the way they are. I’m lucky. I’m gifted. I have a talent for surrender. I’m at peace. But you are cursed; and I like you so it makes me sad, you don’t have the gift; and I see the torture of it. All I can do is worry for you. But I will not worry for myself; you cannot convince me that I am one of the Bad Guys. I get up, I go, I lie a little, I peddle a little, I watch the rules, I talk the talk. We fellas have those offices high up there so we can catch the wind and go with it, however it blows. But, and I will not apologize for it, I take pride; I am the best possible Arnold Burns.”
Sandra: “There is a kind of relief that it’s gone – the job, and even Albert. But I know what it is, it’s just irresponsible, that’s all. And I don’t have the vaguest idea who I am.”
Murray Burns: “It’s just that there are all these Sandras running around who you’ve never met before, and it’s confusing at first, fantastic. But damn it, isn’t it great to find out how many Sandras there are? It’s like those little cars in the circus, you know? This tiny red car comes out, hardly big enough for a midget, and it putters around, and suddenly its doors open and out come a thousand clowns, whooping and hollering and raising hell.”
6 thoughts on “Classic films show what marriage was. Facts show its death.”
FM: “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.”
I don’t know, either, but I fear it may be some variant on Amara’s law where we overestimate the effects of the decline of the nuclear, and to some extent a well-knit extended, family in the near term, but underestimate the effects in the longer term.
It seems that Americans’ “spirit of association” that Tocqueville observed hasn’t so much diminished as it’s been redirected into associations of “non-communal” shared interest. That is, whereas grandpa went to church was in the Lion’s Club, Little Billy will join a Maker’s club and play League of Legends on Sunday with kids from California, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada. I am not a bible-thumper by any means, but I do recognize churches as communities who hold shared values and look out for each other for reasons that transcend just being a good person. Also, the monotheistic religions (and I’m sure others as well, but I am ignorant of the details) uniformly endorse fairly rigid norms of marriage. No church, where do the founding myths of a nuclear family formed by a married man and woman come from? Or any other committed couple for that matter? What is replacing that institution?
I feel, sense, suspect — please forgive me for the lack of substantiation here — that there is some sort of relationship between the deterioration of nuclear and extended families (which is empirical fact) and the deterioration of “community” and communal associations (also fact in some sense, e.g., declining church attendance, service club membership, etc.). This isn’t limited to the South Side of Chicago or hollowed-out rural American towns, but is working through all levels of society. Who has time for “service above self” when you have to make it to the cooking class to learn how to make a sushi roll that looks like a panda when you slice it? That is, of course, unfair in isolation. People should make time to do fun and interesting things that appeal to them, but that should be a thing rather than the thing.
I am sympathetic to the people who freak out about the worst case scenarios in climate change forecasts because they’re really bad, however serious or slight the risk. But because it could be bad, it’s being studied intensively. What happens when society disintegrates into only very loosely connected groups and isolated into varied and increasing socio-economic strata, with only tenuous shared values and world views? That this isn’t being studied more aggressively is, as you say alarming. Moreover, it’s problematic that people who do try to study aspects of this, like Charles Murray, get shouted down, rather than considered.
I appreciate that you continue to riff on this theme.
Nicely said. I agree on all points. Expanding on one detail you mention —
“Americans’ “spirit of association” that Tocqueville observed hasn’t so much diminished as it’s been redirected into associations of “non-communal” shared interest.”
I don’t see those as at all similar. My youngest son fits into your latter group. Those acquaintances will not help him move into a new apartment, bring him meals when sick, or provide any of the thousand-and-one forms of help that people in a good provide. What forms of help will those online “communities” provide as replacements for the “boots on the ground” help of a communal group?
Forgive me by not writing clearly, because my point *is* your point, I think. The groups with whom “young folk” (and increasingly “older folk”) associate these days are largely non-communal, or non-communitarian — they don’t help move him into an apartment, etc. — but share interests e.g., Bronies.
This isn’t *isn’t* to pick on folks per se (the handful of Bronies that I know, I like and respect and find interesting young men), but to contrast the difference between being part of fandom clubs, maker’s groups, book clubs, knitting circles, whatever — and there is *nothing* wrong with these affiliations! — and, say being a member of the Rotary Club, Lion’s, whatever.
I wish I had better words for the social orientation of the different groups. Churches and Rotarians have metaphorical barn raisings as part of their essence. Bronies might do a barn raising, or might not, but it’s certainly not their raison d’etre.
So Americans are still imbued with the “spirit of association”, but increasingly, the the time and focus is directed away from community-oriented activities toward topics of common interest that are more or less disjoint from community as the place and people with whom we live in near proximity.
There is some overlap, of course, with some of the larger groups like the 501st Legion “Vader’s Fist who in addition to spending mind-bending amounts of time and talent on Stormtrooper (and other) costumes, raise money for charity and are in their words Bad Guys doing Good. I think that both of us would agree that pointing out the difference is not the same a deprecating, but the loss participation in the community-focused clubs and organization I *think* points to something that we should look into.
Again, sorry for my imprecise writing!
Your writing is clear and precise. Rather the point is that we’re discussing things on the edge of the known. True clarity comes from well-worn discussions of things well understood by society.
As with your previous comment, I agree fully with your analysis. But I take a darker view of the implications. These non-communal organizations — “virtual ones” — are like facsimiles of communal clubs. They are superficially the same, like the picture of an apple is to an apple. Looking at this — as with most social dynamics — in terms of “good” and “bad” just clouds our vision.
To see a deeper discussion of this evolution of American society I recommend reading Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam. (2000).
Let me say: amen brother!
Ceci n’est pas une pipe!
One of my very favorite paintings. Pipe, not apple, but you will get the gist.
Like a well-used knife, I fear I grow increasingly dull with use and its concomitant age, and wither with each new sharpening. Thank you for letting me hone what’s left while there is some steel remaining!
My feeling is this really is bigger than climate change or if Kim Jong (insert whatever syllable comes next) has the bomb but it’s a void. I can see that it’s different, but I can’t see what it is. I go to church as a considered (recursively reconsidered) atheist (I get don’t ask don’t tell, LOL!), because the institution is important and we don’t have anything to replace it. My knuckles are appropriately white on the rail on the roller coaster on the track of what’s coming. My “faith” in the equality of people in their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — it really is only a myth after all — leads me to faith we can work it all out. This idea is bigger, perhaps only in my mind, than might-makes-right superiority of this group over the other. This is the edge of the known, but we’re all hearing the clickity clack as the coaster goes up the incline.
Do roller coasters still go clickity clack?
My optimism may betray some naivety — it is what it is — but, like the climate change zealots, I harbor some angst for the worst case scenario — its risk being more rather than less probable. I reject my instinctive view because it’s dark, not for empirical reasons, which for me is usually blasphemy and heresy all rolled up into a sushi roll of sin (sorry, I’ve been watching The Tick).
My favorite Heinlein bit is in Stranger in a Strange Land with the monkeys in the zoo and Valentine has to laugh because there is nothing else to do…
Thanks for all your hard work sponsoring these conversations about important topics!
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