The other day, felled by that nasty cold that’s been making the rounds, I curled up on the sofa and watched one of Fred Astaire’s more obscure musicals, Royal Wedding. It contains the famous number in which a lovestruck Astaire blissfully dances on the ceiling of his hotel room, but the rest of the film was brand-new to me. In Royal Wedding (released by MGM in 1951), Astaire’s dance partner is the petite and perky Jane Powell. Fortunately, they don’t play lovers, because Astaire is at least thirty years Powell’s senior, and looks every bit of it. Instead they are cast as brother and sister, a successful song-and-dance team who bicker affectionately as they sail off to London. You see, there’s a royal wedding afoot, and they’ve been invited to perform during the festivities. This allows for a wealth of colorful music numbers, including the Latin-themed “I Lost My Hat in Haiti,” Astaire’s masterful duet with a hatrack, and the comically crass “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?”
I’m amused that an actual British wedding (that of Princess – soon to be Queen – Elizabeth) inspired this film. The royal nuptials are not shown on screen, but everyone in this Hollywood version of England seems swept away by the romantic thrill of it all. One character’s feuding parents bury the hatchet; Jane Powell thrusts aside her career ambitions to marry a British lord; and Astaire overturns his determination to remain a bachelor forever. All subplots wrap up, of course, on the very day that the royal bride and groom are heading toward Westminster Abbey. Ah, sweet mystery of life!
This frothy concoction marked the solo directing debut of one of Hollywood’s great masters of romance, Stanley Donen. Sixteen years later, Donen made an equally charming but far more realistic film about love and marriage. I’m talking about the great Two for the Road, which -- though it contains elements of a classic romantic comedy -- aims much higher, attempting no less than to dissect a marriage, exposing both its joys and its grievances.
Two for the Road presents its English husband and wife -- played by Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn -- entirely in the context of their travels through the south of France. Frederic Raphael’s dazzlingly non-linear script intercuts between widely-spaced points in time without regard for basic chronology. Over the span of the twelve years that comprise this film, we see Mark and Joanna meet as young hitch-hikers and tumble into bed together; we watch them confront the spectacular breakdown of their car and the discovery that she is pregnant; we follow Mark’s growing success as an architect and his brief fling at infidelity; we face a bitter patch in their marriage that suggests a unbridgeable rift between them. As the years pass, their cars get fancier, their resentments get bigger, and their skepticism about marriage as a permanent state continues to grow. At times Two for the Road seems overwhelmingly cynical: for instance, there’s Joanna describing marriage as “when sex stopped being fun.” The film certainly questions the concept of dewy-eyed matrimonial love. But, ultimately, the past history they share keeps Jo and Mark together. It’s less a Hollywood ending than a realistic one, colored by a complex web of emotions.
Though critics cheered this film, audiences of the day were not so certain. But I salute the courage of Donen and company. I’ve been married (mostly happily) for forty years, and so I know marriage is never just love and roses.
Happy Valentine’s Day to Bernie.