How to commit marriage (and get away with it)

22 May 2017

Cultural Studies | History

The object I’ve chosen to highlight this week has been inspired by the fact that no less than five of the staff here at Adam Matthew towers are tying the knot this summer. And it’s clear from discussions during coffee breaks that whether it’s wishing we had our own J-Lo with her slick headset, or wondering what Wilson Phillips might actually charge, representations of weddings form a big part of our understanding of, and expectations for, the big day.

Browsing through the entertainment memorabilia collection in our resource Popular Culture in Britain and America, I came across a press kit for the 1969 film How to Commit Marriage. A fascinating primary source contemporary to a dynamic time in American cultural life, this item also offers insight into Hollywood’s values and aims.

Image © Bowling Green State University. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

The press kit was produced by the Cinerama Releasing Corporation and provides guidance for promoting the film, whose plot contrasts the impending marriage of their children with a couple's imminent divorce, was a vehicle for comedians Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason – both some decades past their career highs.

Image of Bob Hope credit: Flickr via creative commons https://flic.kr/p/3nzFcq

The pack includes press releases, Yellow Submarine-inspired poster facsimiles, and a section ominously titled ‘Exploitation’. In it, the Cinerama Releasing Corporation recommends staging a “novelty” live event by selecting a couple to get married on the stage of the theatre, with Bob Hope acting as best man. These were designed to be legitimate wedding ceremonies engaging local businesses to offer prizes; and it worked.

“In a contest […], prospective couples were encouraged to send in letters (of fifty words or less) stating why they wanted to be married alongside Bob Hope. The winning couple would be married onstage, with Hope as the best man. The newlyweds would also win a trip to Las Vegas, $25 worth of groceries a week for three months from the Lucky 7 supermarket, and a host of other wedding presents.

Bobb Bailey and Grace Davilla were the winning couple for the May 30, 1969 ceremony […]. Said Bailey at the time, “I think having him (Hope) as my best man is going to be the greatest”. 

(Welling, David, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex, pp.62-63)

This bizarre gimmick evidences the press kit's – as well as the film’s – conflicting approach to a target audience in the midst of the social revolution. Short-form press releases look to engage with everything youthful; the music is foregrounded (“A swinging, hip sound which will appeal to the younger generation”); wacky set pieces are highlighted (“25 gallons of simulated mud were used”) and the word “groovy” is generously applied.

Image © Bowling Green State University. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Novelty ceremonies designed to “attract swingers to ‘commit marriage’” appear glib, but the participating couples were legally married and thereby aligned to convention. And while the film’s plot portrays co-habitation and alternative lifestyles, it is with a harsh comic treatment. The music is mocked, mysticism is a device for slapstick and the narrative resolution is ultimately the reinforcement of marriage (spoiler alert, the divorce never happens).

Outwardly progressive and covertly conservative has long been the Hollywood way, and this press kit offers just a small indication of that central conflict at a fascinating point in cultural history.

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About the Author

Hannah Phillips

Hannah Phillips

I am an Editor and have been with Adam Matthew Digital since October 2012. I have worked on a range of fascinating projects including American Indian Histories and Cultures, World's Fairs and Medical Services and Warfare.