Movies that were popular when they were made tell us something about the culture that produced them, but sometimes it is hard know whether the movies depict things as they really were or only as the way the audience wanted them to be. This is especially so for the movie Made for Each Other, in which one cannot help but wonder what the attitude of the audience was toward love, God, and housewives in 1939.
The movie starts off as a comedy, drifts into drama, plunges into melodrama, and then closes as a comedy, the overall result being uneven and unsatisfying, especially since the parts of the movie that count as comedy are not all that funny. It begins by announcing in a prologue that of all the people in New York, John Mason (James Stewart) is one of the least important. We see a hand flipping through a telephone book until it finds the name John Mason, followed by the abbreviation “atty,” indicating that he is an attorney. Given this, it is hard to avoid the implication that the measure of a person’s importance is his occupation. Now, this movie was made during the Great Depression when a lot of people didn’t even have a job. And of those who did have employment, most would not have had a college education, let alone have had the luxury of obtaining an advanced degree, such as by going to law school. In other words, most of those in the audience would have been “less important” in this sense than John Mason, and yet the people that made this movie must have assumed, perhaps rightly, that the audience would accept this evaluation of John as one of the least important people in New York are perfectly reasonable.
Anyway, he works for a law firm, and while on a brief trip to Boston to get a deposition for an upcoming case, Higgins versus Higgins, he met a woman named Jane (Carol Lombard) and married her. It really is amazing, looking back now from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, how unthinkable that would be today. Of course, even in 1939, when this movie was made, marrying a woman after having known her for only a few days would have been exceptional. But people did fall in love and get married in those days far more quickly than now. That is not surprising, considering that before the sexual revolution, a lot of people never had sex until they got married, and so couples were often in a hurry to tie the knot.
But it is not simply that people could not wait to have sex with each other. Rather, there was a widespread belief at that time that marriages were made in Heaven. This belief is expressed in the title of the movie. So, once you met the person you were made for, there was no reason to hesitate. Today, few people still believe this sort of thing. We fall in love and have sex, not necessarily in that order, and then we fall out of love and break up. We do this a few times with a few different people, and maybe when we find someone we really seem to get along with, we finally decide to get married, usually after living together for a while. And then, as often as not, we end up getting divorced anyway. And thus it is that today we look upon the notion that people are “made for each other” with a jaundiced eye.
Be that as it may, when John returns to the office, Carter, his chief rival for being made the next junior partner of the firm, suggests that senior partner Judge Doolittle (Charles Coburn) might be displeased with the news, owing to the expectation that John would marry Doolittle’s daughter Eunice. John dismisses that as just a rumor. But he is embarrassed and hesitant about telling Doolittle, so we have to wonder. It is never clear what John’s relationship with Eunice really amounted to, whether they even ever went out on a date.
John and Jane prepare to go on their honeymoon by taking a ship to Europe. In their cabin, there is a small bed, which is just barely big enough for the two of them. They get on the bed and try it out. A lot of people believe that in old movies, if a man and woman got on the same bed, at least one of them had to have one foot on the floor. There is nothing about that in the Production Code, and this is one of several movies that prove that the rule never existed, such as Fallen Angel (1945) and The 39 Steps (1935), in the latter of which the couple are not even married. The honeymoon, however, is called off when John has to go back to the office, because the continuance he thought he had for Higgins v. Higgins has been rescinded, with the trial scheduled for the next Monday. He gets no sympathy from Doolittle, who is contemptuous of honeymoons.
Somewhat later, with John’s mother Harriet living with him and Jane, they have Doolittle, Carter, and Eunice over for dinner. John thought he was being groomed for being made a partner, but Doolittle announces that the new partner will be Carter, owing to the recommendation made by Eunice, presumably because she is a woman scorned. Having your boss over for dinner, who then picks that time to let you know, in front of your wife and other guests, that you have been passed over for the promotion you were hoping for would certainly make you feel as though you were one of the least important people in New York.
Jane has a baby, after which there follows a lot of helpless-husband and interfering mother-in-law routines that are supposed to be funny. Maybe they were funny in 1939. As I noted above, things were very different back then from the way they are now. And one way in which they are different apparently is in the status of a housewife. For some time now, it has been deemed inappropriate to ask a married woman if she works. The implication of such a question is that housewives do not work, when in fact they do a lot of work, raising children, cleaning house, cooking, and so forth. Well, that may be the way things are today, but judging by this movie, one has to wonder how things were back then.
From the beginning of their marriage, John and Jane have had a cook. That is breathtaking all by itself. How many people do you know have a full-time cook? Anyway, the cook tells Jane that her job is to prepare meals, and that Jane can wash the diapers herself. Jane is devastated. She tells the cook she is fired. Of course, she immediately hires another one, presumably someone who will wash the diapers as well as cook the meals (Ew!), and from what we can glean later in the movie, someone who will clean house as well. In other words, this apartment has two women in it, John’s wife and mother, neither of whom has a job, and between the two of them, they cannot cook their own meals, wash the baby’s diapers, or keep house in general. Well, maybe housewives today “work,” but I am not so sure about the ones in the 1930s, if this movie is any indication. However, this may be a piece with the notion that a lawyer could be one of the least important people in New York. That is, if the audience could believe this about John, perhaps the audience could accept the idea that it was perfectly appropriate for Jane to have a cook, even if those in the audience were doing good just to put food on the table.
John despairs about the fact that he was not promoted and given a raise, making it a bit of a struggle to pay the bills. Jane tells John he should just barge into Doolittle’s office and demand a raise, saying Doolittle cannot do without him. That makes me cringe. One should never ask for a raise with that attitude. One should always assume that the boss will say no, and be prepared for that. Anyway, Jane pumps John up enough to do it, but before John can demand his raise, Doolittle tells him that business is off and everyone will have to take a twenty-five percent cut in pay, and that he himself will be making a substantial reduction in his drawing account. As John leaves the office, we hear Doolittle talking to a commissioner on the phone, saying that he wants to buy that house on Park Avenue.
John goes out and gets drunk, coming home at two in the morning. He drops a bottle of milk, waking up the new cook Lily (Louise Beavers). All right, just a darn minute. Now they have a live-in cook? Well, maybe cooks have to live in the house for which they prepare the meals. How would I know? In any event, as we see in the next scene, she is also a nanny, because she is taking care of the baby in the park. This is the fifteenth woman that Jane has hired, although it is the first one we have seen that is African American. Perhaps it is on account of Lily’s black wisdom that Jane values her so much, as when Lily says, “Never let the seeds stop you from enjoying the watermelon.”
Because of the cut in pay, the Mason family starts going into debt, even to the point of having collection agencies being sicced on them. Jane looks for a job, but cannot find one. Finally, she is so desperate, she has to let go of Lily. Now she will have to work in the home, just like a modern housewife. In fact, John gets so depressed that he has turned his wife into a “household drudge” that he decides that they should get a divorce so that she won’t be married to a failure. In other words, whereas today, a housewife may take umbrage at the suggestion that she does not work, back when this movie was made, if a housewife actually had to do housework, that was something to be ashamed of.
In the course of lamenting their marriage, John even says that maybe they should not have had the baby. Uh-oh! You know what that means. It’s punishment time. While they are at a night club being miserable with each other on New Year’s Eve, Jane calls home and finds out that the baby is sick. He is rushed to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with an infection so severe that unless they can obtain some of the new, experimental serum, the baby will die. John goes to Doolittle’s house, wakes him up in the middle of the night, and makes him put on his hearing aid. Presumably, this hearing aid represents the fact that Doolittle often does not listen, figuratively speaking, to the needs of others. John tells him that on account of the cut in pay, his baby has had to sleep in the dining room, causing him to get pneumonia. Doolittle agrees to pay for the cost to get the serum. Unfortunately, it will have to be flown in from another state during a blizzard. Chances are, the pilot will not make it. Communication with the pilot is lost, and it is beginning to look hopeless.
While watching over the baby, Jane bemoans the fact that there is nothing she can do. The nurse, who is also a nun, is standing behind her with a knowing, almost smug look on her face. She tells Jane there is one more thing she can do. She leads her to the chapel, where Jane prays to a statue of Jesus. I would have given anything for that scene to be followed by one in which we see the plane crash into the side of a mountain. Well, that didn’t happen, of course. The pilot bails out of the plane and crawls to a farmhouse, and the farmer calls the hospital. The serum gets there on time, and the baby is saved.
It is interesting to note that we no longer see scenes like this in mainstream movies. They still make religious movies, of course, in which people pray and God answers those prayers. But if no mention is made of religion for most of a movie, a scene right at the end where somebody prays, bringing about a miracle, never happens any more. It is a scene like that which spoils Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), at least for those of us watching it today. But people must have been more open to the idea of divine intervention back in those days, accepting it casually as something that happens all the time.
After the baby is saved, we see the pilot and Doolittle having drinks in the bar. Four rounds were bought, none paid for by Doolittle. When the pilot comments on this, Doolittle indicates that he can’t hear him on account of his hearing aid. This scene is followed by one in which John has been made a junior partner, with no reason given whatsoever. From the juxtaposition of these scenes, we can only conclude that the one is the cause of the other, that John was made a partner because Doolittle has suddenly become all sentimental about the baby. Either that, or because he was impressed by John’s nerve when John barged into his house the night the baby got sick. Right after getting his promotion, John gives an angry lecture to all the other partners, from Carter on up to Doolittle, loudly asserting that there will have to be changes made at the law firm, and demanding that these changes be implemented immediately. All the partners listen submissively. Apparently John is now one of the most important people in New York.
What does it all mean? A fair amount of emphasis was given to the scene where Jane prays to God to save the baby, so perhaps the idea is this. John tells Jane they should get divorced, and he wishes that they had not had the baby. God punishes John by making the baby sick. Jane prays to God, who then relents and allows the baby to be saved. Through this miracle, John and Jane are reconciled, and Doolittle’s heart is melted, leading him to give John a promotion. And this is all in accordance with God’s plan.
Or maybe not. Even in the old days, movies did not require divine intervention for there to be a narrative rupture arising out of an unbelievable change in character in the final reel. How much the audience of 1939 would have seen the hand of God in all this is hard to say from our present, less credulous perspective.
In any event, given this promotion, there can be little doubt that Jane has hired Lily back to be a live-in cook, maid, and nanny again. Now she doesn’t have to work in any sense of the word.