Mark S. Weiner

What it Means to be Home—with Deanna Durbin

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Constitutional law, Cross-cultural encounters & comparisons, Europe, Law and film, Supreme Court on January 8, 2013 at 2:50 pm

After many weeks abroad, I’m back in the United States, and by coincidence this weekend I watched a movie that reminded me of just what it means to be home. The reminder came in the unexpected form of Deanna Durbin, the girl-next-door Hollywood star of the 1930s and 1940s. I didn’t anticipate that her last film, the romantic comedy For the Love of Mary (1948), would have so much to say about the culture of American constitutional law.


As readers of this blog and subscribers to my Facebook page know, in mid-November I flew to Europe to speak about The Rule of the Clan (which will be released in just two months by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), to teach some intensive seminars about the American constitution to European students, and most of all to begin research on my next book.

In the spirit of Jules Verne, the working title of Book #4 is Around the World in Eighty Laws. I’m hoping to reveal some of the beauty, complexity, and fragility of our world through a portrait of its diverse legal systems. I want to show the fundamentally different ways people understand the meaning and purpose of law. I’m also hoping that in the process I’ll be able to raise some basic, hard questions about our ability to get along with one another and with other nations as we respond to globalization.

My travels began at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and ended in Vienna. In between, with Eurail Pass in hand, I visited Maastricht, Tilburg, Luxembourg, Brussels, Würzburg, Hannover, and Salzburg, taking pictures and conducting interviews as I went—trying to channel the spirit of one of my heroes, David Attenborough. It was grand. I also found that I could easily continue an itinerant life indefinitely.

I’ll be posting reflections on my travels and excerpts from my interviews in the coming weeks, especially once I return to my desk in Connecticut.

My European travels naturally got me thinking about what it was I left behind. And that’s why I was so taken with For the Love of Mary. In its lightness of spirit—and in Durbin’s unpretentious style and clear soprano—it captures something essential about the legal self-understanding of my country.

The movie follows the romantic misadventures of Mary Peppertree (Durbin), a switchboard operator in Washington, DC. Three handsome men compete for Mary’s attentions: Phillip Manning, a lawyer; David Paxton, an ichthyologist; and Tom Farrington, a Navy lieutenant. But Mary is no ordinary switchboard operator. She works at the White House, and when we meet her she has just left her job at the switchboard of the Supreme Court. She has a literal “direct line” to the highest ranks of American government—and, as a result, the President and the Court become embroiled in her love life.

Here is Mary at her first day of work, on the far right (the image is taken from the website Deanna Durbin Devotees):

For the Love of Mary Still

When it was released, a respected film critic wrote in this over-the-top review for The New York Times that For the Love of Mary was “a sly piece of propaganda.” In his opinion “no one could possibly have cooked up such a horribly-quaint and coy romance in which not only the President of the United States but four Supreme Court Justices play cupid to a telephone girl without deliberately intending to make those gentlemen appear terrific dopes.” Whether he was aesthetically unhinged or in fact parodying the spirit of the House Un-American Activities Committee is hard to say, but the review contains an important insight.

Washington isn’t simply a backdrop for the movie; it’s essential to its themes—which is no surprise given that the screenplay was written by Oscar Brodney, a former lawyer with law degrees from Boston University and Harvard.

The film begins with a sequence of images of Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court—the camera lingering meaningfully on each. Much of the action takes place in the elegant restaurant of a Viennese immigrant named Gustav, who is studying to take his citizenship exam by memorizing notably obscure passages of the Constitution—with the help of the Justices. And the love plot between Mary and her suitors is ultimately resolved through an international treaty.

Here is Mary singing “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” with a gaggle of Justices and other poobahs. “Justice Peabody” plays the accordion, gazing into Mary’s eyes approvingly at 0:17 (the first second contains a snippet of dubbing in Russian):

Small Blank Space
That cheesy, adoring stare reveals a central feature both of the movie and of American legal and constitutional culture: that it’s impossible to disentangle government from love—and, specifically, to detach love from the Constitution.

I’m no film scholar, but I’d wager a large sum that no director has ever made a film in which a young western European office worker receives an adoring stare from a judge of her nation’s constitutional court. This is because, as my friend Ulrich Haltern has argued, Americans and Europeans understand their political communities, and the founding legal documents that create them, in fundamentally different terms.

The European political community is about abstract reason. In America, the political community is understood through the language of the family, the body, and love. In Europe, as I discussed in my first video post, almost nobody knows even the names of their supreme court justices. In America, we make a movie in which they become a part of our family.

One source of this difference is our democratic populism. We imagine the possibility of a relationship to government that is as direct and unmediated as Mary’s line to the President himself—as clear and unaffected as Deanna Durbin’s soprano.

According to Ulrich (here, in German), the difference helps explain why Europeans went wild for President Obama: he seems close enough to certain European ways of thinking to be familiar, but in his physicality, the former constitutional law professor is an exotic reminder of a different way of approaching politics.

That way of approaching politics is vividly on display in one of the movie’s great scenes. Here, Durbin sings a “hit tune” from Rossini against the backdrop of Jefferson and Washington memorials—a classic expression of the American comic sensibility and, in a host of intended and unintended ways, of American political community, at mid-century:

I saw For the Love of Mary in a grand old movie house in northern California, from where I’m writing this post. It’s great to be here, in my home state, but I’m also looking forward to returning next week to Connecticut, where I’ll be awaiting the launch of The Rule of the Clan, writing my proposal for Around the World in Eighty Laws—and, after more than two months on the road, sleeping once more in my own bed.

Thanks to my regular readers for being patient with my absence!

  1. Wonderful post! What’s not to love about a post that combines The Barber of Seville and constitutional law? Deanna was one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1930s and 40s– hard to believe now.


  2. Thank you for allowing me to start my Saturday with this lovely perspective. I have never been able to put my finger on the difference between the German and American views of government and I eagerly await your insights.


  3. Thanks, Brian & Catherine! Brian: you may be interested that I talk about Wagner’s conception of law in The Rule of the Clan. More on law & film to come. Yesterday we went back to the same theater and saw a double feature of “Showboat” and “My Man Godfrey”–a terrific pairing in that both involve meditations on performance and civic identity regarding race and class. “My Man Godfrey” even contains two references to “Showboat,” one musical (at the start) and the other in a final moment of dialogue. Catherine: the legal differences between the U.S. and Germany are going to be a continuing theme on this blog, and I suspect I’ll be treating them extensively in my next book. Stay tuned! Comments & thoughts always greatly appreciated!


  4. Thanks, I loved this! Now I can listen to “Figaro” whenever I want!


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