I suspect that the very first joke about marriage went like this: Two cavemen met one day and the first one said, "Who was that giant ground sloth I saw you with last night?" and the second one answered "That was no giant ground sloth; that was my wife."
Well, it used to slay the boys at Lascaux.
The movies have provided a means of relating the marriage joke from the earliest days of fictional one-reelers. The image of wife-dom usually suffered most through these quick anecdotes, which is only to be expected since men were telling the stories. The onscreen husbands, played by almost every silent and pre-code talking comedian at one time or another, were just regular guys looking for a little extra-curricular fun. Their wives were the spoil sports, taking the idea of being a civilizing influence way too seriously.
The screen's first comedy team specialized in these mini-situation comedies. John Bunny and Flora Finch made something like 100 shorts for Vitagraph between 1910 and Bunny's death in 1915. Only a handful of these pictures survive. They weren't all domestic comedies but that genre dominated their output with titles like And His Wife Came Back, Mr. Bunnyhug Buys a Hat for His Wife, Thou Shalt Not Covet, and Which Way Did He Go? (in which Bunny's character is named "Mr. Henpecko")..
Bunny, a native New Yorker, was short and heavy while London-born Finch was tall and thin. After Bunny's death, Finch stayed in movies—her last role being an uncredited bit in The Women (MGM, 1939) before her passing in 1940—but she never again achieved anything like the popularity she'd garnered as Bunny's screen wife. Her post-Bunny comic chops are on display as Aunt Susan in Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary (Universal, 1927)..
Bunny and Finch mark a good place to start looking at the marriage joke in early films because in at least one way they lived the joke themselves: they weren't really man and wife, but they hated each other anyway..
In the best known of their few surviving one-reelers, A Cure For Pokeritis (1912), they are George and Mary Brown. George enjoys a weekly night out with the boys for a poker session. Their meeting place is the clichéd masculine den of impropriety: guys are sitting at tables shuffling and dealing, their shirt sleeves rolled up and ties loosened. Many wear eye shades; cigars and cigarettes are plentiful. All the place lacks are a pool table and a sinister coachman to be Pinocchio's Pleasure Island..
George consistently loses at cards. This night, he even has to borrow trolley fare home. He staggers in late, disheveled and looking like he's on the far side of a two-week drunk. Mary is sitting up waiting for him, growing angrier each minute she's forced to wait. He arrives and swears contrition. He'll never play poker again..
A week later, one of his friends comes up with a plot. George will pretend to join a lodge called "Sons of the Morning" that meets every Wednesday night. Mary believes him—not the first mistake she's made in this marriage, including answering "I do." The scheme would work well if George didn't talk in his sleep. We are to assume that a) he's never done this before, b) Mary has never noticed it before, or c) we're not to think about it..
At this point, the second familiar element of the marriage joke becomes apparent: the wife's relative. Be they lazy, inept, greedy, vice-ridden, unemployable, smarmy, or just plain stupid, wifey's relations are the stuff of domestic misery. In this case, the bane is Cousin Freddie, a dandified wuss who flutters his hands and rolls his eyes as Mary fills him in on George's skullduggery. To make all husbands in the audience like this guy even less, he enlists the aid of his Bible class in spying on George. How much less of a real man can you be than a Bible study participant?.
The dénouement arrives after heaping helpings of deceit, disguise and distrust. Apparently George has learned the lesson Mary set out for him. All will end well with George and Mary embracing. What hubby doesn't know is that Mary is responsible for breaking up his poker gang by uncovering his deception and then going him one better. Each of them is a trickster and neither really has any reason to believe the other. The loving clinch at the end is merely convention. We all know that if George can come up with another trick, he'll use it to reorganize his poker night..
We're also left to ponder this question: why does Mary go to such lengths to break up George's fun? Yes, he loses every week but we see nothing that indicates his poker losses are doing anything to undermine the Browns' financial stability. He's not stealing to cover his debts. He's not contemplating taking any winnings to run off with the office steno girl. The missus seems to want to put a halt to his night out just because it is his night out. Maybe she wants to make the emasculation complete by having him take up studying the good book, like Cousin Freddie..
Just as with a stand-up joke, there is no back story to this little movie. Mary does what she does because it is in the nature of wives to prevent their husbands from having any fun that doesn't include them—which from the male point of view is no fun at all.