As Time Goes By: The Loves and Laughs in Film
Valentine’s Day. It’s the holiday we all love to hate. If you’re single, it’s the one day out of the year you feel most aware of it and want to rip the head off every cute smiley kid handing out roses in the town centre (or is it just me?) and if you’re in a relationship you’re under pressure to make the day as romantic as possible – rose petals scattered on the floor, dinner by candlelight, sexy underwear... Me? I’m more of a takeaway, DVD and bottle of wine kinda gal, so in honour of the Love Fest that is Valentine’s Day, I’ve decided to have a look back at the history of the romantic comedy. These are the films that have women swooning and living in blissful ignorance believing one day they’ll find their Mr Darcy and the films that have men reaching for the sick bag, so nauseatingly sweet and cheesy are the formulaic plots and predictable happy-ever-afters. For those that like their rom-coms with a hint of irony and a healthy dose of realism, check out my top five alternative rom-coms at the end of the feature.
The 1920s saw Hollywood averaging 800 film productions a year and actors became stars. Silent films still dominated but audiences became more aware of the faces that were populating their screens. As a result of contracts with studios, many actors became typecast and often played similar characters in genre films. Romantic films were dominated by Rudolph Valentino who made twenty-one films in the 1920s, including Camille (Ray C. Smallwood, 1921) which sees a Parisian courtesan fall in love with a young man and Beyond the Rocks (Sam Wood, 1922) opposite Gloria Swanson. Valentino is also considered to be the first male sex symbol of the silent era and starred alongside Nita Naldi in four films – Blood and Sand (Fred Nibdlo and Dorothy Arzner, 1922), A Sainted Devil (Joseph Henabery, 1924), The Hooded Falcon (Joseph Henabery, 1924) and Cobra (Joseph Henabery, 1925), giving rise to popular on-screen couples.
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were the sweethearts of the silent era. They appeared together in seven films and were married for nearly sixteen years. One of the biggest on-screen couples of the 1920s however was Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. They starred together in twelve films including Seventh Heaven (1927), for which Gaynor became the first recipient of the Best Actress Oscar. The film also won the Oscars for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay and was further nominated for Art Direction and Best Picture. However, the film was a romantic drama rather than a romantic comedy, but still demonstrates the growing trend of reusing the same on-screen couple to draw in viewers.
Dubbed ‘The Golden Age of Hollywood’, the 1930s is the era that spawned the sound and colour revolution and saw typical genres make way for hybrids. The most famous romantic comedy of the 1930s, and possibly one of the most cited of all time, is It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934). Starring Claudette Colbert as the spoiled daughter of a Wall Street banker who runs away after he has her marriage annulled and Clark Gable as a newspaper reporter on the prowl for a juicy story, the film was the first to win the big five Oscars (Best Director, Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay). It is also the only romantic comedy to have been so successful with the Academy. Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963) and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) are the only other four romantic comedies to win Best Picture.
Clark Gable became labelled ‘The King of Hollywood’, starring in eighty-one films in his thirty-eight year long career, forty of which were released in the 1930s and eight saw him appear alongside Joan Crawford, including the risqué Dance, Fools, Dance (Harry Beaumont, 1931). Nowadays few actors continually appear together in several films, at least as couples. Many directors have go to actors they rely on for leading roles and there have been several groups of actors that appear in genre films but few on-screen couples work together more than once.
This is the age of the screwball comedy and they don’t come much better than the films starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. Katharine Hepburn appeared in eleven films during the 1940s and made four during her career with Cary Grant and ten with her partner Spencer Tracy. Hepburn and Grant first appeared together in George Cukor’s 1935 film Sylvia Scarlett before going on to make Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938), Holiday (George Cukor, 1938) and their most popular film The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940). James Stewart completed the film’s love triangle which centres on Hepburn’s snobbish socialite Tracey whose ex-husband (Grant) shows up on her wedding day with a reporter (Stewart), determined to ruin her big day. Like many rom-coms of the era the script is dialogue heavy and the cast manage to pull it off perfectly. It is fast-paced, quick-witted and features a battle of the sexes, with Hepburn and Grant’s characters often sparring. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) similarly sees Grant in a battle of wits with Rosalind Russell who plays his ex-wife about to remarry. Yet another narrative pattern that emerged in the romantic comedy genre.
Possibly the greatest screen couple of the 1940s was Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, despite not appearing in a romantic comedy together. The on and off screen couple made four films together and were married for eleven years until Bogie’s death in 1957. They first starred together in Howard Hawks’ 1944 thriller To Have and Have Not, when Bacall was nineteen and Bogie (who was married) was forty-five. Just a few months after shooting wrapped they began filming The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). Bogie later divorced and married Bacall in 1945 before going on to make two further films together, Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, 1947) and Key Largo (John Huston, 1948). The couple are famed for being the most sizzling on screen with one particular scene often cited as one of the most memorable in film history; the scene in the hotel room in To Have and Have Not where Slim asks Steve if he knows how to whistle (“you just put your lips together and blow”).
Every era has at least one staple star and for the 1950s that star was Marilyn Monroe. The buxom blonde starred in twenty-three films during the 1950s including such classic hits as Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953), Bus Stop (Joshua Logan, 1956), All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) and How to Marry A Millionaire (Jean Negulesco, 1953). Gentlemen Prefer Blondes launched Monroe’s status as a sex symbol which was exploited time and time again in her films, culminating in that scene above the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch and saw her appear as the subject of many a man’s affections in Some Like it Hot. Her role as Sugar is one of her most famous and loved and the beauty of Some Like it Hot, like all great rom-coms, is that it is entertaining to both men and women.
Cary Grant continued as a popular male lead for romantic comedies and romantic dramas. One of the most popular was An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957) with Deborah Kerr. Grant plays Nickie Ferrante, a well-known playboy and Kerr plays Terry McKay a singer and music teacher. They meet on a cruise ship and fall in love despite both of them already being in a relationship. They agree to meet again six months later on the top floor of the Empire State Building, giving them enough time to end their relationships and for Nickie to find a way to support himself financially. Nominated for four Oscars (cinematography, costume design, original song and original score), An Affair to Remember was a huge success and paved the way for future romantic comedies. Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993) and Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995) were both heavily influenced by the 1950s film.
Rock Hudson was one of the greatest leading men of the 1950s and 1960s and starred several times opposite Doris Day. Their first film, Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959), won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and was a great success despite theatre owners considering it risky in an era dominated by war films and westerns. It was swiftly followed by Lover Come Back (Delbert Mann, 1961) which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Send Me No Flowers (Norman Jewison, 1964). Tony Randall also co-starred in all three films, rounding out one of cinema’s most-loved comedy trios. Their films were full of innuendos and double entendres which Peyton Reed tried to replicate in his semi-spoof Down With Love (2003), starring Ewan McGregor as a playboy trying to bring down Renee Zellweger’s self-help author who insists women don’t need men to be happy. Tony Randall even had a cameo in the 1960s-set sex comedy which went into great detail for the homage, right down to costumes, set design, cinematography, greenscreen rear projection and split screens.
One of the most loved romantic heroines of the 1960s is Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961). Based on the novella by Truman Capote, Holly is a New York call-girl who charms her way through life dating rich men. She is called on this by her handsome new neighbour who in turn is being financially supported by a married woman. Hepburn’s Oscar nominated performance is one of her most iconic and is a favourite among women the world over thanks to her enchanting yet vulnerable heroine and her collaboration with famed fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy.
Two of my favourite alternative romantic comedies of the 1960s are Two for the Road (Stanley Donen, 1967) and The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960). Two for the Road stars Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as a married couple who find themselves stuck in a rut and flashbacks show how they came to be in an unhappy and adulterous relationship. This is one of my favourite of Hepburn’s films and it’s refreshing to see a romantic comedy that covers the reality of marriage rather than the conventional happy-ever-after. The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon as an office worker who allows his boss to carry out his affair in his apartment in the hope of a promotion. The problem is his mistress is a colleague he is in love with. The film won five Oscars including Best Director, Picture and Original Screenplay plus nominations for Lemmon and co-star Shirley MacLaine. Director Billy Wilder made several popular romantic comedies including Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1957), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Some Like it Hot (1959), Irma la Douce (1963), Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and The Front Page (1974) for which he received three Oscars for Best Screenplay, two for Best Director and one for Best Picture plus a further fifteen nominations. He had a gift when it came to writing characters the audience cared about in situations they could relate to.
The most popular romantic comedies are those that divert from the classic cookie cutter boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. One of the most celebrated romantic comedies of all time is Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) which won the Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, Picture and Editing and earned Allen another nomination for Best Actor. Topping many ‘best...’ lists, Annie Hall was quite a departure from Allen’s typical wacky comedies and proved influential to future quirky and non-conventional romantic comedies. Take the scene where Alby and Annie go back to Annie’s apartment for the first time. As the characters are speaking, what they are really thinking appears in subtitles at the bottom of the screen. Similarly in (500) Days of Summer (Mark Webb, 2009), there is a split-screen scene where Tom’s expectations of a romantic situation play out alongside the reality. Allen and Keaton teamed up again for Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979) which received two Oscar nominations and features another complex relationship. Isaac (Allen) is dating a seventeen year old girl but has a crush on Mary (Keaton), his friend’s mistress. He is also dealing with the pressure of having his private life revealed to the public as his ex-wife (the always fabulous Meryl Streep) is writing a book about their marriage. Allen’s contemporary films lack the snappy dialogue of his early classics but I’m partial to Melinda and Melinda (2004) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) myself.
Another big rom-com of the 1970s was What’s Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972). Following the success of weepie Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970), Ryan O’Neal discovered his funny bone and polished off his singing voice to star alongside Barbara Streisand as a musicologist competing for a research grant. Bogdanovich’s film is an homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s but where other films fail to replicate the perfect star pairing and clever script What’s Up, Doc? captivated audiences and became the third-highest grossing film of the year.
Although teenagers emerged as a significant film audience in the 1950s with Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), the teen film genre really came into its own with the John Hughes/Brat Pack films of the 1980s. Hughes recognised that a young person’s heart could break just as easily as an adult’s and with the added pressure of growing up the subject was ripe for scripts. Up first was Molly Ringwald’s big debut Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984) in which she appeared as the middle child of a family who forgets her sixteenth birthday. Luckily for her she still manages to bag the hottest guy in school. Then came Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch,1986) where Molly played the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who falls for one of the rich, popular guys. In both films the highlights for me were the supporting characters – Anthony Michael Hall as Farmer Ted in Sixteen Candles and Jon Cryer as Duckie in Pretty in Pink. What can I say, I have a soft spot for geeks. These films were also pretty soundtrack-oriented too, as was Say Anything... (Cameron Crowe, 1989). During a pivotal scene John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler stands outside the object of his affection’s house with a CD player held high above his head blasting out Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. The scene has been spoofed in many TV shows including South Park and Saturday Night Live. Unlike past decades where a common couple has appeared in many rom-coms, the 1980s was the time where the ensemble cast became popular, in particular Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, John Cusack and Demi Moore.
Another great rom-com classic is When Harry Met Sally... (Rob Reiner, 1989) which starred Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal as a couple who meet when they graduate college and become friends. After several years of watching each other enter into disastrous relationships they realise they are in fact in love. The final scene where Harry tells Sally “I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night” is one of the most honest and romantic in the history of the romantic comedy. It’s not a relationship that they enter into lightly because they know everything there is to know about each other and they love each other in spite of all the quirks and irritating habits that arise as a friendship develops. The script earned Nora Ephron an Oscar nomination which she followed with another Oscar-nominated script for Sleepless in Seattle. Over the last twenty years Ephron has become one of the most popular writer-directors of romantic comedies and found success with Heartburn (1986) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) which saw her Sleepless stars Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks back together on screen.
Contemporary romantic comedies have become synonymous with the names Richard Curtis, Hugh Grant and Working Title. The British production company has produced the likes of Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001), 40 Days and 40 Nights (Michael Lehmann, 2002), Wimbledon (Richard Loncraine, 2004) and Definitely, Maybe (Adam Brooks, 2008) plus Curtis’ Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994), Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999) and Love Actually (2003). Four Weddings put British rom-coms on the map, proving it is not just a Hollywood genre. It went so far as to become the highest grossing British film in cinema history at the time and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It also catapulted Hugh Grant to fame as well as his role of the bumbling, floppy-haired romantic love interest which he recreated to various degrees in Mickey Blue Eyes (Kelly Makin, 1999), Notting Hill, Two Weeks Notice (Marc Lawrence, 2002), Love Actually and Music and Lyrics (Marc Lawrence, 2007). Bridget Jones’s Diary saw Grant play his first bad guy.
Of course every male lead needs his female counterpart. Grant’s came in the shape of Julia Roberts who starred alongside him in Notting Hill. She burst onto the scene as the tart with a heart in Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990) before appearing in My Best Friend’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1997) and America’s Sweethearts (Joe Roth, 2001) and teaming up with Richard Gere for the second time in Runaway Bride (Garry Marshall, 1999) and taking direction from Gary Marshall for the third time in this week’s new release Valentine’s Day (Garry Marshall, 2010). Fortunately Roberts has proved she is not just a rom-com princess and has proved her worth with dramas such as Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000) for which she earned an Oscar and Stepmom (Chris Columbus, 1998), Ocean’s Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001), Mona Lisa Smile (Mike Newell, 2003), Charlie Wilson’s War (Mike Nichols, 2007) and Fireflies in the Garden (Dennis Lee, 2008). Many other actresses haven’t been so lucky (I’m talking to you Meg Ryan, Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl).
Teen rom-coms continued to appeal to the masses, including 10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999), Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995), Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 1999), She’s All That (Robert Iscove, 1999) and Drive Me Crazy (John Schultz, 1999). Gross-out rom-coms also became popular in the 1990s with There’s Something About Mary (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, 1998) and American Pie (Paul and Chris Weitz, 1999) and the trend continued into the next decade with The 40-Year Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2005) and Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007). These hybrid films are often popular with both men and women as there is a good blend of romance and comedy whereas other romantic comedies enter ‘chick flick’ territory by focusing too much on the ‘rom’.
Several actresses emerged as go to girls for romantic comedies – Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Sarah Jessica Parker, Reese Witherspoon, Kirsten Dunst – and only a very small minority have managed to find success in other films. More often than not they seem to play different variations of the same character, as was the case with the Brat Packers of the 1980s. Few actors are treated the same way with Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Matthew McConaughey being the only names that spring to mind. It seems that many actresses start off playing the female sidekick, then get a role as the leading lady in rom-com and get stuck in a rut. Michelle Monaghan, Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried are currently running the risk of joining the rom-com club which is a shame as they have all appeared in at least one other film that indicated they are capable of so much more.
The biggest romantic comedies of the noughties were My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Joel Zwick, 2002) which is the highest grossing rom-com of all time, Sex and the City (Michael Patrick King, 2008) and What Women Want (Nancy Meyers, 2000), all of which have taken over $300million worldwide. They are, of course, the predictable, formulaic Hollywood films. The noughties was also the decade which gave birth to the ‘bromance’, the somewhat affectionate label given to the rom-coms that have a male friendship at the heart of the film rather than the heterosexual relationships. Paul Rudd has appeared in two such films – Role Models (David Wain, 2008) and I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009)– and the Frat Pack films, especially Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin, 2005) could be referred to as bromances.
As a twenty-something woman who loves to lose herself in a good old fashion romance, I’ll admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for the likes of 27 Dresses (Anne Fletcher, 2008) and Sweet Home Alabama (Andy Tennant, 2002) but recent rom-coms like The Proposal (Anne Fletcher, 2009) and The Ugly Truth (Robert Luketic, 2009) just don’t seem to do it for me like they used to. Instead, I favour the more quirky indie films such as Gigantic (Matt Aselton, 2008), Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Peter Sollett, 2008), Garden State (Zach Braff, 2004) Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) and (500) Days of Summer (Mark Webb, 2009). Here are five alternative romantic comedies that I highly recommend.
Before Sunrise/Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 1995/2004)
Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as a couple who meet on a train in Europe and spend the night together before he heads back to the states. Co-written by Linklater and Kim Krizan, the film benefits from strong male and female points of view, like When Harry Met Sally.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
From the weird and wonderful minds of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman comes a film that reminds us that it’s hard to forget those you once loved. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet give the best performances of their careers.
In Search of a Midnight Kiss (Alex Holdridge, 2007)
After posting an ad online so he doesn’t have to spend New Year’s alone, failed scriptwriter Wilson meets neurotic actress Vivian and they spend the next twenty-four hours wandering around LA. Like Before Sunrise it is an honest and realistic portrayal of relationships.
(500) Days of Summer (Mark Webb, 2009)
If you’ve seen or heard much about these films before you’ll see there’s a strong link between these titles. There is a line from Mr and Mrs Smith that has always stuck with me (“happy endings are for stories that haven’t finished yet”) and I love that the films in this list manage to be funny, romantic, entertaining, realistic, hopeful and bittersweet. (500) Days of Summer may star Zooey Deschanel in her typical manic-pixie-dream-girl role but the script is so original that all is forgotten and you just get swept away by the magic of the film.
The Broken Hearts Club (Greg Berlanti, 2000)
This is your typical romantic comedy with a group of gay guys as the central characters rather than a bunch of cosmo-swillling women. It deals with all their day-to-day problems including work, friendship, family issues and relationship dramas and it is refreshing to see a rom-com from a different perspective.