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The Changing Nature of
By TOM SOTER
from DIVERSION, 2000
My ex-girlfriend, Michele, was a screwball. A romantic screwball, but a screwball nonetheless. She was beautiful, bright, and befuddled, talking in paragraphs, not sentences, with barely a breath between words. You would ask her one thing and she would answer a dozen – usually going off on tangents you never knew existed.
Conversations with her sometimes reminded me of one Irene (Carole Lombard) has with Godfrey (William Powell), the man she loves, in My Man Godfrey (1936): “You’re more than a butler. You’re the first protege I ever had...Like Carlo...He’s mother’s protege. It’s awfully nice Carlo having a sponsor because he doesn’t have to work and gets time for his practicing but then he never does and that makes a difference...Do you play anything, Godfrey? Oh, I don’t mean games or things like that, I mean the piano and things like that...Oh, it doesn’t really make any difference. I just thought I’d ask. It’s funny how some things make you think of other things.”
Other times, I would feel like David (Cary Grant) in Bringing Up Baby (1938), when he tells Susan (Katherine Hepburn), “Now, it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn to you, but – well, there there haven’t been any quiet moments.”
Yes, Michele would fit right into a romantic comedy.
Romantic comedies – especially the screwball variety – are known for their beautiful, batty women whose fast speech and zany actions often conceal a brainy purpose (usually to land a man) but are equally noteworthy for their outlandish plots and their “sentimental cynicism.”
The heyday of the romantic comedy was from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s, when crisis and change in American life left people feeling as dizzy as the befuddled guys listening to those wacky girls. Now, nearly 70 years later, some are saying that we have entered a new era of wild romances, inaugurated by When Harry Met Sally (1989) and continuing to this day with such recent entries as Notting Hill, Runaway Bride, and The Next Best Thing. Yet today’s retro romances – although sharing similarities with their zany predecessors – also have significant differences.
The modern romantic comedy began inauspiciously enough with Frank Capra’s low-budget It Happened One Night (1934). No one had much faith in it and Hollywood insiders predicted disaster. Its surprising success, however – best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actor, and best actress Oscars – led to a rash of romantic comedies.
The best of these feature what could be called the Classic Plot, starting with the boy meeting the girl in a situation guaranteed to make one or both of them dislike the other. Top Hat (1935) finds Jerry (Fred Astaire) dancing so loudly in the room above Dale (Ginger Rogers) that she angrily confronts him. (He: “Every once in a while I suddenly find myself dancing.” She: “I suppose it’s some kind of affliction.”)
Usually, the story has a heroine who’s either smarter than the guy, daffier than the guy, or colder than the guy. In the course of the movie, she will sequentially despise him (but still get entangled in his affairs), come to admire him (even as she fights with him), and finally realize she loves him. In the process, she will also change from spoiled or cold or daffy to concerned or warm or slightly less daffy.
Then there’s the man. He’s either a surface cynic, using a wisecrack to cover his feelings (Claudette Colbert to Clark Gable in It Happened One Night: “Your ego is absolutely colossal.” Gable: “Yeah. Not bad. How’s yours?”), or else hopelessly repressed and befuddled. In the first instance, the heroine brings out the romantic in the hero, as he comes to realize that there’s more to her than he thought. In the second case, the hero realizes that there is more to life than being straitlaced.
The battle of the sexes is another key element, along with the other classic ingredient: the almost childlike nature of the heroine, who constantly defies convention and thereby helps unstuff the hero’s shirt. There’s a child inside of all of us, say these movies, repressed by the constraints of society. To be slightly crazy and in love is to be imaginatively free.
The unlikely pair will find themselves thrown together and face various obstacles to finding love. The most popular impediment is having the man/woman already engaged to someone else whom the audience (but not the character) can see is terribly inappropriate. In Holiday (1938), Cary Grant’s Johnny is a free-spirited soul who meets a kindred sort in Linda (Katherine Hepburn), the sister of the woman he thinks he wants to marry (Doris Nolan). He sees only his fiance’s surface beauty and charm, not the inner, conservative side to her.
The pair also can come from different worlds. In Pat and Mike (1952), Pat (Katherine Hepburn) is about to marry a man who is inappropriate for her but she doesn’t know it. She meets Mike (Spencer Tracy), whom she initially mistrusts. He is rough-and-tumble, while she is oh-so-elegant. Naturally, they fall in love.
There is also, inevitably, the Grand Misunderstanding – the hero has a girl back home (Swing Time, 1936) – which leads to the Final Reconciliation.
Such comedies are immeasurably helped by the wonderful romantic pairings of star couples with a unique chemistry: sexy sophisticates William Powell and Myrna Loy (12 appearances, six as sleuths Nick and Nora Charles); the “he gives her class, she gives him sex” team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (10); and the “tough guy and the lady” duo of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn (9).
The formula and the couplings lasted right up to the Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Those movies added a bizarre subtext not seen in the classic period. Pillow Talk (1959), for instance, seems to be a frothy bedroom farce about an amoral playboy (Hudson) who takes on another identity – a naive Texan – to woo a woman who can’t stand him. But because it lacks the light touch and moral center of the classic romances, the movie plays as an exploration of deeply disturbed people who lie, cheat, and betray without compunction.
Hudson’s playboy, Brad Allen, is possibly the most despicable leading man ever seen in a light comedy: he manipulates perky working woman Jan Morrow (Day) into falling in love with him and almost sleeps with her. And why not? Marriage is described by many of the characters as an emasculating trap.
Pillow Talk and the other Hudson-Day spoofs were huge successes, but also the last gasp of the traditional romantic comedy formula. By the late ‘60s, the genre had been transformed. Romance was out; rebellion and sexual revolution were in. Films like The Graduate (1967) celebrated youth and rebellion not convention, while the easy-loving James Bond adventures put the final nail in the coffin of old-fashioned love-making.
The man who helped bring back and also change the idea of the romantic comedy was, of all people, that unromantic nebbish, Woody Allen. The pinnacle of the Allen oeuvre, Annie Hall (1977) is the story of Alvy Singer (“a real Jew”) and Annie Hall, a whitebread neurotic who learns from, loves, and, finally, leaves Alvy. Allen’s film is a meditation on the impermanence of life and love, of how everything changes but the memory lingers on.
The film is brilliantly constructed as a comic reminiscence, starting off with Allen’s to-the-camera statement, “Annie and I broke up and I still can’t get my mind around that,” and leading, by degrees from the middle, to the beginning, and then to before the beginning of the relationship. Along the way, we learn about Alvy’s obsessions, about his kindness and cruelty, his selfishness and his sexuality.
The difference between this and the romantic comedies of the earlier era is its obsession with “me, myself, and I.” Everything is reflected from the prism of Alvy’s consciousness, giving the movie a point-of-view that is at alternate times romantic, comic, and selfishly melancholy. But it is always terribly insightful and more realistic than most of the classic romances ever were.
Allen’s approach took flower among recent filmmakers who further transformed the romantic comedy: In The Real Blonde (1997), writer-director Tom DiCillo effortlessly skewers the obsessions, neuroses, and self-centeredness of actors and other media, while also presenting a funny, sad, and maddeningly real portrait of men and women trying to connect. DiCillo has a keen understanding of his character’s frustrations and fantasies. Indeed, as a soap star searches for his ideal, a “real blonde,” the movie makes it clear that the world is not about seeking perfection but settling for imperfection.
Other recent romantic comedies, however, simply ape the forms of the past. Typical of these is Runaway Bride (1999), a TV sitcom version of the great screwball comedies of the ‘30s, with Richard Gere as a cynical reporter and Julia Roberts as willful would-be bride, immature and unsure of what she wants from a man. The movie is by the numbers, though, with Gere and Roberts hating each other for the first third, discovering and then respecting each other in the middle, and falling in love in the final section.
Nonetheless, the best of the new crop brings romance back with gusto, such as Notting Hill (1999), a charming, if unlikely, love story about (British) boy meeting (Hollywood movie star) girl. Following the romantic comedy formula faithfully, it is made enjoyable by the chemistry between shy Hugh Grant and tough-but-vulnerable Julia Roberts.
In a way, it’s no surprise that romance in the movies has returned. With uncertainty in the world, audiences seek the safety of convention. And what safer convention can there be than sentimental, ever-lasting movie love?
Indeed, only in Hollywood can you find romance as gloriously triumphant as it is in the beautiful climax to The Lady Eve (1941), when Eve (Barbara Stanwyck) exclaims to her lover (Henry Fonda): “Why didn’t you take me in your arms that day on the boat? Why did we have to go through all this nonsense? Don’t you know you’re the only man I ever loved, you big fathead? Don’t you know I couldn’t look at another man if I wanted to? Don’t you know I waited all my life for you...you big mug?”