Romantic Comedy


Romantic comedy declined in popularity and quality during World War II. The screwball cycle ended in the early 1940s, though several directors kept working at it. The most successful of these was Preston Sturges, whose films pushed the farcical side of screwball to the limit. The Lady Eve features a protagonist (Henry Fonda) so blinded by love that he marries the same woman (Barbara Stanwyck) three times without knowing it. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) took madcap comedy to a level beyond screwball and managed to become a box-office hit despite dealing with the sensitive subject of wartime promiscuity. The screwball cycle was clearly over by the time of Unfaithfully Yours (1948), in which Sturges depicts adultery not as an adventure but as a spur to fantasies of murder and revenge. Five romantic comedies featuring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (1900–1967)— Woman of the Year (1942), State of the Union (1948), Adam's Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), and Desk Set (1957)—took the genre in a new direction that anticipated the relationship stories of the 1970s. These films focus not on getting the central couple together but on how they get along with each other. In all but State of the Union , Hepburn plays a working professional, and the films focus on conflicts that result from her not being willing to accept subordination to a man.

In general, the 1950s and 1960s were a low point for romantic comedy. Doris Day (b. 1924) became one of the most popular actors of the era, appearing in several of what were called "sex comedies," often opposite Rock Hudson (1925–1985). These films trade on the same kind of titillation that fueled theatrical sex farces, and they were equally conventional in their morality. By the mid-1960s, the genre virtually disappeared from Hollywood, with a few notable exceptions. The Graduate (1967) rewrote traditional romantic comedy by making the obstacle to the young lovers' union the hero's affair with the heroine's mother. Two for the Road (Stanley Donan, 1967) depicted a marriage as romantic comedy by showing the interleaved stories of the couple's vacations at various stages of their lives. Peter Bogdanovich successfully remade Bringing Up Baby as What's Up, Doc? (1972), but it did not produce a general revival of screwball comedy.

In 1977, however, the success of Woody Allen's (b. 1935) Annie Hall fundamentally reinvented the genre. Both a box-office hit and winner of the Academy Award ® for Best Picture, it brought about a general revival of romantic comedy rooted in the changes in courtship and marriage that were occurring in the 1960s. The genre ratified the new reality that marriage was no longer the only socially sanctioned form of sexual relationship, a fact also reflected in the emergent use of the term "relationship." The basic premise of the new relationship story was serial monogamy, a possibility made likely by the climb of the divorce rate to 50 percent. In this new context, getting the central couple married off is no longer a guarantee of happiness nor is the failure to do so a tragedy. Annie Hall is a romantic comedy that from the beginning tells us it will present a failed relationship. It manages this by distancing the audience, using techniques such as flashbacks, voice-over narration, direct address to the camera, and other violations of filmic realism. These devices do make the film funny, but they are not so extreme as to produce an alienation effect. We care about the characters, and we accept by the end that they cannot be together.

These changes in love, courtship, and marriage became increasingly the subject of journalistic coverage and popular advice books. Film relationship stories incorporated this new self-consciousness about these matters by overtly reflecting on the events they narrate. Rather than treating romantic love as the mystery it was in both romantic and screwball comedies, it now became something the characters could learn to understand and control. There is thus a therapeutic dimension to many of the films in this genre as the hero or heroine learns (or fails to learn) how to achieve intimacy. Allen made many other movies that fit this genre, including Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Husbands and Wives (1992), and Deconstructing Harry (1997). Relationship stories by other directors include An Unmarried Woman (1978), Modern Romance (1981), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Defending Your Life (1991), Miami Rhapsody (1995), and High Fidelity (2000). While of these films only An Unmarried Woman might be called explicitly feminist, all them feature heroines who have careers and thus choices beyond marriage.

Other recent romantic comedies have used older conventions to new ends. Susan Seidelman gave screwball comedy a feminist spin in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), in which heroine escapes from a bad marriage in the end. Moonstruck (1987) is also told explicitly from the heroine's perspective, and it adds Italian-American ethnicity and a middle-class setting. Something's Gotta Give (2003) depicts a romance between a geriatric Jack Nicholson and a realistically middle-aged Diane Keaton. Interracial romance was first broached in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967), but racial diversity and gay relationships have been notably absent from this genre. One exception is Hsi yen ( The Wedding Banquet [1993]), in which Ang Lee focuses on a Chinese family in New York and plays off the conventions of the romantic comedy proper in depicting a gay couple (one of whom is white) who stage a heterosexual wedding in order to satisfy the families' expectations. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) includes a gay relationship that is depicted as loving and serious, but it is not the focus of the film's comic plot and ends in the funeral.

In opposition to progressive films, there has been a revival of traditional forms and their politics. This trend may have begun with the success of Pretty Woman (1990), a Cinderella story, wherein Julia Roberts plays a hooker who not only wants to marry the prince, a corporate raider (Richard Gere), but to find real intimacy with him as well. Nora Ephron's (b. 1941) films Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You've Got Mail (1998), a remake of The Shop Around the Corner , are typical of those that followed Pretty Woman . Both feature plot devices that keep the central couple apart and, therefore, out of bed, thus allowing a nostalgic return to romance as it existed before premarital sex became a routine part of courtship.

Conservative treatments of the screwball formula also appeared, including My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), in which Julia Roberts plays the best friend who does not get the guy, and Forces of Nature (1999), which reverses the plot of It Happened One Night by having its heroine dropped for the hero's actual fiancée. In these films, romantic impulse is rejected in favor of social stability. Love Actually (2003) is a revival of the farce that deals with many couples but only one relationship, and even that, the marriage of Karen (Emma Thompson) and Harry (Alan Rickman), is seen through the prism of Harry's dalliance with his secretary. Like its generic ancestors, Love Actually takes monogamy for granted but also assumes that adultery is part of the institution. As the number and variety of these examples suggest, the romantic comedy remains a popular genre, and it is likely to remain so even if it is unlikely to regain the central role it had in the 1930s.

SEE ALSO Comedy ; Genre ; Screwball Comedy

Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Evans, Peter William, and Celestino Deleyto, eds. Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s . Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Gehring, Wes D. Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference . Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges . New York: Knopf, 1987.

Karnick, Kristine Brunovska, and Henry Jenkins, eds. Classical Hollywood Comedy . New York: Routledge, 1995.

Rubinfeld, Mark D. Bound to Bond: Gender, Genre, and the Hollywood Romantic Comedy . Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

Shumway, David R. Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis . New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Wartenberg, Thomas E. Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism . Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999.

David R. Shumway

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