Romantic Comedy


Filmic romantic comedy in the United States derived most directly from the stage. While higher forms of comedy were produced on stage before 1915, theatrical comedy was dominated by vaudeville, minstrel shows, and musical reviews. Vaudeville and other forms of "low" comedy were the first to influence film, and this influence accounts for the bulk of silent film comedy. Farce typically deals with characters who are or have previously been married, and it derives its humor by calling attention to the restrictions and boredom often felt by long-married couples. But farce also typically accepts marriage as the norm, and depicts extramarital sex as immoral. Beginning in 1915, however, Broadway theater generated a vogue for sex farce, which remained very popular through the early 1920s. These plays featured suggestive language and situations, and they often set out to test the limits of what authorities would permit.

Given the limitations of silent film and its audience, it is not surprising that farce should be the first form of romantic comedy to become an established film genre.

Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March (center), and Gary Cooper in Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933).
Most silent comedy is farce in the broadest sense of the term, since it is most often low and physical. What have been called the silent comedies of remarriage could better be described as toned-down sex farces, though their use of divorce reflects its increasing frequency in America at that historical moment. Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959) made three such films: Old Wives for New (1918), Don't Change Your Husband (1919), and Why Change Your Wife? (1920). As if to illustrate the difficulties of silent romantic comedy, these films, like many American silents, are heavily dependent on title cards, which present proverbial cynicism about marriage. In Why Change Your Wife? , marriage is illustrated by a scene repeated between the husband and each of his wives. As he tries to shave, his wife interrupts him repeatedly, refusing to acknowledge that finishing the shave might reasonably be something the husband should do prior to helping his mate. One expects, given this repetition, that when the husband remarries wife number one, she will revert to type, but the film ends with a title card expressing a previously absent faith in the ability of the romance to last. The new lesson is aimed at women: forget you are wives and continue to indulge your husband's desires.

In The Marriage Circle (1924), Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) used subtle gestures and expressions to convey complex emotions among six interrelated characters. Here, irony replaces more overt mockery of marriage, and the film treats its subject without moralizing. Other silent films staged romantic comedy by importing conventions from slapstick comedy and melodrama, as does It (1927), which made Clara Bow (1905–1965) ever after the "It Girl." The story of the ultimately successful cross-class courtship of Bow's shop girl and her employer, the department store's owner, the film uses its title to refer to a special sexual magnetism that a lucky few enjoy. It thus offered an attempt at explaining the power of romantic love, as well as its own improbable plot.

The sound era brought a raft of romantic comedies adapted from the stage. In the pre-Code era (1928–1934), the farce continued to be the dominant form. Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932) is a film in which infidelity and even grand theft are treated as if they were at worst the cause of minor discomfort. Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall play a pair of jewel thieves who become lovers and take jobs with the owner of a perfume company (Kay Francis). Other pre-Code farces include Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra, 1931) and two adaptations of Noel Coward plays, Private Lives (Sidney Franklin, 1931) and Design for Living (1933), directed by Lubitsch. The pre-Code period also saw the emergence of romantic comedy proper. A pure example of the genre is Fast and Loose (1930), adapted in part by Preston Sturges (1898–1959) from the play The Best People by David Gray and Avery Hopwood. Here a wealthy father, Bronson Lenox (Frank Morgan), intervenes to prohibit the cross-class loves of both his son and daughter.

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