observations and opinion
if you fall into
it, the only escape is
to climb out of it
As we transit through Venus (aka get Valentine’s Day behind us), the TV ground is thick with romantic comedies (“romcoms”). Once a dominant form of life on Planet Hollywood, the romcom has evolved – some would say devolved – into a grim replicant of a once robust beast. As with Dolly the cloned sheep, the absence of fresh DNA has resulted in a romcom population which is but a pale, infertile copy of the original. It looks like a sheep – and you might even get some wool off its back – till it falls over prematurely dead.
It is especially painful to see what the American romcom has become, when we look back at its early origins – some of the early and most delightful creatures of cinema. The genre burst into public attention with It Happened One Night, the 1934 Oscar-studded road story of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert , hating each other until they love each other. That movie was a huge hit but it merely tilled the ground for what was to come.
For it was another film which served as the Rosetta Stone of the romcom genre: Ernst Lubitsch’s gentle The Shop Around the Corner from 1940. All the elements of the genre are there: charm, confusion, missing information, wit, angst, prolonged separation and the last minute, sudden realization of true love – delivered intelligently by Margaret Sullivan and Jimmy Stewart. (As fate and irony would have it, The Shop Around the Corner was first in the chain of quality American romcoms and the last of them may have been its remake – almost six decades later – Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail.)
Jimmy Stewart – a master of American comedy as it turned out – was a featured player in another key early romcom: 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, a witty and quick stage piece where Kate Hepburn divorces Cary Grant, toys with a couple of other great actors, says one of the loveliest lines ever (“I’ll be yar now, I promise to be yar!”) and swoons back into Cary’s arms. She followed with a series of smart romcoms paired with real-life paramour Spencer Tracy. The following decade, the other beautiful Hepburn (Audrey) hit romcom home-runs in 1953’s Roman Holiday and the next year in Sabrina, the off-centre love triangle of two rich brothers and their chauffeur’s daughter.
All of those and many other romantic comedies lit up the world’s cinemas, reaching a zenith with what is arguably the best of the genre (if not the best of any genre) in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. I say “arguably” to be polite: there is no better, darker, funnier or more moving entry in the RomCom Canon than the 1960 pairing of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (fans of Mad Men should watch The Apartment, if only to see how dead-on the TV show was in replicating the early 60’s era).
While Wilder brought the romcom to its peak, the early 60’s had a few decent light weight entries (the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies, for example) but after that the genre stalled for a couple of decades. America was too busy being torn and unhappy to give much attention to the clumsy in and outs of standard romantic love, so 1960’s comedies were either insanely silly clusters of movie stars (the Pink Panthers, Casino Royale, etc) or weighed down with deadly serious irony (The Graduate).
Flickers of light are seen in the early 70’s, such as in Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam – a hybrid revival piece (half romance, half slapstick). Yes, Allen made a charming comedy in 1977 with a romantic edge to it (Annie Hall) but the greatest of Allen’s films to follow (Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors) were just a little too dark, too ambitious and too off-centre to quite fit among mainstream RomComs. Warren Beatty’s Shampoo (1974) falls off the list for the same reasons – just a little too jaded.
The true, lightweight but charming romcom was pretty well dormant through the 60’s and 70’s. Doubtless Woody Allen’s films helped inspire the revival, but so did the new generation of comics and comedy that hatched, like Mork from Ork, in the late 70’s. It was then that we saw a sudden burst of quirky, smart and funny films with a heavy dose of romantic love:
The Goodbye Girl – 1977. Neil Simon personally put the jumper cables back on the romantic comedy, as his Broadway efforts migrated to film. This is the prototypical modern romcom: flawed leads, missed signals, mutual distaste morphing into longing. And a great title song by David Gates. Richard Dreyfus’ deserved his Best Actor Oscar and Marsha Mason deserved her nomination. The kid didn’t, IMHO.
Foul Play – 1978. True, I have a deep chocolately soft spot for this movie, but Chevy Chase-Goldie Hawn bring a warm glow to what otherwise is a collection of slapsticky hijinks.
Heaven Can Wait – 1978. Warren Beatty again, this time lighter and in a deliberate tribute to the 1940’s, the film is odd and it drags, but it’s in the game.
Starting Over – 1979. Jill Clayburgh was then, like Diane Lane today, too serious an actress to play comedy comfortably, but this tale of divorce, heartache and new romance deserves a nod.
Those films showed that the funny, sweet romantic comedy was about to bloom. And then there was Tootsie in 1982. All the standard features are there: love growing under the surface, a goofball and vaguely unlikeable leading man (Dustin Hoffman) a laconic side kick (Bill Murray is brilliant) and a lovely and smart leading lady (Jessica Lange). It’s edgier and more intentionally political than the standard romcom, but that was the new DNA required to bring the beast back to life. And the film featured strong but sweet a new pop song (“It Might be You” by Stephen Bishop) – the soundtrack being a key element in the film’s success.
With that run of smart proto-romcoms, you would have expected the genre to come roaring back to life after that. But then, just as quickly,the romcom fell dead again. Until Harry met Sally.
More to come