Romantic ComedySILENT AND PRE-CODE ROMANTIC COMEDY
THE SCREWBALL ERA
DECLINE AND REINVENTION
Romantic comedy in its most general meaning includes all films that treat love, courtship, and marriage comically. Comic in this context refers more to the mood of the film and less to its plot. A film comedy need not have a happy ending, nor do all films that have happy endings qualify as comedies.
Of course, the great majority of romantic comedies do have happy endings, usually meaning the marriage of one or more of the couples the plot has brought together. The humor of these films typically derives from various obstacles to this outcome, especially miscommunication or misunderstanding between partners or prospective partners. For this reason, most romantic comedies depend heavily on dialogue. While they may also make use of physical humor and other visual gags, romantic film comedy remains close to it theatrical predecessors.
Theatrical romantic comedy is a distinct, historically specific genre that emerged with Shakespeare's comedies in the sixteenth century. It combines elements of two earlier forms having antithetical views of love and marriage. One ancestor is the New Comedy of ancient Greece, which centers on a young man who desires a young woman but who meets with paternal opposition. The play ends with some turn of events that enables the match to be made. Comedy here represents the integration of society, the concluding wedding standing for social renewal. The other ancestor is medieval romance, which appeared in both narrative and lyric poems. Romance here names a new sense of love—the passionate experience of the individual—distinct from the "social solidarity" love had previously meant. Romance was originally opposed to marriage, but in Shakespeare's comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing, romantic love and marriage are united. Romantic comedies ever since have told audiences that their dreams of the right mate can come true.
Romantic comedy in film falls into four distinct subgenres: romantic comedy proper, farce, screwball comedy, and the relationship story. Each of the subgenres is defined by the ways in which love, romance, and marriage are depicted and, especially, how they are related to each other.
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. 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.
During the screwball era—1934 through the early 1940s—romantic comedy was one of Hollywood's most important genres. Named for the zany behavior and improbable events that it depicts, screwball comedy combines elements of farce and traditional romantic comedy. Like the former, it typically deals with older, previously married characters, putting them into risqué situations; like the latter, screwball comedies end with a wedding, thus affirming, rather than questioning, the connection between romantic love and marriage. The screwball form first appeared in 1934, on the cusp of the new production code, along with Frank Capra's (1897–1991) It Happened One Night (1934) and Howard Hawks's (1896–1977) Twentieth Century (1934). It Happened One Night, which swept the major Academy Awards® in 1935, developed the strategy of indirect eroticism that builds between the central couple, a strategy that became all the more important after the Code prohibited more overt sexuality. In Twentieth Century Hawks introduced the fast talk that would reach its extreme in His Girl Friday (1940), where he encouraged actors to talk over each other's lines. Both of these techniques would help define romantic comedy of this period.
One group of screwball comedies has been identified by Stanley Cavell as comedies of remarriage. In addition to It Happened One Night, these include some of the most important romantic comedies of the studio era: Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937), Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday, Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve (1941), and George Cukor's (1899–1983) The Philadelphia Story (1940), and, although not a screwball Adam's Rib (1949). Cavell argues that in depicting genuine conversation between lovers, these films tell us something about marriage.
Unlike most previous romantic comedies, these films show us the growth of a relationship between the central couple. Yet Cavell's point is undermined by the fact that these films deal with characters who are not married to each other and who often seem to be in quasi-adulterous relationships. It thus seems that they mystify marriage by blurring the boundaries between it and an illicit affair.
Proper romantic comedies continued to be made after 1934, but they remained a subordinate form. Lubitsch made one of the most significant, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), in which the father, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), owns a shop where the central couple, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), are employed. They fall in love by correspondence, so they do not know that they have fallen for a co-worker. At work, in person, the two do not get along. This provides for some of the competitive bickering familiar from Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice and Benedict, which became a feature of screwball comedies as well. But what distinguishes this film as a proper romantic comedy rather than a screwball comedy is that the lovers are young (implicitly virgins) and their relationship untriangulated.
The importance of romantic comedy in this era is demonstrated by its leading stars, whose reputations and personas were established in such films, and the leading directors who made at least one romantic comedy, including even Alfred Hitchcock (Mr. and Mrs. Smith ). Carol Lombard (1908–1942), the female lead in Hitchcock's film, was a star especially identified with romantic comedy. Her career was defined by her role opposite John Barrymore in Twentieth Century, and she later appeared in both My Man Godfrey (1936) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Lombard's roles were often typical of the screwball heroine, who may be zany but also tough, determined, and intelligent. Irene Dunne (1898–1990) perhaps best embodied the seemingly paradoxical combination of the ditzy and the smart in films like Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth, and My Favorite Wife (1940).
Katherine Hepburn (1907–2003) endured a long series of box-office failures, including the romantic comedies Bringing Up Baby and Holiday (1938), before her career was revived in The Philadelphia Story. Based on a Philip Barry play written for Hepburn, the film was widely understood to be about her. She plays Tracy Lord, the divorced daughter of an haute bourgeois family, on the eve of her wedding to a nouveau riche prig (John Howard). During the course of the film, she is described as a "virgin," a "goddess," a "scold," and a "fortress" by both her father and her ex, C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). In order to become a fit mate, the film suggests, she must be humanized by being taken down a peg, which happens when she gets drunk and cannot remember what she did with Macaulay Connor (James Stewart). As a result, the prig dumps her, and she winds up remarrying Dexter. The audience apparently believed in the transformation, and Hepburn went on star in, among many other films, a series of romantic comedies opposite Spencer Tracy.
b. Berlin, Germany, 29 January 1892, d. 30 November 1947
Ernst Lubitsch was the director most closely identified with the genre of romantic comedy during the studio era. He was known for the "Lubitsch touch," the ineffable combination of gloss, sophistication, wit, irony, and, above all, lightness, that he brought to his material.
Lubitsch began his career in Germany, where he made slapstick comedies and historical epics. He came to America in 1922, carrying the reputation as "the greatest director in Europe." In his first romantic comedy, The Marriage Circle (1924), he staked out the artistic territory that would define the rest of his career: Lubitsch's attitude and technique are illustrated by a shot of Professor Stock (Adolph Menjou) as he reacts with a smile to evidence of his wife's adultery. In 1925 Lubitsch adapted Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan without making use of any of the celebrated playwright's dialogue. Lubitsch's willingness to disregard the details of his sources allowed him to turn bad plays into good or even great films.
Lubitsch made a series of farcelike operettas for Paramount featuring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald, including The Love Parade (1929) and One Hour with You (1932), a remake of The Marriage Circle. These films were sexy, stagy, unembarrassed froth that used music and lyrics to develop character and advance the plot. With Trouble in Paradise (1932), a nonmusical comedy in which style counts for everything, he directed what he regarded as his most accomplished work. He followed it with Design for Living (1933), an adaptation of Noel Coward, which ends with the heroine (Miriam Hopkins) leaving her bourgeois husband (Edward Everett Horton) for the two men (Gary Cooper and Fredric March as an artist and a playwright, respectively) with whom she had previously shared a Paris garret.
After making his final operetta, The Merry Widow, for MGM in 1934 (a box-office failure, but perhaps his best musical), Lubitsch became the only major director to serve as the head of production at a major studio, Paramount. In the main Lubitsch ignored the screwball trend, but he made one film in that mode, Ninotchka (1939), Greta Garbo's first comedy. This was followed by an equally successful foray into traditional romantic comedy with The Shop Around the Corner (1940).
If Lubitsch's reputation has not held up as well as some of his studio-era contemporaries, it may be because his stylish comedies fail to deal with serious issues, even serious issues of love or romance. But one film at least cannot be dismissed in this way. To Be or Not to Be (1942) is a romantic comedy set in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Although the making of a comedy set in war-torn Europe troubled many at the time, the film may be Lubitsch's most enduring work.
The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), The Love Parade (1929), Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design for Living (1933), The Merry Widow (1934), Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Barnes, Peter. To Be or Not to Be. London: British Film Institute, 2002.
Eyman, Scott. Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Poague, Leland A. The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes and London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1978.
Weinberg, Herman G. The and Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study. 3rd edition. New York: Dover, 1977.
David R. Shumway
The actor whose career owed the most to romantic comedy, however, was undoubtedly Cary Grant (1904–1986). While he already appeared in twenty-eight films between 1932 and 1937, The Awful Truth defined
Grant's persona: sophisticated, intelligent, ironic, self-aware, confident, witty, but also capable of pratfalls and zaniness equal to those of screwball heroines. He became a model of masculinity unlike the more traditional paradigm represented by such actors as Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. Hawks pushed this second side of Grant to the limit in Bringing Up Baby, in which Grant is subjected to repeated humiliation at the hands of Hepburn, with whom he nevertheless falls in love. But Hawks also made Grant the almost inhuman editor Walter Burns in His Girl Friday, in which he wins the tough Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) only by being more wily and tenacious. This duality served Grant well in a variety of films, including not only those that borrow from romantic comedy, such as North by Northwest (1959, but also romantic films of adventure or suspense, such as Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Suspicion (1941), and Notorious (1946).
While screwball heroines are among the most independent and intelligent women in studio-era films, the romantic comedies of this era continued to depict them as if their choice of a mate was the only serious decision they might face. While they often best their male counterparts in these films' comic battles, what women win in the end is marriage. Similarly, screwball-era romantic comedies often flirt with a populist view of class relations. My Man Godfrey, for example, deals with the problems of the Depression as represented by the unemployed "for-gotten men" who live in a shantytown. But the film's hero is merely posing as one of them, and he ends up marrying a heroine of his own bourgeois class. Other comedies, like The Philadelphia Story, can be read as apologetics for the rich.
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 ), 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.
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