Entertainment

The Bittersweet Rise and Fall of the Romantic Comedy

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Editor’s note: Today we’ve invited Cole Abaius, managing editor of Film School Rejects, to walk us through the history of rom-coms and to tell us if there’s any hope for the future. Read his piece, then check out FSR Dating (powered by HowAboutWe) and post a movie date idea — perhaps “How about we… watch a rom-com that doesn’t suck?” 

Will people 50 years from now swoon over the idea of living life like a Katherine Heigl movie? Will young lovers stroll through the parks of New York City and blissfully proclaim “It’s just like Sex and the City!” before collapsing into a deep embrace? Will they lament that they just don’t make romantic movie stars like Matthew McConaughey anymore?

You’ve already gotten a little nauseous by answering, and it’s not like we have to care what the people of the future will care about (what with their smug sense of superiority and jetpacks), but we’re living in the Cubic Zirconia Era of Hollywood. The Golden Era was so long ago that we yearn for it, fantasize about it. In fact, even Sarah Jessica Parker had to focus on the screwball love of Clark Gable and and Claudette Colbert to get through her own Sex and the City sequel. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, but it’s undeniable that the soft focus past of romantic comedies seems a lot sweeter than the current crop.

Young filmmakers had already lightly turned to thoughts of love during the silent era. Movies like The General starring Buster Keaton and Marion Mack might not fit the modern mold (since it mostly focused on his hilarious physical comedy), but even as Mack becomes a damsel in distress at the hands of train-stealing Union soldiers, she and Keaton also work together and fall deeply in love on the frantic train ride back. As silent films gave way to talkies, movies like It Happened One Night, The Awful Truth and Best Picture nominee Ninotchka delivered the blueprint for how two people who shouldn’t be together, figure out they’re destined for one another. These films and others often had a Shakespearean tilt to them — following along in Romeo and Juliet’s balcony-climbing footsteps by forcing social and class differences in between the two would-be lovers. There was something rebellious about them in that way, like sneaking out of the house in high school to meet up with your sweetheart.

And Hollywood continued churning out classics. We got to see Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn ride a scooter through Rome; Tom Ewell running to catch a train to be with his wife after itching for Marilyn Monroe; and Rock Hudson and Doris Day fall in love over a party line. These moments are timeless, but even more importantly, they made us fall in love with a formula that somehow echoed our own lives and what we wanted our lives to be like.

That magic fell out of popularity in the late 60s and 70s, even though Woody Allen tapped into the day-to-day struggles of cooking a lobster with his brand of romantic mythology in Annie Hall. Like any good relationship plot, filmmakers and audiences had a rocky period with romantic comedies that lasted until Meg Ryan faked an orgasm inside a diner. Everyone wanted what she was having, and When Harry Met Sally gave us the modern movie that people think of first when asked to named a romantic comedy.

The 90s were a wash in the genre, making fresh googly eyes at sweet couples. Julia Roberts played a prostitute with a heart of gold who got pearls and a white knight in Richard Gere; Bill Murray relived the same day until he became a good enough man for Andie MacDowell; and Sleepless in Seattle delivered a fresh perspective on the classic set-up (complete with a rooftop call-back to An Affair to Remember). This was a new breed of romantic comedies where Tom Hanks became the new Rock Hudson (which is sort of hard to imagine) and Meg Ryan became the new Doris Day (which isn’t at all hard to imagine).

Maybe newer writers don’t grasp the rules and humanity of the romantic comedy world. Maybe we grew too cynical. Maybe Hanks and Ryan were too hard an act to follow. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the 2000s have had the exact opposite problem as the 70s. Instead of a lack of romantic comedies, there’s far too many, and the huge throbbing bulk of them are cheap and terrible. They’re crass fax-quality copies of the movie magic of yesteryear. Which brings us back to the original question. If we’re still daydreaming about falling in love with Barbara Stanwyck or Tony Curtis, if we still want to have our dating lives written by Nora Ephron, what are we offering the people of the future in the way of romance?

Fortunately, even though there are hordes of awful movies out there each trying to recapture the imagination of the past without the style or grace to do it, there are still new romantic comedies providing a silver lining. Movies like Love, Actually are reveling in screwball while noting the complexity of all kinds of relationships. Flicks like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The 40-Year-Old Virgin are putting more emphasis on the comedy (while still delivering the romance). Do they look like the films of the past? No. Are they funny and sweet? Yes. We may not ever get a return to Golden Era form, but in a world where the crass commercialism of Valentine’s Day and One For the Money count inexplicably as both lovely and funny, these are welcome breaks from filmmakers who just can’t grasp the genuineness and wonder displayed during the height of the romantic comedy.

Or maybe the good people of 2062 will still pine for Claudette Colbert sticking her leg out to get a ride.

Cole Abaius is the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects, a loving husband with his own Meet Cute story, and a giant fan of movies of all kinds.

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