The Evolution of the Rom-Com

Well....it's Valentine's Month and to "celebrate," I'll be giving you a variety of lists dedicated to the subject of love, relationships, and what have you in the next two weeks leading up to Singles Awareness Day  Valentine's Day. To begin, I thought it would be fun to take a look at how the genre of the romantic comedy has changed throughout the last century. So I decided to pick one film per decade that influenced the genre and summed up how each decade influenced these films to what they are today. Now, I'm sure I could have found some rom-com from the 1910's, and for the 1920's I probably could have done Buster Keaton's Seven Chances or something else with either him or Charlie Chaplin....but I felt it was only right to truly start off this list with the rom-com that really started it all...

1930's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT - SO MANY modern day tropes can be linked back to this one film. It paved the way for everything and when  you watch it there's a definite reason why. This film is fantastic and it still holds up today. Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable lit up the screen together and their constant bickering only left the audiences dying to make the two characters figure out that they belong together. I have to imagine that the situations these two characters found themselves in were verrrry risque for the time which only made their romance all the more exciting (seriously, what I wouldn't give to be in a theater back in the day during all the "walls of Jericho" scenes.) Their characters became the types to model every other rom-com character since. To my knowledge, he's the first rom-com journalist (an idea that, unfortunately, gets way too over used in the years to come...) and she the first spoiled rom-com heiress betrothed er...well kind of already married to another man. It's pretty easy to find traces of them in all of the rom-coms ever since.

A lot of the trends from the 30's carry over to the 40's rom-com. This film really inspired a lot of later rom-coms including two remakes! (See In the Good Old Summertime and You've Got Mail) Much like It Happened One Night. The Shop Around the Corner starts with two characters who immediately take a strong disliking to one another which prevents them from seeing the mutual attraction that lies underneath. Also similar to It Happened One Night and other films of these two decades, it's all about the dialogue. Their fights are fast, snappy and piercing. Meg Ryan does her best to duplicate it in the remake, but the venom in Margaret Sullivan's words sting far worse. And if I'm comparing the remake I must also say the original's ending is far superior and much more believable (no pouty Meg Ryan stamping her foot in unbelief...) Plus I must mention that Jimmy Stewart in his prime makes a really nice leading man.

1950's SABRINA - And here we introduce (the dreaded) LOVE TRIANGLE. I mean sure it has been prevalent before but NEVER as such a threat as this film presents. Annnnnnnd the ugly-duckling-gets-a-makeover-and-then-everyone-worships-her phenomenon. But really let's be honest, it was never believable that Audrey Hepburn was forgettable to anyone pre-makeover. Similar to It Happened One Night, our leading man initially has ulterior motives, but little by little falls to the charms of his leading lady. There's a reason why these elements have become tropes, and it's because both of these films were so well done. Sure, Sabrina is kind of frustratingly naive, but Audrey is just so elegantly beautiful to watch that it's hard not to just let her off the hook. Being seasoned in Paris will do that to a girl!

1960's PILLOW TALK - This is far from my favorite rom-com of the 60's (See Sex and the Single Girl, Move Over Darling, Any Wednesday, Barefoot in the Park, etc. etc,) but it was definitely one of the most influential. Sabrina started the fashion show trend in rom-coms and Pillow Talk kept the trend alive for other rom-coms to follow suit in the rest of the decade. Like Shop Around the CornerPillow Talk borrows the "hate at first perception" coupled with mistaken identities. But while the 60's would borrow some ideas from the past, the films certainly brought their own flavor to influence the genre. The 60's rom-com was always out to (tastefully) push the boundaries of flirtiness and sexiness and it wanted to do so in a way that was first and foremost FUN. They always wanted the idea of more brought to the minds of the viewers, but they'd never actually show it. Some great chemistry was born out of this method. Though Doris Day's most famous co-star was Rock Hudson, I always preferred her with James Garner. Oh and I also have to mention how the rom-coms of the 60's always incorporated a catchy intro tune with the film's title sung over and over and over. Pillow Talk....Pillow Talk! Pillow Pillow Pillow Pillow......Pillow Talk. Okay, I know those aren't the lyrics....but it's pretty close.

1970's THE GOODBYE GIRL - The obvious choice for the 70's is Annie Hall, but I'm saving that one for another blog! Instead, I went with The Goodbye Girl which still represents a lot of the norms for rom-coms in the 1970's and how those norms still influence today. In the 70's pretty much everything was an "indie" film trying to defy the norms, going against the conventional and most importantly reveling in realism. Here you have an unconventional lead in Richard Dreyfuss, trying to win over a very flawed and emotionally shrill Marsha Mason. These rom-coms still yearned for a happily ever after but needed realism present the whole time to achieve their goals and keep artistic integrity. Some ideas would be kept in the 80's but in a compromised fashion as popcorn glamor would return.

1980's WHEN HARRY MET SALLY - This film is almost a perfect bridge between the realism of the 70's and the silly fantasies of the 90's. Here the story and concept is still a real one with no frills or catches (two friends fall in love...simple as that), but we're back to being very aware that this is a movie whose first intentions are to entertain. I love this film. It's one of my favorite rom-coms ever made because it achieves a perfect balance. Its story isn't manipulative or outrageous and its leads are likable. Plus it's got a great supporting cast which is the mark of a good rom-com. But this film will be making an appearance on a few other lists, so I'll save some more of my thoughts for those.

1990's WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING - Meg Ryan started the idea of having rom-com queens (well....the 90's rom-com queen. Obviously Doris Day held the title long before her.) But in the 90's, two other rom-com queens emerged. In addition to Ryan, Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts were also constantly finding romance on the silver screen during the 1990's. Obviously Sleepless in Seattle was incredibly influential to the rom-com, but having picked a Ryan film for the 80's I instead decided to pick MY favorite rom-com of the 90's: While You Were Sleeping, (though I must say, One Fine Day is a very close runner up.) Sleepless in Seattle, the glorified tale of a stalker, paved the way for outlandish plots in rom-coms. While You Were Sleeping continues this trend and makes some tropes of its own in the process. One big one: falling in love with someone's family before falling in love with them. Copied time and time and TIME again. I LOVE it in this movie, but my goodness this trope is getting old. Especially when Bullock copies it shamelessly again in The Proposal. I swear it's the same BEEP speech she gives. But back to Sleeping... this is definitely Bullock at her most likable, and at her frumpiest...yet somehow still she just looks effortlessly pretty...  Sleepless in Seattle also introduced the jilted nice guy/significant other, and that jilted nice guy luckily gets to be the leading man this time. They definitely make for a good pair that you want to root for...and so does their family. Supporting characters seemed to mean a bit more in the 90's and some how will get lost along the way in the next decade.

2000's JUST LIKE HEAVEN - Okay this might have been an unusual one for me to pick here, but it was one of my favorites and illustrated a lot of the trends of the decade (well of the more amiable rom-coms made anyway.)  Firstly it features two prominent rom-com leads of the 2000's: Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon. Both did well in other hits (13 Going on 30 is one of my favorites and Sweet Home Alabama works solely due to Witherspoon's charm,) but seeing them together here was really great and they definitely had their share of sweet moments coupled with nice chemistry. Like many rom-coms of the early 2000's, the focus was on friendship first, falling in love second (again see: 13 Going on 30 and Win a Date With Tad Hamilton.) Another thing Just Like Heaven represents that was popular for the rom-com was the "more outlandish, the better" attitude with regard to premises that started in the 90's, but probably only got more desperate with age. When the genre WASN'T relying on overused cliches of mistaken identities and bets (see How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days) it was coming up with really crazy ways that no one had ever seen before in getting two characters to fall in love (ie Penelope.) Then there were all the Love Actually ensemble knockoffs with He's Just Not That Into You, Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve. But Just Like Heaven always stood out to me because their romance was charming, the movie was full of some genuine laughs and Ruffalo and Witherspoon made an adorable pair.

2010's FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS - The decade is still young....but the trend that I saw towards the end of the last decade that is carrying over to this one is very prevalent in this 2011 release. In the early 2000's it was friendship first relationship later......well now it's shifting to sex first, feelings later. In fact 2011 dedicated TWO releases to this idea...but I never got around to seeing No Strings Attached. I think it's very strange that rom-coms always show the characters hooking up mid-way through the movie, only to have an obstacle then revealed that keeps them apart and then they save the big kiss for the end (27 Dresses which I realize was in the last decade...but was towards the end of it was a huge example of this too.) Something feels a little backwards here and I hope that's not all this decade has to offer. The other thing Benefits shows the rom-com is trending towards is the R-rated rom-com to try and appeal to both men and women. Apatow pretty much changed things and now everything seems to have to have gross-out humor to appeal to both genders (ie: The Five Year Engagement, also The Ugly Truth which was an '09 release) That said, I did enjoy Friends With Benefits largely in part to Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake's fantastic chemistry and dedication to the movie...it is one of the more well done films despite the trends that are shaping it.

That's all! I know I just grazed the surface really. I honestly could have done a blog post on any one of these decades individually and had so much more to say. So readers what ones did I miss? Or...what are either your favorites decade by decade, or the film that you best feel represents each decade? Tell me in the comments below!!


Joey said...

So much to comment on here. It's so funny how a rom-com can have the elements (Nice leading man, good fashion, good supporting characters) and still tank. One of the biggest disappointments to me ever was "Down With Love," a supposed homage to the 60's comedies. Ultimately, the leads have to be likeable and you have to like their life. Sandra Bullock, Doris Day, Reese Witherspoon...very likeable.

Ha ha! Noticed that there is not one Jennifer Lopez movie on your list. She doesn't really do the likeable thing for me. It always seems as if she is trying too hard.

And I watch Hollywood search in vain for the new "America's Sweetheart" (another bad movie, by the way). No current actress seems to be able to sustain it. Why do you think that is?

Personal notes:

Love Bill Pulman as an every man. When he looks at Sandra Bullock walking down the aisle with such longing and regret, it gets me every time. I would love to have someone look at me that way.

Young Jimmy Stewart. Nice. Really nice. So romantic. I want him whispering in my ear.

Such a toss up as to who wore the clothes better. I know that Audrey Hepburn is such a fashion plate, but Doris Day really knew how to carry off clothes. She has a beautiful figure! The matching coats, the bling...she can even do the oranges and greens that were popular.

Personal favorite among the missing (and I understand why because there are just too many):

Cactus Flower: Wacky and totally 60's (and what kind of phenomenon ever catapulted Walter Matthau to a romantic lead?) Goldie Hawn got the accolades, but Ingrid Bergman had a deft touch with comedy. Which leads me to...

Indiscreet: Not everyone's cup of tea, but I think that Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are hilarious.

The Bachelor & The Bobby Soxer: I'm a sucker for dialogue and this one is so quick and funny. Add Cary Grant to the mix and I'm hooked...especially when he's dressed as a knight in shining armor.

That Touch of Mink: The premise is despicable, but love the costumes, the supporting characters (Gig Young), how totally implausible the storyline is...and you have a great movie.

Okay, there are too many others. This was a great blog!

courtney wightman said...

nice valentine's post! i see that i need to catch up on my rom-coms, and i loved you mom's comment. it is apparent that you come from a line of movie-lovers :)

Laurie & Clint said...

I like it! Sadly it seems the genre is slowly dumbing down and declining with each decade. I definitely prefer the oldies rom-coms. Although I also like dumb movies.

Sarah said...

Yeah, I'm not a fan of the new trend of sex first, love later.

I think one of the worst things that happened to movies (romantic comedies in particular) was the dissolution of the Hayes Code. I think having that code in place made the movies wittier and more creative.

I too prefer the coupling of James Garner with Doris Day. The Thrill of it All and Move Over Darling are two of my favorites. And I want ALL of Doris Day's clothes. All of them.

I loved the 30's coupling of Cary Grant and Irene Dunn. Irene Dunn and Cary Grant were hilarious together...but they could also turn on the chemistry in an instant too. My Favorite Wife and The Awful Truth are two of my favorites. As for The Shop Around the Corner, I love Jimmy Stewart in this...but Margaret Sullivan just makes me sooooo mad. As a result, this is one that isn't one of my favorites, just because she drives me so crazy.

While You Were Sleeping and Just Like Heaven are two of my favorites. In fact, I can't remember seeing a romantic comedy since Just Like Heaven that I have liked as much. I worry that it is a dying art...mostly for the fact that you pointed out--they are gearing romantic comedies towards the guys too and introducing sex and gross out humor. Blech.