Strong women, sparkling dialogue and a meeting of minds; the lasting impression left by romantic cinema on real life love.
The first time I fell for someone it was love at first sight. I can still picture it all these years later. I remember the feeling when he looked at me, where it happened, who else was in the room, even what I was wearing. That first encounter as an awkward eighteen-year-old took my breath away and I was smitten from that moment. It was perfect. Well apart from the fact that he wasn’t interested, but you can’t have everything.
Despite that setback, this first experience fitted with my view of romantic love fuelled by watching Hollywood films from the golden period of the late 1930s and early 40s. I always assumed that there would be a ‘moment’, followed by a meeting of minds and an exhilarating journey to the final pay off and our happy ever after.
I first discovered my love of films watching Hollywood musicals with my Nan on Sunday afternoons, sitting crossed legged in front of her small TV. I was little, probably younger than 10 and I was enchanted by the pure romance of it all. The music, the dancing, the cute set ups, a world of possibilities. I was too young to appreciate the dialogue, but I invested all my young emotions in those stories and there was always a happy ending.
A little later I remember watching The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Dir: Ernst Lubitsch) starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as shop employees who can barely stand each other, not realising they are actually falling in love through letters sent as each other’s anonymous pen pal. Sounds familiar? Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998) was inspired by the plot. Even at a young age I remember thinking how clever and sparky their relationship was. I loved Stewart’s awkwardness and the humour was as crisp as the snowy Christmas setting. I was desperate for the two of them to get together, practically shouting at the screen.
I moved on to watching the wonderful screwball comedies of the late 30s and 40s in my early teens and I was set for life. This is what I wanted my experience of love to be. Often viewed as the definitive film of the genre, Bringing Up Baby (1938, Dir: Howard Hawks) starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, was a delightful, quirky romantic romp. I immediately thought Hepburn was the most amazing individual I’d ever seen. The screen relationship with Grant was exquisite, the two of them sharing the scattergun dialogue as equals.
His Girl Friday (1940, Dir: Howard Hawks) was by far my favourite of the genre though. Set on a newspaper, with Cary Grant as an unscrupulous editor trying to keep his star reporter, and ex-wife, Rosalind Russell from leaving in the middle of chasing a hot story. Taken from their own stage play, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s screenplay was sparkling, and the verbal sparring between Russell and Grant was exhilarating, made even more delightful by the knowledge that both characters in the original play were men. Russell’s Hildy Johnson became an absolute hero to me. Stylish, self-assured and a newspaper reporter to boot, she was everything I wanted to be. A triumph of effervescent style and comic timing, Russell owned every scene in that film.
I started to seek out other films that might inspire that feeling again. The Philadelphia Story (1940, Dir: George Cukor) starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart has had such a lasting effect on me and I watched it repeatedly through my teens. Revelling in the pacing and the dialogue and the mesmerising screen presence of all three of the lead actors.
Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a rich socialite whose impending marriage is disrupted by the arrival of her ex-husband (Grant) and a tabloid hack played by Stewart. The pure sophistication of the set up was mesmerising. I wanted that kind of feisty, sparklingly witty relationship and the nuanced ‘love hate / will they won’t they’ thing was incredibly sexy. I personally wanted Hepburn to choose James Stewart rather than Cary Grant in the end, it was their impetuous, raw attraction that had me reeling. Have you ever had that feeling of urgency with someone? Exactly. But it didn’t matter, the wonderful final payoff scene was there to top off a near perfect film. It’s a film that gave me more satisfaction with every viewing. I wanted to be that funny, clever and impetuous and meet someone who would be my intellectual equal with banter to match. I would have all the best lines of course.
In my voyage of celluloid discovery, I also stopped by the usual teen fayre. I watched John Hughes films, but never felt fully satisfied. I assumed I was supposed to identify with those girls who craved the popular boys. I usually identified more with the goofy best friend to be honest, they always had the best lines. Take Pretty in Pink for example (1986, Dir: Howard Deutch) Andie (Mollie Ringwald) was an idiot, she should have snapped John Cryer’s Duckie up. I identified more with the character of Duckie than I did any other of Hughes’s characters as a teen. Awkward, overlooked and always looking for the funny line. Teenage boys don’t make passes at girls who have comic timing right? There were female lead characters in those films, but it didn’t feel right for me. Their journeys felt vacuous and that wasn’t what I wanted to see.
I was more at home with the simple, every day, realistic romance of Gregory’s Girl (1980, Dir: Bill Forsyth). Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) fancies Dorothy, but the females in his life, including his wonderful little sister, make sure he ends up with the right girl in the end. Clare Grogan’s assured performance as Susan made me want to be just like her, I even wore a beret for a while. It might not have the sparkling glamour of the 1940s, but the script was intelligent and charming, and the chemistry was believable. The female characters were shown as independent and clever and the outcome felt like tangible teenage love between two equals. There was hope for me.
I kept returning to the grown-up love of the 1940s, but I also indulged in a few contemporary rom coms in the late 1980s and early 90s. I have a particular soft spot for When Harry Met Sally… (1989, Dir: Rob Reiner) and watched it every Christmas for some reason, well into my early 20s. Although Billy Crystal has the best lines, Nora Ephron’s sharp dialogue and the premise of them being friends really touched me. The familiarity of that situation struck a chord as I was often seen as just a friend but always held out hope that I’d end up with that romantic outcome. It was the same with Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, Dir: Mike Nichols). Hugh Grant’s Charles should have ended up with his best mate, Kristin Scott Thomas’s Fi, she was strong, feisty and intriguing.
Special mention here for the romantic comedy career of Michael J. Fox. Doc Hollywood (1991 Dir: Michael Caton-Jones) is delightful and underrated. A gentle antidote to heartbreak. And John Cusack’s charming performance in Say Anything (1989, Dir: Cameron Crowe) would have wooed me from the start. Again, his female best friend played by the always fabulous Lili Taylor was far more interesting than the dull love interest played by Ione Skye. Largely, the standard of romantic comedies of that period is disappointing, particularly the female roles. Silly makeovers and mediocre characters forever compromising to catch some uninspiring wet fish. I struggled to see anything I aspired to or anyone I wanted to emulate. Even those Cusack rom coms I enjoyed were vehicles for the male lead, the female largely a flat platform for the male star’s comedy ego. There was no feeling of equal billing.
Disillusioned, I started to look back again. I went through my Woody Allen phase, and although I respect the commitment to the auteur aesthetic and the cleverness of the scripts for Manhattan (1979) and Annie Hall (1977), they left me feeling cold, the romance feeling spikey rather than sparkling.
By my mid 20s the reality of my own love life was less Katharine Hepburn and more Bridget Jones. Single girl about town, doomed encounters, sparks here and there but just getting burned. There was no witty dialogue, no match made in heaven. No showstopping moment of realisation, with Harry running across snowy New York to tell Sally how he felt, no John Cusack standing with beatbox aloft outside my house. There is a scene in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (1999) one of my favourite films but not exactly a romantic comedy, where Gina McKee’s Nadia is silently crying on the night bus home after yet another disappointing date. The feeling of a punch in the stomach, the regret and sadness over the reality of modern relationships. I craved romance, yes, but mainly love, with someone who treated me with respect.
I went through a bit of a ‘serious’ romance film phase then, slightly wallowing in the cruelty of watching the intensity of feeling love can bring. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) is one of the most beautiful and intensely erotic films I’ve seen, perfectly demonstrating why you don’t have to have a love scene to convey real passion. I revisited Truly Madly Deeply (1989, Dir: Anthony Minghella) Brief Encounter (1945, Dir: David Lean) and An Affair to Remember (1957, Dir: Leo McCarey) in that time too, finding more meaning in films I’d watched as a teenager as a woman who’d lived some of those feelings and experiences. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) had been a late teen favourite, full of romance and sharp dialogue. But Before Sunset (2004) took on a new significance for me, I was the same age as Jesse and Celine and watching it at a time of deep introspection on what could have been.
But then I found myself going full circle, rediscovering the deftness and romance of the screwball comedies, reminding myself that love should be enjoyable not tortuous and that I ought to be my own Rosalind Russell character, with no compromises. I took inspiration from those clever, confident women again. It wasn’t about finding love at all costs, it was about finding myself and my self-respect. If I wanted that spark with someone I should remain resolutely myself and if they were worthy of me, it would happen on my terms. There was a happy ending for me by the way, with someone who got me, respected me and matched me for witty one liners.
Film discourse rarely covers romantic cinema, never mind romantic comedies. Yet there is so much emotion and feeling to explore in the genre, such resonance with our everyday experiences. A good quality romantic comedy can raise our spirits and reassure us in times of trouble, and we revisit them time and time again like a comfort blanket. In terms of sheer quality of filmmaking, there is so much to admire in those pivotal romantic comedies of the 1940s. The clever screenplays, the fast-paced direction and excellent performances transcend period. I still aspire to be as sparky as Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell, but also celebrate the confidence those films gave me to be myself and expect the best romantic outcome.