Monday, November 8, 2010

Top 20 Rom Coms: The Early Years

The all-powerful and knowing Wikipedia describes romantic comedies as “films with light-hearted, humorous plotlines, centered on romantic ideals such as a true love able to surmount most obstacles”. That sounds about right. There is definitely an art to the successful romantic comedy. It’s the most predictable of film genres, but when done well, you won't notice that. Good romantic comedies have you laughing (or crying) into your popcorn and feeling content as the credits roll, like you’ve spent the evening with friends. When compiling this list of the first 50 years of romantic comedies, I was surprised at how many number among my favourite movies. Check out my list of Top 20 Rom Coms: The Last 25 Years, but before that, let us know what you think in the comments below!

It Happened One Night – 1934

Perhaps you're interested in how a man undresses. You know, it's a funny thing about that. Quite a study in psychology. No two men do it alike..

What it’s about: A spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert), running away from her family, is helped by a man who's actually a reporter (Clark Gable) looking for a story.

Why it’s great: Considered by many to be the first romantic comedy, It Happened One Night is also surely one of the finest. The convoluted plot set the tone for many romantic comedies to come. Colbert and Gable have fantastic chemistry, and the quick wit of the script today seems ahead of its time.

Key Scene:

His Girl Friday – 1940

- There's been a lamp burning in the window for ya, honey... here.
- Oh, I jumped out that window a long time ago.

What it’s about: A newspaper editor (Cary Grant) uses every trick in the book to keep his ace reporter ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) from remarrying.

Why it’s great: Two words: Cary and Rosalind. Cary Grant makes another appearance on this list, and if all things were fair, so would Rosalind Russell. These two are sparky and funny, both real naturals in the genre. Lucky, as His Girl Friday is one of the first films to feature characters speaking over the top of each other, testing their talents. Both pass with flying colours. Robert Altman, eat your heart out.

Key Scene:

The Philadelphia Story – 1940

The time to make up your mind about people is never.

What it’s about: When a rich woman's (Katharine Hepburn) ex-husband (Cary Grant) and a tabloid-type reporter (James Stewart) turn up just before her planned remarriage, she begins to learn the truth about herself.

Why it’s great: Full disclosure: The Philadelphia Story is one of my all-time favourite movies. It’s brilliant: funny, sexy, with a uniformly flawless group of actors, perfectly cast. Its cracking script is full of those moments that make you think “I wish I could come up with a response like that!”. Aside from the incomparable trifeca of Hepburn as Tracy Lord, Grant as CK Dexter Haven, and Stewart as Macaulay Connor, The Philadelphia Story features some of the best supporting players in movies: Ruth Hussey as the earthy Miss Imbrie, Ronald Young and his perfectly delivered one-liners as Uncle Willie, and Virginia Wiedler as Tracy’s precocious younger sister, Dinah.

Key Scene: "Seems the minute she hit the water, the wine hit her."

"Someday... over the rainbow..."

Adam’s Rib – 1943

No matter what you think you think, you think the same as I think.

What it’s about: Domestic and professional tensions mount when a husband (Spencer Tracy) and wife (Katharine Hepburn) work as opposing lawyers in a case involving a woman who shot her husband.

Why it’s great: For proof that Hepburn and Tracy were simply on fire whenever they were together, look no further than Adam’s Rib. It is perhaps the most successful of the nine films the couple made together over 25 years; their off-screen relationship lasted just as long. A must for any good 1940s romantic comedy is razor-sharp dialogue delivered at a lightning pace. It took real chops to pull it off. Look no further than Adam’s Rib for evidence.

Key Scene: "Licorice. If there's anything I'm a sucker for, it's licorice."

Tracy and Hepburn at their best

Pillow Talk – 1959

I've had hangovers before, but this time, even my hair hurts.

What it’s about: A man (Rock Hudson) and woman (Doris Day) share a telephone line and despise each other, but then he has fun by romancing her with his voice disguised.

Why it’s great: Another consummate romantic comedy pairing (hey, if the chemistry is there, why mess with it, right?), the perky Doris Day and knowing Rock Hudson combination was a winner for sure; the pair made three movies together. Pillow Talk is Day and Hudson at their cheeky, bedroom comedy, best.

Key Scene:

The Apartment – 1960

Ya know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe; I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were.

What it’s about: CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) tries to rise in his company by letting its executive’s use his apartment for trysts, but complications and a romance with elevator girl Fran (Shirley MacLaine) ensue.

Why it’s great: Another personal favourite, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment shows a maturing of the romantic comedy genre, with real stakes (depression, loneliness) and consequences among everyday players in the Big Apple. MacLaine is not your average romantic comedy foil, and her quirkiness matches perfectly with Lemmon’s everyman in a careful balance between farce and melancholy.

Key Scene:

Breakfast at Tiffany’s - 1961

It's useful being top banana in the shock department.

What it’s about: A young New York socialite, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) becomes interested in a young man (George Peppard) who has moved into her apartment building.

Why it’s great: This somewhat watered-down adaptation of Truman Capote’s best seller features a breathtaking Audrey Hepburn in perhaps her most famous role (apologies to My Fair Lady). Holly Golightly is so shining and iconic that it’s easy to forget about Peppard’s Paul (shame), and Mickey Rooney’s Mr Yunioshi (thankfully).

Key Scene:

Annie Hall – 1977

Honey, there's a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick.

What it’s about: Neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) falls in love with the ditzy Annie Hall (Diana Keaton), we trace the course of their relationship from their first meeting.

Why it’s great: Annie Hall is my favourite movie. It’s funny, clever, and truthful, and won Best Picture at the Oscars, beating Star Wars. A unique and inventive look at relationships in New York City in the 1970s, the film mirrors the real-life connection between its lead actors. Annie Hall is a true original in the romantic comedy genre; it is cynical and bold, and doesn’t end traditionally with the leads together, happily ever after. Unsurprisingly, it’s the only 1970s film to make this list. Times were changing.

Key Scene:

Romancing the Stone – 1984

-You're the best time I've ever had.
-I've never been anybody's best time.

What it’s about: A romance writer (Kathleen Turner) sets off to Colombia to ransom her kidnapped sister, and soon finds herself in the middle of a dangerous adventure with a soldier of fortune (Michael Douglas).

Why it’s great: Romancing the Stone is a rollicking chase movie that I simply adored when I was younger and it was on TV. It’s fun and funny, silly, and a little bit naughty (well, at least when you’re 8 it is). Turner and Douglas are wonderful, and as is a theme with this genre when there is undeniable chemistry between the leads, Romancing the Stone marked the first of several times the pair would team up on screen.

Key Scene:


  1. Amy I love a post that's a great read and an education in the history of film! I've never seen It Happened One Night and after that scene - I definitely want to. And is it just me - or does Clark Gable chewing on that carrot remind you of the way Tom Cruise chomps on apples in more than one of his movies? (Not comparing the two as actors of course!)

  2. @Kristy, fun fact: Gable and his carrot were the inspiration for Bugs Bunny's love of carrots.

  3. Thanks so much Kirsty - It Happened One Night was also the first film to win all of the big 5 Oscars - Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay. Not too shabby!

  4. Great, great list Ames. And not a coincidence that I own a lot of these movies! The key to a great rom com is all in the chemistry and the witty banter between the leads - something a lot of recent so-called romantic comedies could take a lesson from. I'm looking at you JLo.