Romantic Comedy Trends

My attempt at my traditional Labor Day rom-com weekend fizzled because I wasn’t really in the mood for watching movies. I mostly ended up watching episodes of The Office, which kind of count because I was at the part of the series when Jim and Pam finally get together and Angela and Dwight were breaking up. I did watch My Man Godfrey Monday night, a classic screwball comedy, but that was largely because I needed 1930s references for something I was working on.

I didn’t really want to sit and watch anything for the length of a movie. A half hour or so (including the deleted scenes) was about the right length before I wanted to read a book instead.

But I did put together a list of various movies to watch when I am in the mood for that sort of thing, maybe in the fall when it gets dark earlier and I don’t want to sit outside and read. I scrolled through the list on IMDB of everything tagged both comedy and romance and picked out the ones that sound good that I haven’t seen, which isn’t a lot.

Looking at that list showed some interesting patterns. This kind of movie comes in waves. There was a big golden age in the 1930s and early 1940s when the screwball comedies were big. To a large extent, that was a response to the Depression. People wanted fun, uplifting movies, but there was also an underlying theme, usually with the couple consisting of a wealthy woman isolated from the ills of the world and working man who helps her wise up. The movies showed that the wealthy could be brought down to earth to appreciate what everyone else was going through and that an honest working man could win the “princess.” So, yeah, probably pure fantasy.

There was another wave in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the battle of the sexes comedies exemplified by the Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies, though there were some outliers like Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The next golden age was in the late 1980s through the 1990s. That was the era of Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and then Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. It sort of held on through the early part of the 2000s, with Amy Adams looking like she’d be a contender, but then the genre began fizzling out. At the same time, starting in the late 1990s we had the rise of the male-oriented rom-coms that went more in the gross-out direction, starting with There’s Something About Mary and going on to things like 40-Year-Old Virgin. The movies became mostly about overgrown man-child types who were forced to grow up by humorless harpies. Then the women-led films started trying to outgross the guys, and it pretty much killed the more traditional romantic comedies.

I can’t really find a clear theme for this age like there was in the previous clusters. There’s no thematic link between movies like When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Working Girl, Four Weddings and a Funeral, etc. There was a lot of variety during this era, a lot of challenging the formula and telling the familiar story in different ways.

Oddly, some of my favorite movies came toward the end. That’s when we got films like The Holiday, Enchanted, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. And some slightly more obscure films that I love, like I Capture the Castle, I’m With Lucy, and The Very Thought of You. For a while, it looked like Henry Thomas (yes, the little boy from ET, all grown up) would end up being the Tom Hanks of his generation because he kept popping up as the love interest, and he was quite good at being the ordinary guy who deserves the girl, but then he seems to have fallen off the radar.

Now it seems like there’s been a revival, but not on the big screen. Netflix has been making a lot of romantic comedies. From what I can tell, they tend toward the teen movie, but there are still plenty that fit the classic mold. I don’t watch enough to make having a lot of streaming services worthwhile, but I may have to get Netflix for a few months to check out what they’ve been doing.

I did come up with a story idea for a rom-com, though. I may have to write it up as a screenplay because Netflix and Ron Howard are doing regular screenwriting contests, with a different kind of film each quarter. I should be ready when they want a romantic comedy.

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