The Romantic Comedy: Excerpt From DCM, 2nd Edition

With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.                                                                                    William WordsworthIncreasingly, ‘escape’ now becomes the name of the most popular game in town. Semantically, escape is the very opposite of utopia, but psychologically it is, under present circumstances, its sole available substitute.                                                                                                Zygmunt Bauman


At the heart of romantic philosophy lies a return to “nature” and the inherent goodness in human beings. The romantic poets of the 18th and 19th century such as Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth,  and William Blake with their writings encouraged people to trust the heart (i.e., emotions) over reason and practicality. To be sure, Shakespeare too has had a hand in providing a foundation of sorts for romantic comedy narratives. One obvious example of Shakespearean romantic comedy is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.    Go with the heart is the way of life for a romantic. In narrative cinema romantic notions play an integral role. Accordingly, Hollywood has capitalized on the romantic ideas to a great extent. One of the reasons for success of the star system has been and continues to be the romancing of the fans with their favorite stars. Furthermore, much commercial packaging and marketing of romantic ideas have been intertwined with other industries of romance (e.g., the diamond industry).    Starting in the early 1930s in romantic comedy Hollywood has created and molded a genre that has historically been the most stable component of the genre system. The crux of the genre is to exploit the tendency of Americans towards romantic ideas and perpetuate the middle-class ideology in respect to love relationship. The premise of “love conquers all,” the main thesis of any romantic comedy, is in steady use. Demonstrating the power of the thesis, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) was the winner of five Oscars and huge financial success to boot.

The Formula   

Given that romantic comedies are love stories, the plot must revolve around two main characters. And given that American cinema caters to a mostly heterosexual crowd, the two love birds of the genre are almost exclusively a man and a woman. In act I the two meet and at first there is much resistance, usually by the woman, to any kind of romantic connection. But they do connect and the audience is given many clues suggesting that these two belong together regardless of any reasonable and/or contrived differences and obstructions. Following the logic of romantic philosophy they must rely on the heart and not reason. And of course through the process of projection-identification we accept this condition as natural and ideal. In act II the two protagonists get separated. This happens in different ways but there is always a period of separation and contemplation for the two lovers. One of them may go to war or take a job in another country. In Forget Paris (1995) Billy Crystal plays a NBA basketball referee who falls in love with Debra Winger in Paris. They get married and Winger moves to America because of Crystal’s job, then there are complications in making the marriage work and she takes a job in Paris.  In act III there is happy ending and finally Winger moves back to America to be with the one she loves, hence the title of the film. There is never any doubt in the outcome of the story, a convention in the formula. Audiences know that the two principal characters will end up with each other, not necessarily happily married, but happily ever after, to be sure. This formula has to involve conflict in almost every scene and the conflicts have to be “funny.”    There are many nuances to the formula such as a single woman getting involved with two men–the bad boy-good boy version. Of course, the audience has to know that she will end up with the one she is wrong for—the bad boy. Another variation is that of a couple who have been married prior to the start of the story and are now divorced. The idea here is to have these two to understand that their love is stronger than anything that stands between them. After many comic trials and tribulations they end up remarrying and living happily ever after.     Occasionally there are deviations to the norm such as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). In Annie Hall we see that the two neurotic protagonists get together and breakup several times and in the end they do not end up together. Allen sets out to examine the mystique of love and in the end throws his hands up in declaring the impossibility of togetherness but the desperate desire for it. He ends the film with a joke. In the last scene where Annie and Alvy (the protagonists) have had a friendly lunch together, several years after their last breakup, they realize that they  can only be friends, and not lovers.  As Alvy, played by Woody Allen, walks down the street and goes off screen we hear his voice-over narration,

               “After that it got pretty late.  And we both had to go, but it was great seeing 

Annie again, right?  I realized what a terrific person she was and how much fun it was just knowing her and I thought of that old joke, you know, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships.  You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd and … but, uh, I guess we keep going through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs.”  The Precursor: Screwball Comedy      

The blueprint for today’s romantic comedies was created in the 1930s in form of screwball comedy. Primarily designed to be escapist vehicles during the Great Depression to mythologize about the notion of opposites attract and how in America a man from the middle-class can fall in love and end up with a wealthy woman from the elite. The Notebook (2004) is a throwback to screwball comedy where a working-class young man does end up with a beautiful woman of the super rich. The narratives of bonding of the lower or middle-class with the upper-class served an important purpose in preserving capitalism in a tough period in America where people were seeking alternatives such as socialism to the economic system that had greatly widened gap between rich and poor. In fact, FDR’s new deal was a significant socialist move to fend-off future socialism in America, and, to be sure, Hollywood was glad to help in that regard.      One of the significant elements in screwball comedy was that the male-female relationship was less binary than the reality in American society at the time. In Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Hollywood stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as romantic leads we see an aggressive and persistent heroine in Hepburn which seems to suggest that she is indeed liberated and can go after what she wants. This provided  a certain degree of relief  for women whereby they could identify with the Hepburn character and feel emancipated for the duration of the film. Bringing Up Baby won four Academy Awards and created a template for future screwball comedies which later transformed into romantic comedies.      The screwball comedy is fast paced and much of the comedy is generated via dialogue between two strong-willed individuals. It suffices to say these films were cinematic narratives about battle of the sexes. Although their stories culminated in happy endings the entire narratives were series of combat scenes mostly in the verbal form and sometimes combined with some physicality which of course did not involve nudity. Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), which exploits the social class differences, is considered the foundational film for a great many other screwball comedies. Clark Gable plays a middle-class newspaper reporter who coincidentally gets stuck with a filthy-rich young woman. She is “running away” from having to  marry an irresponsible rich man who,  due to social class conventions, is being forced upon her. They end up having to travel together and sharing a room which they divide with a sheet, famously dubbed as “walls of Jericho.” This of course is to symbolize their class differences, but at the core they are very much sharing the same value system—an American middle-class value system. He is a sassy reporter who underneath a tough exterior is a nice and marriage-material kind of man, and she is a carefree filthy-rich girl who acts as if she does not care but in fact she’s been waiting for the right guy to come along. This is a narrative of sexual tension without sex, discovery of true love, and the predictable living happily ever after. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Philadelphia Story (1940) are similar films. One common element in these films is the superficial treatment of class differences. This is intentional to show the audiences that class does not make a difference and if there are any differences between the rich and the middle-class or the poor they can be overcome easily in America. Hollywood understands that people have a tendency to embrace the myth despite the harsh realities which are vastly different than the myth.      As the Great Depression ended the screwball comedy started its transformation. In his book, Hollywood Genres, film historian Thomas Schatz writes, “One of the more engaging attributes of the genre film is its capacity to play both ends against the middle, to celebrate the contradictions within our culture while seeming to do away with them.” Indeed, the genre system is designed to validate our socio-economic system in America. The principals of screwball comedy can act screwy all they want during the narrative but in the end they must reaffirm the institution of marriage and conservative notions of individuality and capitalism as synonymous with democracy.     In the early 1940s Hollywood director Preston Sturges made a series of screwball/romantic comedies and helped with the genre’s transformation. In his The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek (1944), Sturges turned the formula on its head. The film does not look to reconcile class differences. Instead, it brings in two small time characters together and puts them on a national spotlight due to a biological accident. In the story, the female romantic lead gives birth to sextuplets—a national phenomenon. Frank Capra should also get credit for bending and molding the genre into its new form. Capra always managed to fit the various American myths into his stories with a relentless commitment to populism of the little guy small-town hero. Examples of Capra’s successful films that follow his undying belief in Horatio Alger myth and the American society as the best democracy on earth include It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) with Jimmy Stewart as the born-again American who discovers that life is indeed wonderful where he lives, and State of the Union (1948) which pairs two of the future darlings of romantic comedies in Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.      As the genre continued its duration, becoming more or less a nuanced hybrid funny melodrama, famous star pairs kept American audiences amused and engaged with romance and conventions of American society.  Most notably, we must remember Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964), Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Women of the Year (1942), Keeper of the Flame (1942), Without Love (1945), The Sea of Grass (1947), State of the Union (1948), Adam’s rib (1949), pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Cary Grant and Rosalin Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), and Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers in Monkey Business (1952).  The Transformation     

Romantic comedy is a genre that will continue its social pedagogy for the foreseeable future. As the production code was eroding in the 1950s Hollywood directors began to push the envelope and sexualize their romantic comedies in more overt fashion. With the arrival (discovery) of Marilyn Monroe as the new Hollywood manufactured male fantasy girl the system produced films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and the gender-bending classic Some Like it Hot (1959). The 1950s were a time of much repressed feelings and superficial celebration of family values. Moreover, the nation was financially prospering while anxieties from the atomic bomb scare, fear of communism (aka: the red menace), homophobia, to feminism were mounting everywhere. To be sure, film noir has given us a rich body of work that creatively reflect these anxieties, but romantic comedies also did their part to some extent, especially in regards to sexual tensions and gender roles in America.      As the country moved into the 1960s romantic comedies took on a more critical role. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), disguised as a light-hearted comedy is a serious critique of the role sex plays in corporate America. The film reveals a dark side of capitalism with its cronyism and abuse of power by the elite bosses who cheat on their wives and fellow workers. This type of criticism is successfully duplicated in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967) which deals with the absurdity of a consumer society and the alienation that comes along with capitalism. The Graduate may seem to have a happy ending where Dustin Hoffman rescues his lover from making a life altering mistake by marrying a rich schmuck.  However, the last scene in the bus where the two lovers are at last together tells (shows) a different story. The scene is a brilliant cinematic comment as the two young love birds look at the camera (i.e., the audiences) with anxious faces, as if to say, “Okay we were meant to be together, and romance wins. Now what? Will love conquer all?” This is indeed a most unconventional ending, but the success of The Graduate proves that Americans can appreciate unresolved endings and a cinema that teaches them to be critical of their consumer society. The Graduate at a pedagogical level transmits a message that the meaning of life ought not to be reduced to success, progress, sexual conquests, and retirement accounts. There is in fact more to life than consumerism and upward mobility.          As discussed earlier, a director who has had a long career in making romantic comedies of a different kind is Woody Allen. Most of Allen’s romantic comedies seem to be semiautobiographical accounts of his own life with all of its complexities which he extends for projection and identification by American audiences—especially New Yorkers. With memorable films such as Take the Money and Run (1969), Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), and Stardust Memories (1980), Allen problematizes the myth of “love conquers all” and the conventions of monogamy and marriage. In his later films like Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) he examines the neurotic New Yorkers’ lives in romantic settings and seems to give a reluctant and tentative approval to the institution of marriage. In this film he seems to communicate a message of trusting in love but not its agents.   Romantic Comedies as Socializing Agents    

Starting in the mid-1980s as the nation enters the age of greed and much conservatism (i.e., Reaganism), some romantic comedies take on the role of socializing their audiences, and in turn become agents of patriarchy and consumerism. This is indeed a trend that continues today. The sappy family comedies of Disney and others intend to do the job of socializing families as a whole into accepting consumerism of all sorts. The horror and action genres try to keep the youth occupied, and romantic comedies go after the couples, selling to women notions like the size of a diamond ring being the proof of the man’s life, and to men, expecting their mates to be subservient to them as they consume sports and its by-products. Today’s couples of romantic comedy are physically better fit, more sexually active, but by far less imaginative and indeed more conservative than their counterparts of yesteryears. Two of the highest grossing romantic comedies of the contemporary times are When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Pretty Woman (1990).  The principal characters of When Harry Met Sally live as apolitical and ahistorical narcissists who are only concerned about the “self.” They both live in a world of sanitation and shallow understandings of the boy-girl relationship–and everything else in the world. Harry and Sally are the patron-models of the new conservative America. They are teaching young men and women that a. men and women cannot be friends—only lovers and b. It is best to be shallow. What is paradoxical in the narrative of When Harry Met Sally is the occupation of these yuppie characters. Harry is a political consultant and sally is a journalist, but they lack any socio-political observation beyond the superficial “cute” commentaries they issue to one another. They are supposed to be like the neurotics of Woody Allen comedies with their insecurities and doubts and at once like the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn characters of the screwball age with their staunch belief in monogamy and marriage. The blending of the two kinds of romantic comedy formulas is only too obvious. In the story we have a battle of the sexes formula of attract and repel and also the character “development” of Harry as a pessimist Jewish neurotic type (i.e., Woody Allen) and Sally as a cute WASP with a happy face and much repressed feelings. But the characters do not develop deep, as if they are only allowed to swim in the shallow side at the pool of life and only happy to do so. They pretend to be educated and introspective, even intellectual, but in every scene they reaffirm the superficial existence as the right choice. As the sociologist Norman Denzin points out in his book, Images of Postmodern Society, “Harry and Sally are types, not people, and their experiences, while familiar, are shallow, lacking in specific observations which reveal a depth of character.”      As we have moved into the 21st century the romantic comedies are becoming more and more unchallenging and superficial, and less and less about anything other than socializing agents of consumerism and conformity to–and complicity with–the so-called “free market economy.” Kate and Leopold (2001), Serendipity (2001), The Wedding Planner (2001), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003),  Fighting Temptations (2003), Imagine Me & You (2006), My First Wedding (2006), Falling for Grace (2006), Just My Luck (2006), 27  Dresses (2008), and Sex and the City: The Movie (based on the popular television series) (2008) are all variations of the same basic formula with a heavy dose of product placement, which turns these movies into socializing agents to celebrate  superficial and commercial notions of romanticism—all in the name of healthy entertainment.  Conclusion        

The romantic comedy is a safe bet for Hollywood, particularly when stars play the romantic lead. Pretty Woman (1990) is a Cinderella story with two big stars ; Richard Gere as a corporate raider who discovers his ability to feel by a sanitized Hollywood prostitute played by Julia Roberts. It has grossed close to 464 million dollars worldwide. You’ve Got Mail (1998) which is essentially a long commercial about the virtues of corporate America from coffee shop industry (Starbucks) to Internet service (AOL) has had a worldwide gross sales of close to 251 million dollars. There’s Something about Mary (1998) uses offensive humor to rework the same formula. It has grossed approximately 370 million dollars worldwide.  My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) is something of an anomaly because there are no big stars in it. The film is a tale of assimilation and superficial celebration of Greek culture–according to Hollywood (via independent filmmaking). It has grossed nearly 369 million dollars worldwide. We must keep in mind that as the years go by these numbers, due to the DVD sales will climb.       American cinema relies heavily on its genre and star systems, to be sure. What romantic comedy, in its genre form, has proven throughout the history of American cinema is that when it comes to simplified and conservative stories about “boy meets girl, there are complications, but eventually they will live happily ever after” the system is the ultimate winner. The genre operates effectively as an ideological teaching machine. It helps sell the idea of institutionalized  monogamy (mostly in the heterosexual form) and all the consumerist practices that come along with it. Romantic comedy explicitly makes the notion of Eurocentrism as a natural world order. From the economic perspective we have to look at who owns the system that produces the genre. The giant multinational corporations that own most of the media companies among other industries (see chapter 9) which sell their goods in a global market are owned mainly by American and European elite. The romance industry is indeed big business. More than half the diamonds in the world are sold in America. The hotel and catering industries rely on wedding parties for a good portion of their income.      But can the genre tell complex stories about love? Indeed it can. Throughout its history the genre has had powerful films that have worked as teaching machines that problematize conventional notions about love and society. In the 21st century there are films that have used the formula to make a different kind of comedy, one with a sense of realism that might match people’s lives in everyday reality and not in a fairy tale. Films like Juno (2007) have had financial and critical success, proving that the formula can go through a radical transformation and the audiences do benefit from this new complexity.      


Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Times; Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008.

Denzin, Norman. Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema. London: Sage Publications, 1991.

Mast, Gerald and Bruce F. Kawin. A Short History of the Movies. New York: Pearson, 2008.

Morin, Edgar. The Cinema: Or the Imaginary Man. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1981.