The Decline of Romantic Comedies
In an article that I think is supposed to be a review of some Matthew McConaughey movie, A.O. Scott of the New York Times makes the case that romantic comedies were better-written back in the days of censorship:
The marriage plot, after all, is one of the oldest in literature, flourishing in Roman comedy, in the plays of Shakespeare and Molière and in the novels of Jane Austen. More to the point, the obstacle-strewn road to discovered or recovered bliss was heavily traveled in the old studio days, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s to their loopy Technicolor descendants of the late ’50s and early ’60s.Ralph Bellamy, of course, was the dense-but-decent character who competed with Cary Grant in His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth (a wonderful romantic comedy that A.O. Scott doesn't mention). Speaking of The Awful Truth, which starred Grant and Irene Dunne, those same two were paired in another hilarious romantic comedy, My Favorite Wife, as well as in the drama Penny Serenade.
Our parents and grandparents had Rock Hudson and Doris Day — such delicious subtext! such amazing office furniture! — or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Or Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Or even, in “That Touch of Mink,” Cary Grant and Doris Day. But you get the point. We have Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.
Who are perfectly charming. Don’t get me wrong. You remember them in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” don’t you? Neither do I, even if a search of this newspaper’s archives indicates that I saw it.* * *
How did this genre fall so far, from one that reliably deployed the talents of the movie industry’s best writers, top directors and biggest stars to a source of lazy commercial fodder?
There are several possible answers. The most obvious one (and to me the least persuasive) is just that they don’t make them like they used to, that the history of American cinema since its classical era has been a sorry chronicle of decline. It may be true that you rarely hear the kind of sharp, sparkling dialogue that used to animate the films of Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor and Preston Sturges, but it would be hard to look at movies and television today and conclude that there is a shortage of funny writing or sharp storytelling.
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But the movies made under the old taboos of the Production Code are far more sophisticated, and far less timid, than what we see today. The standard PG-13 romantic comedy nowadays treads so delicately in fear of giving offense to someone somewhere that it wonders into blandness and boredom. Its naughty R-rated sibling, meanwhile, will frequently wallow in coarseness at the expense of subtlety or wit, mistaking grossness for honesty.
Yes, there are exceptions: explicit movies that are also sharp and insightful, and more decorous ones that disarm with their sweetness. But “Knocked Up” and “Juno” are hardly the norm (and hardly without compromises and evasions of their own). The norm, sadly, is “27 Dresses” or “Dan in Real Life” or “Good Luck Chuck”: movies whose notion of love is insipid, shallow and frequently ludicrous.
And yet, while the romantic comedy has almost always trafficked in happy endings, that happiness is rarely accompanied by a sense of risk or exhilaration. When you think of, say, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn — or even Doris Day and Rock Hudson — you recall the emotional combat of two strong-willed, independent individuals ending in mutual conquest. Love, in those old pictures, was a dangerous and noble sport that required skill and cunning as well as commitment.* * *
Which brings me back — apologies to both; it’s nothing personal — to Mr. McConaughey, Ms. Hudson and their photogenic ilk. They are, for sure, better looking than the rest of us, but in their screen incarnations almost programmatically less interesting.
The actresses are spunky and sweet, but lacking in the vinegar that made Barbara Stanwyck in “The Lady Eve” or Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night” so definitively sexy. Those ladies were not always nice, and neither were their gentleman counterparts, who could be sarcastic, brutish and domineering when the mood struck.
By contrast, the romantic comedy leading men of today are the kind of nice guy — the Ralph Bellamy type — whom these earlier heroines would have triumphed by rejecting. The vision of love they embraced was not comfort and affirmation but a kind of grand, spirited struggle, what used to be called the battle of the sexes.