The romantic comedy hit its peak in the 1930s – and it has been largely downhill ever since. Watching the new film (500) Days Of Summer, which has been heavily praised in the US for re-invoking the glory days of the genre, it is still hard to avoid a certain sinking feeling. This is the latest in a very long line of films that have been down this path. However, try as they might, contemporary film-makers simply can't emulate the work of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks et al. Depression-era rom-coms simply had more zing about them. They were anarchic and abrasive in a way that films made in more comfortable times were not.
The best films of the eras often played like mini war-movies. Think of the "resist and surrender" routines between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their musicals together, or of the attritional relationship between spoiled little rich girl Claudette Colbert and blue-collar Everyman Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. The saccharin in such works was kept to a minimum.
It helped that these romantic comedies often had such strong screwball elements. The women were wild and headstrong while the men often tended to fret and cower in their presence. In films like Bringing Up Baby and (later) Pat and Mike, Katharine Hepburn – Katharine of Arrogance, as she was once nicknamed – was a force of nature: a golf-club wielding Amazonian with a lust for life that left the menfolk, even when played by such redoubtable actors as Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy, cowering in her wake. And no-one, not even James Cagney, could spit out dialogue as fast as Rosalind Russell's motor-mouthed journalist in His Girl Friday.
(500) Days at least attempts to avoid the gooey sentimentality that often makes modern-day forays into the genre so hard to digest. Like its best forebears, this is a love story with layers of irony. Would-be architect Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a romantic, even if he makes his living writing trite and syrupy greetings cards. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is the woman he idolises. He sees her as the woman of his dreams. After all, they both like The Smiths. However, his puppy-dog devotion isn't quite reciprocated.
The narrative certainly taps universal themes. All of us – or at least most of us – have lived through the indignity of being summarily dumped by the would-be love of our lives. It's one of the rites of passage that teenagers and young adults face – falling headlong in love and then landing flat on your face. The possibility of humiliation is something found in all the best romantic comedies. They're not simply celebrations of dewy-eyed lovers falling for one another. They're closely focused studies which chronicle the behaviour of the lovers in all their absurdity and their contradictions.
In box-office terms, romantic comedies rival gangster pictures as one of the industry's most reliable staples. Audiences have always lapped them up, in good times and bad. Perhaps for this reason, critics have often sneered at them, even when they are done well. It's easy to be dismissive of the Working Title romantic comedies – Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill etc – without realising just how well they were crafted and what a fillip they gave to the British film industry of the 1990s. Hugh Grant had at least some of that mix of self-deprecating charm and diffident bravado that characterised his namesake Cary in his pomp. Julia Roberts was as close as the era came to a Colbert or Hepburn.
Still, there was always a maudlin and formulaic quality to these films that made them seem too rich and sickly for many tastes. The same was true of the Nora Ephron/Meg Ryan romantic comedies. They were funny and affecting... but grossly manipulative too. There was always a sense that the film-makers were chasing after audiences. Originality was often strained out as rom-coms were mass manufactured by studios which invariably repeated the same recipe.
The most original romantic comedies are often films that wouldn't even style themselves as belonging to the genre. The Woody Allen comedies, for example, come laden with such self-consciousness and anxiety that they are never liable to appear mawkish. Guilt, sexual jealousy and paranoia aren't generally regarded as promising ingredients in rom-coms but films without them can seem very bland indeed. Alfred Hitchcock's version of The 39 Steps may seem like a rip-roaring thriller but it's as close as 1930s British cinema came to the anarchic zest of the Hollywood screwball rom-coms appearing at the same time. Hitchcock even contrived to have his hero and heroine, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, handcuffed together without a key – not a scene that you find in the John Buchan novel.
(500) Days Of Summer director Marc Webb has complained about "formulaic"romantic comedies that are trying to "sell a bill of goods." To its credit, (500) Days Of Summer isn't cynical and contrived in that way. Nonetheless, the film illustrates the almost insurmountable challenges facing contemporary directors who want to evoke the golden days of the genre. One problem is how callow the protagonists appear. Even actors as skilled as Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt can't give much emotional depth to their characters. Webb's background is in making pop videos. At times, the film seems like a feature-length version of a pop promo, about and for teenagers. There is far less sexual tension than in the barbed work that directors like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges used to make. It can't escape its own wholesome cheeriness.
In recent years, US indie rom-coms have been appearing in increasing numbers alongside the more glossy studio offerings. These are the kooky films about young love that tend to start their lives at the Sundance Festival. Some have been very impressive. For example, Greg Mottola's Adventureland, about a bright kid with a hint of Holden Caulfield about him who whiles away a summer in a dead-end theme park job, finding true love in the process, was both funny and moving. Another trend has been the collision in US indie cinema between romantic comedy and dysfunctional family drama. Movies like Noah Baumbach's underrated Margot At The Wedding and Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married have blurred the lines between the two forms in an inventive way. Even so, these movies remain several notches below the rom-coms of the 1930s, which managed to be both light and provocative.
Directors' obsessions with their leading actors and actresses can help. Woody Allen was clearly besotted by Diane Keaton at the time he made Annie Hall. When film-makers are in thrall to their leading ladies, there is a double level of irony. It's not just the fictional protagonist on screen who suffers because of his or her romantic obsession. The anxiety is built into the very fabric of the film. Audiences immediately pick up on this.
In It Happened One Night, viewers are also made aware of the social context. We know that this escapist love story about the journalist and the runaway heiress is being played out against a backdrop of class tension and economic deprivation. That is what gives the film its urgency..
Too many contemporary rom-coms take place in a near make-believe world in which nothing very much appears to be at stake. There is a narcissism about the protagonists that prevents them from ever acknowledging their own absurdity. One blandly good-looking teen character falls in love with another. Spectators don't need to be put through the emotional wringer and made to think they're watching Ken Loach when they go to a rom-com.
Nonetheless rom-coms that give a sense of their characters' vulnerabilities and of their problems register far more strongly than those that take place in a picture-postcard vacuum. This was something that Hawks, Capra, Sturges and other great practitioners of the genre all realised. Their films weren't just about throwing opposites together and putting them in the most trying and absurd situations the screenwriters could imagine. The secret was simpler than that. For escapism to work, they knew it needed to start from a place that we can all recognise.
(500) Days of Summer is out now. Read Anthony Quinn's review on page 10Reuse content