I don’t know when romantic comedy became such a ubiquitously glib genre. When did the women of romcom lose their moxie and their smarts? When did tripping over and eating cupcakes become sufficient characterisation of a heroine? And when did realising that you might be better off fucking the guy who doesn’t resemble your dreams become a reasonable epiphany to drive a script?
In a reactionary position (often hard to maintain from the couch) romcoms are to be appreciated strictly as trash, taken with a grain of salt and only intellectually engaged with on a dangerous, subconscious level – i.e. repression and conformity.
It wasn’t always like this. The romcom of the 1940s was fast paced, well scripted. A caper movie the territory of which was no less than the emotional lives of women and the men they loved and didn’t love. Sure, there were still misogynistic flourishes and unhelpful gendered portraits, however for the most part the characters were fully realised, complex humans within a context, which included not only gender but class and religion (though notable never, ever race. In the 1940s romcom not only the sheets had to be white). They still related to the theatrical genre, comedy of manors. Genre was a vehicle for sailing stormy seas not a tank to drown in.
Perhaps the most interesting of these old movies were a smattering that the philosopher of film Stanley Cavell called ‘comedy of remarriage’. Responding to the Hays Code which explicitly ruled against the filmic depiction of immoral acts – cardinal amongst them adultery – this genre concentrated women’s emotional conflict about love from their position between marriage and divorce.
Typically they featured a primary couple whose connection remains enigmatic to the audience. They were married. And deeply in love. Though it didn’t work out. Now, separated, the female seeks to remarry and the dilemma over her choice in partners occurs from this decision.
My favourite romcom His Girl Friday is of this genre. Also, It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby. Cavell argues that the comedy of remarriage is one of the most important achievements of the Hollywood ‘talkie’ in that it was an attempt to reconstruct marriage as an institution which centred around love first and foremost.
Usually, in these films, the woman goes back to her husband because she realises, despite any other aspirations she may hold, she still loves the cad, gosh damn it. The male for his part spends his time hang dogging and scheming and looking out for his gal. I love to see Cary Grant hangdogging and scheming and looking out for a gal. What a catch of a cad he is.
Philadelphia Story is one of the most famous examples of the genre. It was written as a Broadway play for Katherine Hepburn. In it she plays a wealthy Philadelphia heiress, separated from an upper class cad who enjoys boozing and boating and who failed to live up to her high expectations.
She never understood his pain, or his ‘deep and gorgeous thirst’ (!). And he, for his part, did her wrong. Now she seeks to marry a meeker, more conservative and obviously totally boring man. The story takes place in the lead up to the wedding during which time various men around her deliver their summations on her character, that she is like a goddess (not in a good way) placing herself above everyone else and with no tolerance for human frailty. And she’s a ‘prig’, a ‘perennial spinster’ no matter how many husbands she has. Somewhat patronisingly the men around her (perhaps because, unlike Hepburn they are used to power and authority and have the correct equipment to deal with it), urge her to cultivate a forgiving heart in order to be ‘a first class woman or a first class human being’.
In the film, Cary Grant plays her ex husband, and James Stewart a reporter for a local tabloid, who, against his better judgment ends up covering Hepburn’s impending nuptials as part of a fairly elaborate web of blackmail and protection.
The story runs along at a cracking pace, and though it is obvious that Hepburn can’t marry her poor sap of a fiancé, the intrigue doesn’t flounder. As a heroine she is robust, exciting, intelligent and headstrong. We love her, as do all the men around who seek to take her down a peg.
Understandably, the insults and sermons bring on something of a personal crisis, though its nothing that a couple of bottles of champagne and night in the pool with James Stewart can’t sort out. The message is that she needs to let down her hair, lose control so that she can forgive those around her their faults. In this way, it’s Hepburn who seems to be enforcing the paternal order.
As I’m describing this I’m conscious that it sounds like a more complex version of the same line we are fed in today’s romcoms. I.e. bitch, get over yourself and marry that loser cause he loves you.
But it feels different in The Philadelphia Story. Because nobody actually teaches the heroine a lesson. And because she isn’t another ‘silly woman who doesn’t know her mind’, rather she is choosing between love and a more stable social security. And because you can’t separate these narratives from their context, in which a woman caught between marriages was committing crimes of morality. The kind of crimes that could not even be represented, which had to remain out of sight. In bringing these crimes out of the shadows, the film seems to imply that the morality is false, should be shed. Why aren’t women allowed to participate in the same developmental sluttery as men?
“What wives fail to realise is that their husbands’ philandering has nothing to do with them,” Hepburn’s father tells her. It’s a remark that mirrors itself, becoming – what husband’s fail to understand is that their wives’ fidelity has nothing to do with them either.
The world is unfair and unequal. Men and women take on the unforgiving standards of conformity and make a big ol’ mess of their lives as result.
In such a world, isn’t it best to pair up with someone who understands you? Well, that’s the romcom line all over.
As Hepburn, predictably, makes a morally sound choice, she promises her new husband that she will be a good wife. ‘Be whatever you want to be,’ he tells her. It’s a message that spreads its arms across the script with warm generosity.
There is an association in the film of marriage as a yacht. A craft like the True Love, which Hepburn and Grant took their honeymoon on, bright and true and fast -’yar’, in the yachtsman drawl. But even a yar craft gets dry rot and has to be taken to dock and rebuilt from keel to hull.
It’s a metaphor that can easily be extended to the genre of the rom com, which though finding its routes in something progressive, which leans toward emotional depth and complex interactions with dominant social modes, ends up running back into something worse than death: mindless formula. The dry rot of screenwriting.
Perhaps it’s time to haul the whole genre outta the drink and do some rebuilding so that we can make a true passage once more. Today’s rom coms feel like riding the man-made lake on a jetski. Films like a The Philadelphia Story may have been flawed, but my oh my, they were yar.