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Yar She Blows

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.

 

About Briohny Doyle

Apocalyptically minded grrrl obsessive who loves to watch seeks fascinating nerds for too-long conversations. Daily film blog at www.girlandgun.com. Longer essays on pop culture at www.passionpoppistol.blogspot.com.au

35 responses to “Yar She Blows

  1. Love Katherine Hepburn because she always played such independent characters. Currently writing a post where I briefly discuss how the other Hepburn never played characters I could really get behind, but Kate was always so much fun. Check out my review http://amandalovesmovies.com/2012/07/27/the-philadelphia-story

    • Will do, thanks for the link. Always interested to read a more in depth take on female actors than what they are wearing or who they fuck.

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  2. I don’t care for romantic comedies in general, not just because they use stereotypes–especially stereotypes of women–to the point that I’m nauseated, but because they’re just very unimaginative these days. You’re probably right, some restructuring is in order.

  3. I love Bringing Up Baby and It Happened One Night. I am sad to say that I never saw Philadelphia Story, but I’m going to have to now based on your post. Today’s rom-coms are horrid. Enjoyed the post, congrats on being FP!

  4. L. Palmer

    I agree. It is so odd that in a post-feminist society the romantic comedy heroine is foolish and falling over herself, while the 1930′s-40′s romantic comedy heroine is bright, smart, and savvy enough to compete with the boys. Why is the modern portrayed as a mess while the 1930′s – 40′s women is embodied in Katherine Hepburn, in all her class, wit and intelligence?
    Great post. And, It Happened One Night is one of my favorites.

    • Yes it’s so weird!! Before I started watching classic romantic comedy I assumed they would be regressive and sexist. Because, you know, it’s THE 40s. But really they run rings around anything starring Katherine Heigl.

  5. Nice rant–insightful. You may include the romcoms of the fifties, too. The Apartment(featuring a smart girl who’s smarter than the boys!), Some Like it Hot, The Fortune Cookie, Bell, Book and Candle (where women rule the world unknown to the men), and The Seven-Year Itch, just to name a few. Despite lip service to the contrary, Hollywood struggles more today than ever in its history to develop full continuum of women characters.

  6. anitadesignstudio ⋅

    I’ve had it with modern romcoms…and why? Because generally they depict a scenario whereby girl is alone…girl meets guy…girl fights against exquisite sexual chemistry before surrendering to said guy. The End. The real world doesn’t work like that. Oooooh how the real world doesn’t work like that!!! Unrealistic drivel. Yours, a former follower of modern romcoms before she witnessed the reality of modern ‘romance’. Pah!!

  7. Ritu KT

    Once I entered my twenties, I lost my interest in the romcoms. They were just too similar. It was like one prototupe originated and then versions 1.1.1, 1.1.2 etc were developed from it. But after reading your post, i do feel like checking out The Philadelphia Story.

  8. The WORST example I have seen of this is that movie Knocked Up, where not only does the girl have to “fix” the guy (the classic modern romcom move), she then has to settle for a disgusting guy and suck it up! That movie was awful on many levels — but one of them was the message it sent to the attractive career girls of the world about men and relationships. Sorry to rant. I get worked up. I LOVE the screwball comedies of the 1940s — my sexist old Dad introduced me to them weirdly — and I don’t understand why we can’t have stronger or at least more realistic women in films. Maybe we will now that the Studio Industrial Complex is crumbling and people are streaming at home and demanding to see what they want, when they want…

  9. The Philadelphia story sounds like the original version of ‘High Society’ with Grace Kelly playing the leading lady, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra also rocking out – one of my all time favorite films! You probably have seen it but if not definately have a watch!
    Loved this way of looking at it though because rom coms tend just to irritate me, why after a musical montage of how successful she becomes does she always return to the ‘loveable rogue’? So thanks, a really thought provoking post!

  10. TAE ⋅

    Very thoughtful post, thank you.

    It’s funny how we have this “marriage game” in our head and how it needs to be played. We’re ourselves up to a point and when in a serious relationship or even a marriage we often try to shove all of what defines us into a mold that doesn’t fit. At least I think most women try…get frustrated, and then get even more frustrated when their man doesn’t seem to try. So we do the shoving for him…set up to fail.

    Be whatever you want to be…indeed.

  11. “Ball of Fire” did some pretty neat gymnastics on the fence around Hayes Code, too. It is sad to think that one has to look back to before WWII to find tolerable films of this sort. I suppose Hollywood suggests that the viable alternative to Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby” is Milla Jojovich in the endless iterations of Resident Evil– ya wants an empowered and confident female character, ya gots ta have guns and wire-stunts.

    • Haven’t seen ball of fire. I’ll check it out – thanks. I find the Hayes Code and its various intersections with the technical aspects of films endlessly fascinating. In some instances, the obstructions it lay provoked creative and intelligent films. Now, it is just as easy to show everything, leaving nothing in the subtext.

  12. “It Happened One Night” and “His Girl Friday” are some of my favorite movies of all time! Such classic scripts. “Holiday” is another great Grant/Hepburn romcom–chreck it out if you haven’t yet seen it!

  13. Here here! This is one of my all-time favorite films. And not just for Cary Grant.

    A revolution in romantic comedies would be great, thank you. I can’t even stomach them anymore. That’s why I round out my collection with little gems like this one:)

    Part of the problem is the overall dumbing down of modern films. It’s EXTREMELY rare for a romcom to pull in the kind of talented and intelligent writers who were developing scripts back in the day. *sigh*

    Congrats on the post and on being FP!

  14. I liked your examination of some of the great romcoms of the past. Overall, I prefer the 30s ones even more than the 40s; The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Trouble in Paradise. Preston Sturges is my favorite of the 40s directors; The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

    Without getting too academic. one thing I think is absent from many of the new ones is “edge” paired WITH cracking, clever dialogue. Nowadays you get one or the other, good lines with a lot of mushy-feely, or risky, wacky setups accompanied by dumb, obscenity-laced one-liners.

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  16. Yes, the genre is mostly trash.

    The romcom is to women what the stupid action film is to men.

    That said, it is always dangerous to compare things to the past as the garbage falls to the side and you end up comparing the best of the past with the worst of today.

    There are great romcoms out there, with (500) Days of Summer being a particular highlight.

    • Hmmm. I’m afraid 500 days of Summer left me cold. Zoe’s character is supposed to be so damn wild but I found the whole thing bland, unconvincing and more than a little sexist. Plus she stole my favorite Karaoke song and now every time I sing it people are gonna think I’m quoting, oh no! Still, each to their own.

      I do like some new Rom Coms. I really like Crazy, Stupid Love.

      Thanks for dropping by.

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