In the 1970s, Brian Henderson predicted that, due to changes within family structures and sexual relationships, and a loss of faith in the interest of romance as a subject, the romantic comedy would become outdated and therefore, supposedly, an impossibility in todays cinema (FM3011 Comedy Henderson, Austin: ). Indeed, there have been many alterations to our social structures since the classic Hollywood era, defined by Susan Hayward as the cinema tradition that dominated Hollywood production from the 1930s to the 1960s (Hayward, Routledge: 45).
The feminist and gay movements of the 70s, a rise in divorce rates and the subsequent increase in the number of single parent families, have all played a part in significantly changing the shape of our society and our outlook on life. However I would argue with hindsight that, rather than causing the genre to be obsolete in the present day, these changes within society have merely forced the romantic comedy to change tack somewhat, in order to conform to modern ideologies.
Claude Levi-Strauss studied many cultures and myths and, according to him, these stories help to solve key issues within a culture, offering an imaginary resolution to any social discordance, which might arise. This theory can be applied to many sorts of myths or stories, including films, and I think it is a good place to start when replying to Hendersons claim that romantic comedy would no longer work. It is generally agreed, I would assume, that romantic comedy was, and still is an extremely popular genre.
The reason for this great and continuing success might be attributed to, what Delia Ephron calls our thirst for romance, no matter how bleak things are. She goes on to say that in fact, the bleaker they are, the more we crave it. (Perhaps accounting for the particular prosperity of the genre following the First World War and during the Depression). When youre single, youve got the notion of Tomorrow is another day who knows what will happenwhen youre in love, the only place you fall in love again is at the movies. She would suggest that the hardest thing about making a romantic comedy today is finding the thing that keeps two people apart.
There were so many more impediments in the past, such as money, race or class differenceOn the other hand the world is always representing new ways to be separated like the Internet in Youve Got Mail. (Dardanis, A Fine Romance, Journal, Nov. 2000). Very often in a romantic comedy, the two protagonists, or the hero and heroine, are portrayed as metaphors for two contradictory standards, almost as ambassadors for two feuding sides (which is what Ephron is referring to when she talks about the thing that keeps two people apart).
Tom Hanks in Youve Got Mail represents a capitalist character because he is the heir to the multi-million dollar Fox empire. Around the corner is the small independent bookshop, owned by Meg Ryans character, which is threatened with closure due to the opening of the new Fox store. The hero is seen to be underhand and manipulative throughout the film, motivated solely by money whereas the heroine is portrayed in a much more sympathetic light, as hard-working and enthusiastic, displaying many characteristics which we naturally expect from a good person.
With this in mind, it can be deduced that romantic comedies are not only about romantic relationships, but are also a place to explore key issues of a culture, whether they be social, political or economic. In order to establish whether or not contemporary Hollywood romantic comedy follows or departs from the conventions of the classic Hollywood era, I think it is essential to define the conventions of the classic era, using a text from that period as an example, and then compare it with a more recent film.
For the purposes of this essay, I have chosen to focus on two fairly conventional texts, one classic and one contemporary, as I feel this would give the best overview of the genre. There will obviously be other variations and exceptions to the rule within the genre as a whole, but these would lead us on to a much more detailed and in-depth discussion, and would probably deal with factors that are irrelevant to the particular question in hand. Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Forces of Nature (1999) are two films, which I think best show the model conventions of romantic comedy for their respective cinematic eras.
Romantic comedy is one of the few modes of comedy which relies heavily on plot development throughout a film, putting the emphasis on the triad order/ disorder/ order-restored (Hayward, Routledge: 45). So for example, at the beginning of a romantic comedy film the order would be a man and a woman planning to get married to each other, the disorder would be a disruption of their wedding arrangements which would in turn lead to a series of events, usually comical, preventing their union, and the order-restored would be when they finally get together and live happily ever after.
In his study of 150 Russian myths: Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp established that the functions and actions of characters within a narrative structure do not change from tale to tale. If we were to apply this theory to the films of the romantic comedy genre, we could support the view that the fundamental conventions of the genre have not changed dramatically in the 60 years from films like Bringing Up Baby to those similar to Forces of Nature.
In Classical Hollywood Comedy Kristine Brunovska Karnick uses a Spheres of Action table to explain this theory in relation to certain films (Karnick, Routledge: 133). If we compare some of the set characters, using a similar table, which Karnick identifies as central to the plot of romantic comedies, we can see the essential similarities between Bringing Up Baby and Forces of Nature. Bringing Up BabyForces of Nature 1st partnerDavid HuxleyBen Initial partnerMiss SwallowBridget 2nd partnerSusan VanceSarah
To describe a typical romantic comedy as Propp might do today, the first and initial partner would be the couple who are planning to get married at the outset of the film. The first and initial partners are revealed as unsuitable for each other (Miss Swallow has an unhealthy interest in David Huxleys money and business, Bridget is seen as slightly paranoid and controlling). The first and second partners will then be introduced in some way (David Huxley and Susan Vance meet by chance on a golf course where he is trying to raise funds for his museum, Ben and Sarah meet by chance on an aeroplane).
These two generally dont like each other but will become involved, not necessarily romantically yet, by some event, which is beyond their control (in both films the first partner is trying to get to his respective wedding on time). The problems encountered by the first and second partners will serve to bring them closer together (Vance and Huxley looking for the bone stolen by the dog, and Ben and Sarahs eventful road trip following the plane crash).
This draws them together romantically (Vance and Huxley nearly kiss in the firelight, Ben and Sarah actually kiss in their motel room). It is at about this point that a difference between these two examples emerges. Bringing Up Baby is what Karnick would call a commitment comedy – at the denouement of the film there is the promise of marriage for Vance and Huxley whilst Miss Swallow is cast aside. Forces of Nature however is different because it ends with Ben and Bridget finally getting together once more and rescheduling their wedding, leaving Sarah to find her son.
This type of romantic comedy is sometimes described as a reaffirmation comedy the first and initial partners eventually realising their true love for each other. These two types of romantic comedy however do not show the difference between two films of the genre in its classic form and its contemporary form. Indeed there are examples of reaffirmation comedies during the classic era and likewise commitment comedies in contemporary romantic comedy.
To find the real distinction between contemporary and classic, I think it is vital to consider the significance of their historical circumstances. The genre of romantic comedy has been present for many centuries in both theatre and literature (Shakespeare and Austen are two examples which spring most readily to mind). I would suggest that, much like Propps folktales, romantic comedies all possess the same intrinsic elements or characteristics, and that their differences stem only from the period in which they are made.
If we return to Levi-Strausss theory that romantic comedies are merely myths which help to resolve issues within our society, we can see that after the First World War, there was a massive increase in the divorce rate (in fact, it almost doubled from 83,045 to 167,105 in the decade between 1910 and 1920 Musser, Routledge: 287) and therefore films like Bringing Up Baby served to strengthen the idea that people should not jump into unsuitable marriages, but should marry for love and happiness.
Many people were also concerned about the effects of divorce on society as a whole. There had always been a tendency for people to stay married even if they had to work hard at their marriages and with the rise in divorce rate people became unsettled. The emergence of this era of romantic comedy served to reassure them and reinforce the previously dominant ideology of the patriarchal society, which was now being threatened (in particular, the men felt they had lost some of their status following the War, when they realised how well women could cope without them).
The romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s tend to be seen as somewhat conservative, in terms of gender politics, arguably because of the emphasis on marriage or the promise of it, as a conclusion to the film. However, in a rapidly changing society, this was the kind of security the audience craved. Although Forces of Nature also offers an almost certain marriage, this is not representative of the contemporary genre, where many of the couples intend to be together but not married (as in Four Weddings and a Funeral), in keeping with todays tradition of common-law husbands and wives.
Whereas romance and marriage was an important social issue during the period of the classic Hollywood era, nowadays we have different problems to address, such as capitalism in Youve Got Mail, stepfamilies in One Fine Day and homosexuality in Opposite of Sex. In Forces of Nature Sarah must find her son and rebuild their relationship after he has been living with his father for six years.
Bens problems originally stem from his ideas about commitment. At his stag party in the opening scenes of the film, his best man and all the other men in his life are warning him away from marriage, Dont tie yourself down, his grandfather says, even if you love a woman, it fades marriage is a prison. In a similar way to the classic romantic comedy, the contemporary offers its audience a form of escapism.
We are all aware of the growth of promiscuity in our culture and therefore a film in which the hero considers his options carefully and experiences the dilemmas that befall Ben in Forces of Nature and after all that, eventually decides he wants to commit to his one, true love will almost certainly give us faith in mankind. This is particularly the case for women, who are generally accepted to make up the majority of spectators of the genre, and who would claim that it is men who are more promiscuous of the two genders.
For modern audiences, romantic comedy is still a genre that enables us to fantasize about a better society. However, there is one important factor that has changed the face of romantic comedy over the years. Earlier I mentioned that both reaffirmation and commitment comedies had been made in the classic era, but I think it is significant that Forces of Nature develops as a commitment comedy throughout and is only revealed as a reaffirmation comedy at the very end. Although all romantic comedies seem predictable, the humour comes from the unexpected disruptions within a strictly moulded plot structure.
In the same way that the comic moments would not be funny if the spectator could anticipate them, the success of romantic comedy might not continue if the audience could foresee the exact outcomes of the films. I would assume that films like Forces of Nature are indicative of the realisation that modern audiences are much more media literate and require more intricate narratives than the viewers of films in the 1930s and 40s. In conclusion I think that contrary to Hendersons misguided opinion, the essence of romantic comedy has not, and will not change.
The inherent qualities, the actual conventions that shaped the genre in the first place, will always play a significant role. The only real differences from the classic era to its contemporary equivalents are the historical events: the social, political or economic issues, which affect the audiences from the respective periods. As long as there are problems within a culture, there will always be space for films (particularly romantic comedies) to create a diversion, a fantasy world of escapism in which audiences can remove themselves from reality.