This week, we’re diving head first into romantic comedies. The genre gets a bad rap these days, as it has largely devolved into formulaic assembly line style movies that just hit the beats with attractive leads and go home. They just go through the motions. There have been a few good ones in the last decade or so, but this week, we’re reaching way back to the nascent days of romantic comedy, and then the quintessential romantic comedy. This week’s films are:
Preston Sturges – The Lady Eve (1941)
Rob Reiner – When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
We’ve covered Preston Sturges before, with a great film called Sullivan’s Travels. He’s a well known comedy director of the era, and this is another one of his classic films. We’ve never covered Rob Reiner before, but he had some great films in the 80s and 90s.
Let’s get into it.
The Lady Eve (1941)
In this film, Charlie, the heir to a brewery empire is targeted by a group of con-men while they travel on a cruise ship. But when the woman on the team, Jean, falls in love with the mark, she plans to change her ways. Unfortunately for her, their scam is revealed before they leave the boat and their plan, and the love affair, is ruined. Years later, she meets another conman running a scam on Charlie’s entire family. She gets involved to teach him a lesson. But what is she planning, and will she get caught?
The film is directed by Preston Sturges and stars Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. At the time, Fonda would have been pretty well-known, already starring in Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln. Stanwyck had already had some great films under her belt as well, including Stella Dallas, and she could hold her own.
Let’s start with Stanwyck. This film was made in 1941, World War 2 had already begun, and the film has a couple plot points that reference the war, and it was heavily steeped in the Hays Code. But regardless, Stanwyck puts one of the sexiest performances I’ve ever seen on film. She didn’t have the tools that modern actresses have, but the sexuality just pours out of her. But that’s part of her character, so it works. It’s a great example of how the constraint of the era added a layer of the story that wouldn’t be there if they had just splashed it on screen with a sex scene. It’s easy to see why Henry Fonda’s character Charlie falls for her so easily. I fell for her too.
Charlie is set up as a brainy individual, bored with the ale his family brews, and the fortune that comes with it. He wants to be in the jungle studying snakes. He makes the perfect mark, naive and freshly back in the world after a year in the jungle. Jean and her father Colonel Harrington are on the boat specifically to scam him. We never find out for certain if Jean and Harrington are actually related, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. They’re card sharps.
We see a great scene early on when Charlie is sitting in the large dining room, reading his book, and every one in the room is trying to get his attention. Everyone is drinking his families product Pike’s Ale, assuming that will impress him. Women keep passing by, trying to get him to notice them, knowing how wealthy he is.
The scene is funny by itself, but it’s taken to another level by Jean, who sits at her own table, watching the scene and commenting on it. This has to be the scene that inspired the scene in The Hudsucker Proxy where the bus drivers narrate the meeting of Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh. This scene firmly places the film in the screwball comedy tradition. We talked about the screwball comedy extensively in the previous post on The Hudsucker Proxy, so I won’t rehash it here.
I think we can probably trace a line directly from the screwball comedy into the modern romantic comedy. Perhaps it’s a commentary on how ridiculous relationships feel, and how ridiculous people act when first falling in love. The modern romantic comedy is a little more grounded, but I think that screwball foundation is still there. The screwball comedy almost always involves a man and a woman in a silly situation, in many cases total opposites that shouldn’t work, but falling in love anyway. The romantic comedy often takes the opposites attract direction as well, but tone down the silly situation. The situations are more real. Does that make it better? I don’t know. But the screwball comedies can be more fun.
It’s great fun watching Charlie get himself neck deep into the grasp of Jean and Harrington. They slyly and smoothly ensnare him. Jean sets him up by tripping him, and putting him off guard with a broken heel, demanding he walk her back to her room and help her find another pair. He does, and we get the first incredibly sensual scene. I keep coming back to this, because it must have been an incredible challenge to put that scene on film and get that kind of tension in the Hays era. They never mention sex, they never kiss, they barely touch each other, but it’s all there in the performances. She’s seducing him, and he’s enjoying it. And of course, she shuts it down at the height of the tension, taking him back downstairs.
The only person warning Charlie of the danger he’s in is Muggsy, a bodyguard his father has hired to follow him around. He knows for sure that Charlie is being scammed, but Charlie is too naive to see it. He dismisses the concerns, noting that they lost $600 to him initially. Of course, Muggsy knows this scam and sniffs it out a mile away.
The film has a really interesting structure, we get the set up for the scam, the love story plays out, and Charlie proposes. And Jean is even receptive, ready to change her ways, and even protecting Charlie from Harrington scamming him again. She doesn’t just seem sincere, she is sincere. But Muggsy eventually reveals the scam and Jean is caught, ruining the romance for Charlie. A lot of films would have had that reveal with about 20% of the screen time left. Like minute 75 out of 90. But this film puts that reveal a little more than halfway through. It puts the viewer in an awkward position, where we really don’t know where this could go from here. Hollywood films have taught us that the couple either breaks up or gets together. They just broke up, and there’s a ton of time left. As they leave the boat, Jean vows revenge.
So the film has set up a huge task for itself. It has to get itself back to the place where these people can be together in a believable way, after it’s totally trashed their relationship. But Sturges is up to the challenge.
Several years pass, and Jean and her crew meet another conman they’ve known for a long time. In a very funny bit, they all introduce themselves as they names they’re going by now, which feels like a common practice among the old friends. Their friend reveals he’s posing as a British nobleman in Connecticut, in the same town where Charlie and his family lives. She begins concocting a plan, asking to pose as his visiting niece. The others don’t love the plan, but she’s determined.
The film devotes the last 30 minutes to her plan, not as Jean, but as The Lady Eve. Donning a British accent and a different hairstyle, she has decided to seduce him again. She’s introduced at a fancy dinner party at the mansion, she’s all poise, charming everyone. There’s a few great bits here, one with Muggsy trying to determine if Eve is actually Jean, going to great lengths to do so, and Charlie tripping over things and having things spilled on him, forcing him to change his clothes.
We see Jean’s plan unfold as Charlie falls in love with her new persona, and this time, nothing goes wrong. They get married, and on the train to their honeymoon, she begins to torture him, casually mentioning that she had eloped with a man when she was younger. After fighting over it, he finally gives her sincere forgiveness, and she just drops another name. We get a montage of her dropping name after name in increasingly bizarre scenarios, and Charlie freaking out. He leaves the train at the next stop, and the next scene we see the two communicating through lawyers, planning their divorce.
The resolution to the film is wonderful, as Eve asks Charlie to meet her before they agree to the divorce and he refuses, but she learns he will be back on the same cruise ship they met on. She returns there as Jean, and all is forgiven. They hurry to the room to express their feelings, and Charlie says to tell her that he must tell her that he is married. She responds that she is married too, as the film ends. A wonderful little button to the film. And of course, a clever workaround to the Hays code. They normally couldn’t suggest that two people were going to sleep together, but these characters are already married.
Henry Fonda is one of the greatest actors of all time, but let’s be real, he’s mainly a prop in this film for Barbara Stanwyck to play with. This is her film, and she knocks it out of the park. She plays several different characters in the film, constantly changing as the film goes on. She starts as the opportunistic conman, then shifts to the available young woman, seducing Charlie. Then the earnest woman in love, trying to figure out how to make a real romance work. She shifts into the heartbroken vengeance seeking conman, ready to ruin his life, and spends the last portion of the film as Eve, the young British lady. It seems like she can do anything. And she probably can.
Let’s look at our next film.
When Harry Met Sally…(1989)
The film follows Harry and Sally throughout their time together, from the moment they meet until they finally agree to be together. We see their first few meetings spread out over years, and they finally become friends when they meet after long relationships have ended. They begin spending all their time together and become best friends, they talk about their relationships, support each other, and do everything that a couple might do, except have sex. Until one night they do. This of course changes everything for them, and they have to confront their feelings for each other. Will they admit how they feel before their relationship disintegrates?
The film is directed by Rob Reiner and stars Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. It’s written by Nora Ephron, who’s one of the greatest writers and directors of all time, but particularly in this genre. She wrote and directed Sleepless In Seattle, which is one of the most heartwarming romantic comedies ever, and You’ve Got Mail, which is a remake of another film we looked at recently The Shop Around the Corner. Of course, Rob Reiner directed some of the great films like A Few Good Men, The Princess Bride and others. Billy Crystal is one of the funniest comedians of all time, and Meg Ryan is a romantic comedy all-star. She has one of the all-time great faces. When she smiles and laughs, your heart just melts. And she’s a great actress to boot. She has so many moments to shine in the film and really nails them.
Sally is very type-A. Making ordering into a kind of sport, with incredible specificity, adding exceptions and changes depending on what the chefs can and can’t do. She is generally very cheery and positive. While Harry is very laid back and funny, sex-driven, and prone to depression. This film very much covers the opposites attract genre of romantic comedy.
The supporting cast is excellent as well, including Bruno Kirby, and the legendary Carrie Fisher. Everyone in the cast really nails their part, but none of it would happen without the script, which throws out some of the greatest lines in any romantic comedy.
Now, I would normally do a big plot summary, but the film doesn’t really have much of a plot. It’s more a series of vignettes that builds their relationship over time. We first meet them as they take a road trip to New York from Chicago after graduation. We see their conversations about dating and relationships. Harry has a great speech here about how men and women can’t be friends because sex always gets in the way. It’s really a running theme of the film. We then jump forward five years when they bump into each other at an airport and take a flight together and have another long conversation about relationships. This also sets up that both are in long term relationships, with Harry getting married. When they meet again, 5 years after that, it is just after both relationships have ended. They strike up a friendship, leaning on each other, creating something of a surrogate relationship.
They are able to go deeper than they might with a formal romantic relationship, where they might be too self-conscious about trying to impress each other. Harry even comments on this, making this film a little self-aware.
The film also includes little interviews with couples that have been together for decades, talking about how they met. I don’t know if they’re real people or actors, but the scenes are really effective.
The film plays out as a deconstruction of dating and relationships. Most of the major differences between men and women are explored, long before all of this became well-hashed cliches. And of course, one of the most legendary scenes of all-time is in this film, where Meg Ryan proves that Harry can’t tell when a woman is faking an orgasm, by faking one in a crowded diner. And it ends with one of the great buttons to a scene, when Rob Reiner’s mother deadpans the line “I’ll have what she’s having”. Perfect.
This film is filled with classic moments and lines like this. Even the lesser known moments work, such as Harry explaining the story of his divorce to his friend Jess at a football game that keeps getting interrupted by the wave happening at the stadium.
The film climaxes with a New Years Eve party after Harry and Sally have slept together and fought over how awkward their relationship has become. Harry is alone, and Sally is at the party and miserable. Harry has been trying to get Sally to talk to him for weeks, and has offered to take her to the New Years party. Sally has told him she’s tired of being his consolation prize, which is another of the great film lines.
That night Harry flashes back to all the moments in their time together, and suddenly starts running. He gets to the party and gives one of the all-time great film speeches, finally telling Sally he loves her. They end with a big romantic kiss.
I think it’s clear from what I’ve said that I think this is one of the all-time great films. It just all comes together. It had the perfect writer, perfect director and the perfect cast.
From their earlier and later work, we might say that Ephron brought the heart and Reiner brought the comedy, and the same might be said for Ryan and Crystal. This yin and yang creates a really satisfying film. You get multiple flavors. Every time the comedy threatens to overpower the film, we get a sweet, heartwarming scene. And every time the saccharine sweetness threatens, we get a funny scene or moment to cut it. It’s a tough balancing act, but they pull it off.
I haven’t seen the film in a very long time, and I enjoyed it this time as much as I ever have. A glorious film.
The Double Feature
Looking at both the films, I think it’s clear how the screwball comedy genre evolved into the modern romantic comedy genre. The only problem with the genre has become, that films like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle were so well made, that they created a perfect roadmap for how to make a film like this. What we end up with is a paint by numbers film that tosses together pretty male and female leads, and runs them through the plot points.
There’s actually an amazing deconstruction of the romantic comedy genre starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler called They Came Together which is directed by David Wain and written by Wain and Michael Showalter. They manage to toss every romantic comedy trope into that film, and expose the way lazy filmmakers use them. It’s riotously funny in the way that only a Wain and Showalter script can be, absurdist to the extreme.
We have had some decent ones recently. I particularly liked Love and Other Drugs and Crazy Stupid Love, but it’s hard to find the gems among the dreck. Regardless, I think the genre has a lot of mileage in it, and there will always be an audience for romantic stories, cleverly constructed, with a heartwarming conclusion and solid jokes.
I had a big week. I finished my qualifying exam for my PhD. This means that I am officially a candidate and approved to start working on my dissertation. It’s a huge step, and I’m very ready to be done. But there’s a long way to go, so let’s talk about next week’s films.
I was looking through my DVDs and Blurays, and realized that I hadn’t done a post focused on the Western genre. I’ve done some westerns before, but never focused together. So next week’s films are:
John Huston – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947)
John Ford – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Now both of these films are outside what we might consider traditional Western films, but I think they’ll do. One of them is among my favorite films of all time.
See you next week.