Nora Ephron’s list of her favorite romantic movies is pretty great, though I think the omission of The Lady Eve and Trouble in Paradise in particular are criminal. She hints at this, although I think it bears exploring a little bit more: the reason older romantic movies were good is because they tended to be about something other than simply the romance. In It Happened One Night, Clark Gable’s scoop is at risk. In His Girl Friday, it’s Rosalind Russell’s professional integrity. In the Thin Man, there’s crime, in Casablanca, Nazis. In The Lady Eve, there’s the right of Barbara Stanwyck’s accomplices to get away with their life of crime, and in Trouble in Paradise, it’s that Gaston can’t not be a crook, no matter how much he and Mariette fall for each other. “It could have been marvelous,” he tells her. “Divine,” she sighs. “Wonderful,” he agrees. “But tomorrow morning, if you should wake out of your dreams and hear a knock, and the door opens, and there, instead of a maid with a breakfast tray, stands a policeman with a warrant, then you’ll be glad you are alone.” The whole damn thing’s on YouTube, so you have no excuse not to watch it:
In American romances, and particularly romantic comedies, today, there is no problem that’s not directly related to the main characters’ ability, or lack thereof, to love. It doesn’t matter if it’s jobs, parents, a precocious niece, or the end of the world. It’s all about the love affair. Finding love will help all those characters find fulfilling employment, forgive their mothers, embrace their siblings, overcome low self-esteem, whatever. It’s an incredibly limiting plot-assumption, not to mention a guarantee that characters will be hopelessly self-centered. And that self-centeredness is just exhausting and diminishing and requires completely predictable endings. Characters must find love if they’re to find redemption or success in any other area. It’s too bad. Sometimes in the past, people walked away for the greater good. There was heartbreak that was real, and not intended to be fixed by the opening credits.