Ten great classic romantic movies for Valentine’s Day
Some time back I noticed that as movie heroes evolved from swashbucklers to super heroes; romantic plotlines of cinematic storytelling began to fade away. Romantic comedies (rom-coms) have always been a staple of film. Almost every romantic comedy can be seen as a variation on It Happened One Night (1934) (mismatched couple who are thrown together and fall in love) or Bringing Up Baby (1938) (wild, free spirited woman liberating an uptight man). But, from 2010 until today almost none of the top fifty grossing movies in any given year feature a romantic plotline driving the action. Otherwise, the romance element as a plot device in action movies and adventure cinema has almost completely disappeared.
The chivalrous romantic ideal in 19th century novels became known as swashbucklers, when adapted for the cinema in movies such as The Mark of Zorro (1940). Swashbuckling adventure films easily translated into westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), High Noon (1952), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which kept their romantic themes. Many of the early hard-boiled detective films also inherited a kind of urban swashbuckling flair but quickly lost it as “hard-boiled” became “noir.” The anti-heroes of the 50s and 60s very rarely used chivalry and romance as a driving force of cinematic plotlines. Except in romantic comedies, romance between main characters was more or less downplayed.
The action heroes that began replacing anti-heroes in the 80s and 90s did not return to their swashbuckling romantic forbearers by pursuing romance as a major cinematic plotline. These action heroes were sex symbols but rarely romantic heroes. In Die Hard (1988), John McClain’s wife is a plot device to set the scene, not a romantic plotline. The Lethal Weapon (1987) series were ‘buddy movies’, and romance as a main plot line is completely missing in action in the Mad Max/Road Warrior films (1981). Only the Indiana Jones (1981) films consistently feature a strong female lead with a strong romantic interest in the hero.
Since the Hayes code was replaced by the MPAA rating system and the sexual revolution exploded in Europe and America; romantic comedies have had an increasingly short life span. Romantic comedies from the 60s featuring Rock Hudson, Doris Day, James Garner, Natalie Wood, are quaint and seriously dated by today’s standards. Most 60s rom-coms are rapidly being forgotten. Woody Allen’s witty social satire of the 70s dating scene with Play It Again Sam (1972) and Annie Hall (1977) are increasingly only funny to Baby Boomers. Annie Hall (1977) was a landmark film. It won four Oscars but how relevant is Annie Hall to today’s younger audiences?
When I started researching the top romantic movies I went to my usual favorite source, AFI’s 100 Years 100 Passions. AFI’s list is a good list, but it also suggests that rom-coms are ephemeral. There are very few films on their list that would fall into the modern definition of a rom-com. Instead it features classics like Casablanca (1942) (their number one love story). Gone with the Wind (1939) is the second on their list. It’s hard to disagree with that decision. Gone with the Wind is a legendary film from the golden age of Hollywood. Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh had fantastic chemistry, and it won eight Academy Awards.
Considering that most of these best romantic movies are on every other ‘best of’ list of movies, I decided to go with a list of films with strong romantic plotlines that I think both men and women can enjoy. I tried to be original and come up with a unique list of films the library’s customers may not have seen. These are mostly from the Golden Age of Hollywood and are less pure “romances” than films with strong romance plotlines, and with both strong male and female characters. There are so many good ones I’m afraid I’m going to have to stick with a “classics” list this time and create a“modern” list later.
Notorious (1946) Ingrid Bergman was a great romantic actress, so this film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant has to be on any list of top romantic movies. No one dealt with psychological sexual obsession like Alfred Hitchcock during his heyday. Notorious (1946) is a spy story with good guy Cary Grant recruiting bad girl Ingrid Bergman to spy on fascists in Brazil, then falling in love with her as he sends her into danger. It is a case of forbidden love. And ‘the kiss’ in the cellar may be one of the most sizzling romantic scenes in film history.
The Big Sleep (1946) is a film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall directed by Howard Hawks. The film chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is legendary. The Big Sleep is a hardboiled detective story based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. The heat between Bogart and Bacall lights up the screen, and their repartee is rapier sharp. Don’t try to follow the plot; just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Red Dust (1932) is one of the films that made Clark Gable a star. Very few actors could dominate the screen like Gable; he was the number one romantic leading man in Hollywood throughout his career, earning the nickname “The King.” This film captures Clark Gable in his prime. Red Dust also stars Jean Harlow. She was both a brilliant comedienne and a dominating dramatic actress. She is sassy and brassy, and she did several great movies with Gable; in Red Dust she’s just awesome!
The Quiet Man (1952) stars John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and was directed by John Ford. John Wayne isn’t known today as a romantic leading man, but had several romantic roles early in his career. His breakout movie Stagecoach (1939) has a love story at its heart. The Angel and the Bad Man (1947) is another John Wayne romantic comedy, only in chaps and spurs. John Ford is often considered the greatest director, while John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara were one of the great romantic screen pairings. The Quiet Man shows Ireland as it never was but should have been. This is a classic Hollywood romantic comedy in the traditional sense.
Libeled Lady (1936) stars William Powell and Myrna Loy. If it weren’t for Cary Grant, William Powell would have been Hollywood’s greatest star of romantic comedy, and his movies with Myrna Loy were some of the best. The Thin Man (1934) is the best pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy and is often called one of the greatest movies of all time, but I included Libeled Lady instead because it’s a romantic comedy with Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, William Powell and Myrna Loy. This movie isn’t nearly as famous as it should be. It is a tragedy Jean Harlow died so young!
Adam’s Rib (1949) stars Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in the ultimate battle of the sexes. Of course Tracy and Hepburn were one of the great Hollywood pairings, but this movie has the added attraction of Judy Holiday who steals every scene.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). You can’t make a list of great romantic films without The Adventures of Robin Hood. On screen Errol Flynn is a charming rogue and a perfect gentleman. His films with Olivia de Havilland are equal to Tracy and Hepburn, William Powell and Myrna Loy, or any other great Hollywood romantic couple. This is the epitome of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It’s pure fun!
Born Yesterday (1950) stars Judy Holiday, Broderick Crawford, and William Holden. Judy Holiday won an Academy Award for her tour de force performance. She was one of the most charismatic and funny leading ladies Hollywood ever produced. If you like witty writing and razor sharp repartee you will love this movie.
Prince of Foxes (1949) was directed by Henry King and stars Tyrone Power and Orson Welles. It was filmed on location in Italy. Tyrone Power was the swashbuckling heartthrob of the 1940s and this film is an underappreciated gem. Everett Sloan and Orson Welles definitely try to steal every scene, and they almost do!
Marnie (1964) is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser known films, but also deals with obsession. I included this film because it stars Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren. Sean Connery, like Clark Gable before him, dominates the screen with his presence; and it’s great to see a non-Bond Sean Connery romantic film. This is one of those subtle films that should grow in stature over time.