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The evolution of the romantic movie

Posted on August 30th, 2018

Of all the movie genres that we are familiar with today, few have a longer history than romance. Not surprisingly, the romance movie has changed almost out of all recognition since the days of the silent movie, reflecting changes in society, but perhaps more importantly, reflecting the ingenuity and inventiveness of the moviemakers and actors who have shaped the genre.



The original romance movie was also the shortest. At just 20 seconds long, The Kiss (1896) featured two famous stage actors kissing. The scene, taken from the Broadway show The Widow Jones, was considered scandalous at the time, but the short movie, shown on a projector known as a Vitoscope, was also wildly popular.


Garbo and Gilbert

Many of the elements that shaped the genre could be found in embryonic form in the early years of the romance movie, including the pairing of famous screen couples. One of the first such partnerships began in the era of the silent movies, between Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The MGM actors first appeared in Flesh and the Devil (1926) and went on to star in a number of notable early romance classics, their on-screen chemistry no doubt influenced by the fact that they were engaged in a relationship off screen.


Romantic comedies

Romantic comedy has been a staple of the genre for decades, and the development of the talkies enabled directors to script the witty dialogue that is a key element of the rom-com, leading to some memorable movies in the 1930s. Many featured zany plots and occasional slapstick, and one of the most notable was Bringing Up Baby (1938), which starred Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as a mismatched paleontologist and an heiress.


Classic romantic dramas

The time of WW2 was also a golden age of romantic cinema, perhaps because audiences were keen to escape the horrors of reality for a fantasy world of romance. Some of the genres greatest works of art were created during this time, including Gone with the Wind (1939) starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable; quintessential British romance Brief Encounter (1946); and arguably the most romantic film of all time, Casablanca (1942), based on the doomed romance between a cynical caf owner (Humphrey Bogart) and an old flame (Ingrid Bergman).


Return of the romantic comedy

The 1950s and early 1960s were a time of increasing prosperity in the West, and in keeping with the general mood, there was a return to popularity for the romantic comedy, which was typified by a series of films featuring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, including Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1951) and Send Me No Flowers (1964).


Odd couples

Odd-couple romances have been a staple of the genre, and the 1960s and 1970s saw the theme developed in two notable movies. Breakfast at Tiffanys (1961) was an adaptation of a Truman Capote story and starred Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard as an eccentric society girl and a struggling writer thrown into a shaky relationship. A decade later, Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford featured in another all-time classic romance, The Way We Were (1973), the tale of a handsome writer and a Jewish political activist.


80s and 90s variety

The last two decades of the 20th century saw an explosion in the number and variety of romance movies. Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour starred in Somewhere in Time (1980), which can claim to be the first ever science fiction romance. The 1980s also saw the beginning of the romance thriller, with such classics as The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), in which Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weavers romance is played against the backdrop of a coup in 1960s Indonesia.

This was also the period in which British romantic comedy dominated the box office, with such titles as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), Bridget Joness Diary (2001) and Love Actually (2003), all starring English actor Hugh Grant. In 1997 came the ultimate in historical romance movies, Titanic, which also employed state-of-the-art special effects.

The modern era

The 21st century has so far seen something of a decline in romance films, as the public appears to have lost their appetite, particularly for romantic comedies, which increasingly felt formulaic and dated. In particular, the tendency for romance movies to default to a 1950s-era standard of strong male leads sweeping female characters off their feet feels dated. This wont have gone unnoticed by Hollywood executives, from Ryan Kavanaugh to Jerry Bruckheimer, whose role is to spot the trends in audience tastes as they develop.

However, given its long history, few could bet against the revival of the romantic movie in years to come.

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