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Romantic Comedies: The Achingly Predictable Vestige of the Unpredictable Screwball Comedies of the 1930s

Timothy Sexton
November 11, 2010

Hey kids, there used to be this genre of movies that Hollywood produced regularly that was known as the screwball comedy. These comedies featured dramatic actors like Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck placed into ridiculous situations that allowed them to showcase their comedic acting chops. The screwball comedy fell out of favor sometime around the time the film noir darkened the thematic landscape, but its remnants can still be felt in the highly successful though infinitely less inspired romantic comedies of today.

Boy Meets Girl

Today's romantic comedy must include the cute meeting. Meeting cute is one of the vestiges of the screwball comedy where, for instance, Stanwyck purposefully trips Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve." You can't help but miss the hazy, crazy days of screwball comedies when you must sit through Hugh Grant spilling orange juice on Julia Roberts in "Notting Hill" or John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale reaching for the same glove at Bloomingdale's in "Serendipity."

I Hate You...For Now

Another heated leftover from the bounty that was the screwball comedy is the romantic comedy's insistence on opposites who dislike each other at first attracting. A mainstay of both screwball and romantic comedies is the uptight character being forced to loosen up by falling in love with a free spirit. Believe it or not, but Ben Stiller's character in "Along Came Polly" is actually just a throwback to Cary Grant's character in "Bringing Up Baby" and Jennifer Aniston in that movie is the inheritor of Katherine Hepburn's maverick character who owns the titular baby which is actually a black panther.

The Less Attractive, but Funnier Sidekick

A romantic comedy must include at least one and preferably two sidekicks to the romantic leads who are less attractive and therefore, for some reason, much funnier. Strangely enough, the best lines in most romantic comedies don't go to the stars. In at least one case-"When Harry Met Sally"-the best line in the entire movie went to a character that is never seen before or after her memorable quote inside the diner.

The Musical Montage; or Nora Ephron "Wrote" This, Right?

The musical montage is a standard element of the romantic comedy. I'm waiting for the day when Nora Ephron writes an entire romantic comedy told through musical montage. Who killed the romantic comedy? Yes, that's right: Nora Ephron. If you don't believe me, watch "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Joe Versus the Volcano" back to back. The latter is the most inventive and original romantic comedy of its time while the former is the prequel to "You've Got Mail" isn't it?

Boy Loses Girl

The screwball comedy made viewers feel as if the plot could go in any direction before the male and female got together in the end. Today's romantic comedies have become so addicted to a standard template that the only surprise the plot can muster is having the male wind up with the sincere golden-haired girl rather than the jaded redheaded dame. "My Best Friend's Wedding" took on the plot of earlier Julia Roberts' romantic comedies (about 32 so far, or so it seems), but then tried to become original by having the object of Roberts' desire end up with Cameron Diaz. This is Hollywood's idea of an original and unexpected ending?

Dermot Mulroney ending up with Rosie O'Donnell or Carrie Fisher--or Rob Reiner, now that would be an original romantic comedy! In the meantime, rent screwball comedies like "The Good Fairy," "My Man Godfrey," and "What's Up, Doc?" to see what you've been missing.

*Note: This was written by an Associated Content contributor. Sign up here to start publishing your own movie articles.