I Love You But ... brings together 28 of the most enduring romantic comedies in the cinema. The origins of this genre lie in the "screwball" comedies of the 1930s when the public tried to escape the reality of poverty in a happy dream world of luxury, laughter and sex. But while duly delivering this world on screen, the major film studios also subscribed to a production code to protect Americans from moral corruption - the theory being that if Hollywood presented the public with virtue, the public would learn to be virtuous. "Screwball comedies are sex comedies without sex," wrote the critic Andrew Sarris. The plots were based on sexual combat but the sex was removed, leaving the combat. The screwball treatment became a way for writers and directors to circumvent the studios' official code.
For each film she examines, Cherry Potter gives a summary of the plot and a brief interpretation of the changing relationships between the sexes. The book is more about social changes seen from her feminine perspective than about the romantic comedy genre. In this era of semiotic dominance over aesthetic interpretation, the analysis can be irritating rather than fulfilling Potter's goal to write a book "that gives as much enjoyment as the films themselves". Though lively, the book is a bit superficial. (Highly recommended as a supplement, or alternative, is Screwball by Ed Sikov, which contains an excellent foreword by critic Molly Haskall.) Potter begins with Frank Capra's brilliant It Happened One Night . Released in 1934, this was "a time when feminism was in retreat and identified with being lonely and unmarried", and men were under siege because of unemployment and family breakdown. Clark Gable plays a newspaper reporter who meets beautiful, arrogant and super-rich Claudette Colbert. As Potter says, the film owes a lot to Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew . Of course Colbert ends up humbled but with the man she loves.
We enter the 1940s with His Girl Friday , directed by Howard Hawks and written by Charles Lederer. "It plunges us straight into the two dominant issues of the forties: the battle of the sexes and the issue of a woman working in a man's world." It also portrays the anything-for-a-story attitude of the popular press. Journalists Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are equally ruthless in their pursuit of success, and in the end we feel they deserve each other. Although Russell opts for career over motherhood, we feel that motherhood might be a future option.
The 1950s were a time of change: the beginning of the cold war, the black list for suspected communist sympathisers, spies and traitors, and a backtracking on the progress women felt they had made in the 1940s. The men were home from the war and wanted to restore their authority. There could hardly be a more unusual romantic comedy than The Quiet Man (1952). John Ford, the director, and John Wayne, the lead, were two of Hollywood's greatest masculine icons: Ford, as the director of majestic and powerful Westerns, Wayne as his favourite hero. But this time the story is played out in Ireland. Again, Potter points out that it is another re-telling of Shakespeare's story. Maureen O'Hara makes a wonderful shrew and though tamed she is not humbled. By the end of the film, both sexes respect traditional male-female roles. Not a happy start to the decade from the feminine perspective but one that was meant to reassure the 1950s man. Hollywood seems to have forsaken the modern women in this decade and produced films such as Pillow Talk .
Then came Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), exposing the mood of male hypocrisy and illicit affairs. "It attempts to represent a quest for new and more honest ways of living and loving," writes Potter. By the end of the decade, we had Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice , by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, a radical and hilarious look at the sexual revolution facing married couples.
After this came burgeoning encounter groups, communal living, the breakdown of marriage and wife swapping - and the revitalisation of the feminist movement. But the romantic comedy genre continued to flourish, in films such as Annie Hall, Unmarried Woman and Starting Over . Potter's choice of Diary of a Mad Housewife is perhaps unusual, but the film is an important examination of the battle of the sexes.
In the past two decades, romantic comedies have shown the advent of power dressing by women and the new-age masculine movement, as exemplified by Working Girl and Crocodile Dundee . Men were seen as emotionally more open and caring and wore ponytails. Women could take the sexual initiative in relationships, but finding a husband was difficult. Romantic fairytales abounded in films such as Strictly Ballroom, Four Weddings and a Funeral and As Good as it Gets .
Romantic comedy is much better at exposing social and sexual tensions than at solving them. Hollywood cannot resolve the battle of the sexes. This continues to dominate and enliven the genre, and, after seven decades, it is being fought as intensely as ever.
Sandy Lieberson is a film producer, formerly head of Twentieth Century Fox in the UK.
I Love You But...: Romance, Comedy and the Movies
Author - Cherry Potter
ISBN - 0 413 74990 8
Publisher - Methuen
Price - £16.99
Pages - 298