The long and lovely history of the rom-com

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Romantic comedies are a classic genre and, of course, a great genre to read or watch this Valentine’s Day. But have you ever wondered what the first romantic comedy was, or where the genre came from?

Many suggest it was Shakespeare who wrote some of the first romantic comedies. His stage plays incorporated humor into the typical old “boy-meets-girl” story, both through the characters’ dialogue and the zany situations in which they find themselves. Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” features mistaken identities and the leading man’s female lover disguised as a male. “Much Ado About Nothing” presents two lovers’ “merry war” of words and it takes their friends’ convincing to see that they’re made for each other.

Some like to say it was Jane Austen’s comedies of manners that were the next stepping-stone to the modern rom-com. Though not necessarily thought of as romantic comedies, novels like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” are included in this genre because they feature tension between romantic leads and humorous social satire.

In terms of film, romantic comedy has been a studio staple since the days of silent movies. Because the only “talking” in silent romantic comedies was written on title cards, directors often used physical comedy to depict humor. This first genre of silent romantic comedy is known as farce, since “low” forms of comedy (vaudeville, minstrel shows) were the primary influences in adapting romantic comedies to the big screen. Farce usually depicts couples who are or have been married, and calls out the boredom and restrictions of marriage.

During the late 1930s and into the 40s, screwball romantic comedies dominated the genre and now account for some of the most beloved classic rom-coms. Screwballs are identified by their quirky plots and strong female leads. They focus more on a couple’s growth and usually end in a marriage. Films such as “It Happened One Night,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Philadelphia Story” and “His Girl Friday” starred some of the most famous studio actors, movie stars like Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

By the end of the 1940s, the romantic comedy had declined in popularity. Around the 1950s to the 1970s, the romantic comedy saw some reinvention and new direction. Sex comedies (like Doris Day and Rock Hudson’s “Lover Come Back”) centered around a couple’s squabbles and struggles to get along before their eventual union or were motivated by sexual tension between lovers. Other, more radical films of the period, like “Annie Hall,” show that romantic love is not necessarily guaranteed a happily ever after and depict the main character’s journey to personal happiness. The major changes in the genre during this period are said to be caused by the general shift in culture at the time: Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking research on sexuality was published, “Playboy” magazine debuted and the film industry’s moral code was replaced with a ratings system.

Nowadays, romantic comedies are considered to be in a neotraditional phase. Some play with new ideas, while others reinvent old themes. Mainly, these films concern themselves with the lovers’ compatibility and willingness to make their relationship work. Movies like “When Harry Met Sally” and “The Proposal” focus on the romantic leads’ development of companionship and intimacy, whereas films like “You’ve Got Mail,” “Pretty Woman” and “Clueless” adapted old stories for the modern day.

No matter whether you’re reading Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” or watching the 2006 film “She’s the Man” (a modern reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old play), you can rest assured that the romantic comedy genre will survive and thrive throughout the ages: There will always be a rom-com out there for you to love!


Stephanie Santillo is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.santillo@uconn.edu.

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