Hollywood does not produce as many great romantic comedies as it used to. Good romantic comedies still come out every year, but the Hollywood system that mass-produced dozens a year is gone. Fewer movies mean fewer classics.
Big studios, the Hays Code, and repertory companies of great supporting actors and off-screen craftspeople no longer exist. Talent and star power are not what’s missing.
Movie Stars Start On TV
Up and coming actors and directors have less opportunity to learn their craft. Without a big name, it is hard to raise money to make a film, and it is harder than ever to build a name.
Stars build names on TV, which has its own studio system. Many try to switch to movies, which pays better for less work, but not many TV stars are as successful in the movies as they were on TV.
For every Chevy Chase, there are several Shelley Longs. Their smaller-than-life TV images do not translate to larger-than-life movie screens. A movie star’s presence must fill a screen the size of a building, in Dolby Sound, like Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Meg Ryan.
It’s not a matter of physical size. Nobody filled a screen more than tiny Bette Davis. Many Hollywood people say they were surprised at how small Joan Crawford was. She looked so imposing on the screen.
Petite Reese Witherspoon is also a large presence on screen, though she does not try to look big, like Crawford did.
No More Musical Comedies
Hollywood has not made a good, original movie musical since Saturday Night Fever 35 years ago, and it was not a comedy. It was a serious coming of age drama set in a discotheque.
Fred Astaire called it the best movie he’d seen in 25 years, especially the opening scene with John Travolta walking down a street in time to the music playing in his head.
MGM had a separate unit dedicated to musicals that produced one great one after another. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is considered by many to be the best of those. Others consider it the best movie ever. It was not adapted from a Broadway musical. Arthur Fried produced those musicals, and Gene Kelly staged most of the dance numbers.
Many older folks thought Warner Brothers Sound of Music was the “last” good movie, one of many Rogers and Hammerstein classics adapted from the Broadway stage. Broadway adaptations My Fair Lady and West Side Story won double-digit Academy Awards.
Modern Remakes of Classic Comedies
Modern Hollywood also remakes old romantic comedy classics, a sort of admission that they can’t do better. None of these remakes, except True Grit, holds a candle to the original.
The 2010 True Grit is so different from the old John Wayne classic that it can hardly be called a remake. The remake was a first-rate comedy. The original was a great John Wayne movie.
The Shop Around the Corner, produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, written primarily by Billy Wilder before he became a director, is the story of two employees who hate each other, but carry on a passionate, anonymous love affair through the mail.
The comedy is in the sparks between them face-to-face, and the difficulty they have getting together when they drop the anonymity and meet in person,
In the Good Old Summertime (1949), a musical version of the Lubitsch classic, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, is considered a classic movie musical in its own right today.
You’ve Got Mail (1998) with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, directed by Rob Reiner, uses the device of anonymous lovers by mail, who clash when they meet in person. The movie shows how they fall in love t0hrough e-mail, and go from hate to love in person. It pays homage to the classics. One of the protagonists owns a bookstore named “The Shop Around the Corner.” It’s a great movie, not a re-make.
Typical forgettable remakes are The Longest Yard, Miracle on 34th Street, The Grinch with Jim Carrey, A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
Did the filmmakers think they could improve on excellence, or that remaking still-popular classics with modern stars would be an easy, automatic payday? More excellent is an oxymoron, a silly phrase that contradicts itself.
Loss of Big Studios
Big studios that mass produced comedies don’t exist. Fewer movies mean fewer classics. Making a classic is beyond craftsmanship.
Star actors and directors can stay wealthy making a good picture every year or two. Supporting actors and off-camera artists, who turn good movies into great movies, need steady work and a steady paycheck.
Each Hollywood studio had great repertory companies, under contract. Many of the actors developed name and face recognition in their own right. People could tell the difference between MGM, Warner Bros, Paramount, and other studios. They all had different “looks.”
All those artists today are freelance, independent contractors. When they finish a movie, they are unemployed, looking for a new job.
Today, any director or producer who wants to make a comedy must raise the money, then assemble an outstanding collaborative team from scratch.
Woody Allen solves the problem by working with many of the same people in most of his movies. Clint Eastwood does the same, but does not usually make comedies.
Other filmmakers don’t have that option. It takes a long time, and a lot of success for a filmmaker to create a personal community of artists.
Loss of Censorship
The Hays Code forbade all sex and sex talk on the screen. Writers, actors, and directors had to use creativity, talent, and wit to tell sexy stories. It all had to be implied, between the lines.
That’s what made Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn such a great comedy team. They had help from directors like George Cukor, and writers like Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.
Billy Wilder’s steamy (for the time) Some Like It Hot and The Apartment in 1959 and 1960 demonstrated to the industry that the censors had less control over content than they used to. Both movies were big winners, artistically and financially.
Everyone in the industry, and most of the audience, was happy about the new freedom. But new freedom usually comes at a price. Sexy movies require less wit, and chemistry between actors, when you can show and tell so much more.
Austerlitz, Saul, Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, (Cappella Books) (9781556529511)
About Billy Wilder, PBS American Masters, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/billy-wilder/about-billy-wilder/733/
Seidenberg, John, “Censorship and Societal Presures Shaped Casablanca” http://www.suite101.com/content/censorship-pressures-societal-influences-shaped-casablanca-a383816
Braiterman, Ken, “Censorship Made 1945′s Mildred Pierce Better than the HBO Remake,” http://www.suite101.com/content/censorship-made-1945s-mildred-pierce-better-than-the-remake-a363441
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.