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Love Meets Laughs : Romantic Comedies Win Film Fans' Everlasting Affection

July 01, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

Hepburn and Tracy did it right. So did Loy and Powell. Lombard and March weren't bad either. That goes for Gable and Colbert, too. But what about Hanks and Ryan?

Formidable competition. Actually, it's probably unfair to bring up such names in connection with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the stars of "Sleepless in Seattle," TriStar's bid for summer box office.

Sure, the reviews aren't bad--Hanks is swell doing his bemused Everyguy routine; Ryan is swell doing her bemused Everygal thing--but when you offer a romantic comedy, the past can't be far behind, gazing suspiciously over your shoulder. The genre has been one of the most successful and durable through the years, making studios and sending stars into the stratosphere.

That's what happened with "It Happened One Night." Claudette Colbert may have been established, but Clark Gable still had a way to go before reaching living-legend status. This Frank Capra picture fixed Gable in the public's mind as the perfect wise-guy hero.

He had a great face, cool moves and spitfire timing with Robert Riskin's zippy dialogue. Taking off his shirt and showing off his chest--considered pretty risque back then--was a smart striptease, a calculation that worked better than all the self-inflating hot air Schwarzenegger can muster these days.

The movie helped establish a principle for romantic comedies: the plot can be simple, even meager, as long as there's chemistry between the players and enough crackling talk to keep the beaker full. Capra, whose career also zoomed after the picture came out in 1934, let the story of a society lady and a threadbare reporter on a cross-country jaunt reel out like a wisecracking anecdote. Romance could be loopy; love could be a dizzy howl.

Who knows exactly when the first romantic comedy came along? Many of Chaplin and Keaton's silents can slip into the class. There was usually a girl nearby, an object of worship and an excuse for bumbling. Love could be just the right inspiration for the perfect pratfall.

But the genre took off with the talkies--it was all that gab, the zing and zang of two people finding a shared energy that set them, and their films, apart. And when movie couples are brought up, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy often finish the sentence.

They brought smarts to the romantic comedy. Their movies were brainy, or at least they seemed that way, because both actors were obviously so intelligent themselves. Tracy and Hepburn are well displayed in many pictures, but "Adam's Rib" is a good place to start.

"Adam's Rib," directed by George Cukor and written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, (1949) took the battle of the sexes (frequently a subtext in the better romantic comedies) to a new level. Hepburn and Tracy, playing attorneys on opposing sides, bantered and barked, fretted and fumbled, as they struggled for sassy compromises.

Another team-up that may not have had the same shelf-life but still had a fine turn on stage was Carole Lombard and Fredric March. "Nothing Sacred," directed by William Wellman and released in 1937, presented March as a cynical reporter exploiting the supposedly imminent death of Lombard.

It's a trademark performance for Lombard, a mix of sophistication, beauty and a clown's delight at slapstick (sort of the female version of Cary Grant at his swank-comic best), and March leaves his usual slick unflappability behind. This time, he's all wired up.

Romantic comedy heroines have often been lovably defiant, women who refuse to be limited by society's expectations. Myrna Loy wanted an equal partnership with William Powell in all the "Thin Man" movies; Nick Charles may have been the front man, but Nora was always in on the action. The best was the first, "The Thin Man," which came out in 1934.

The premise was basic: Nick and Nora are the blithe socialite couple who just happen to do some detective work on the side. Nobody cares much about what they were investigating; the rapport between Loy and Powell (a presence both avuncular and slyly insinuating) was what counted. "The Thin Man" may be as much a screwball comedy as a romantic one, but the two types often intersect.

In the case of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, romance joins with the musical in a glistening hybrid. What was most enjoyable, the silky dancing, the uptown songs or the sleekly amusing chemistry between Rogers and Astaire? It all added up in several pictures, with "Top Hat" standing as one of the most pleasurable.

The 1935 film, directed by Mark Sandrich and featuring a trove of Irving Berlin songs, uses a mistaken-identity plot in which Astaire chases Rogers from London to the Riviera as an excuse to show just how stylish its two stars can be. Astaire is, as usual, spectacular as an ordinary-looking guy who could do the most extraordinary things.

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