In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section American Romantic Comedy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Critical Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Film Comedy Studies
  • Comedy Studies outside of Film
  • Studies of the Culture of Romance

Cinema and Media Studies American Romantic Comedy
Leger Grindon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0131


Romantic comedies, from classics such as Trouble in Paradise (1932) to 21st-century hits like Knocked Up (2007), have been a cornerstone of Hollywood entertainment since the coming of sound. Success in romantic comedy has created stars from Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant to Julia Roberts and Ben Stiller. In spite of being popular movies with a long and continuous history of production, romantic comedies have won only a few Oscars for Best Picture: It Happened One Night (1934), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), The Apartment (1960), Annie Hall (1977) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). Romantic comedies are often dismissed as formulaic stories promoting fantasies about love. But these comedies have a pedigree that includes William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. Moreover, these films reward study because they deal with dramatic conflicts central to human experience. From those conflicts arise the familiar conventions that form the foundation for the romantic comedy and portray our social manners surrounding courtship, sexuality, and gender relations. Romantic comedy films create a comic climate through a series of cues to the audience: subject matter is treated as trivial, jokes and physical humor make fun of events, and characters are protected from harm. Even though the story poses serious problems, such as finding a life partner, the process appears lighthearted, anticipating a positive resolution. The plot of most romantic comedies could be presented with the earnestness of melodrama, but the humorous tone transforms the experience. The movie assumes a self-deprecating stance that signals the audience to relax and have fun, for nothing serious will disturb their pleasure. However, this sly pose allows comic artists to influence their audience while the viewers take little notice of the work’s persuasive power. If humor establishes the tone, courtship provides the plot. In a broad sense the subject of romantic comedy is the values, attitudes, and practices that shape the play of human desire. The transforming power of love is an overarching theme. More than sexuality, these films portray a drive toward marriage or long-term partnership. Indeed, romantic comedy portrays the stories that allow men and women to reflect upon romance as a personal experience and a social phenomenon. As a result, scholars such as Celestino Deleyto speak of romantic comedy engaging in the discourse of love, representing the shifting practice of, and the evolving ideas about, romance in our culture.

General Overviews

Romantic comedy films are of interest to fans, students of cinema, and scholars. These books provide an understanding of the tradition that can introduce the reader to the principal types, familiar motifs, and canonical films shaping the genre. Grindon 2011 and McDonald 2007 organize the subject and offer a digest of the chief conventions, major historical cycles, and principal works in the field. Babington and Evans 1989 focuses on prominent artists and a more unusual selection of films. Kimmel 2008 offers stories surrounding the production history of classic movies. Mernit 2000 writes a manual for screenwriters. Rowe 1995 develops a feminist perspective. Rubinfeld 2001 applies a social science approach to romantic comedies from 1970 to 1990. Deleyto 2009 offers a more theoretical understanding and argues for the influence of movies on the margin of the genre.

  • Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. Affairs to Remember: The Hollywood Comedy of the Sexes. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1989.

    An eccentric, insightful survey. Chapter 1 addresses Bringing Up Baby (1938) and screwball; chapter two profiles Ernst Lubitsch; chapter 3 covers Bob Hope, Mae West, and Woody Allen; chapter 4 is on the 1950s, particularly Pat and Mike (1952), Pillow Talk (1959), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Douglas Sirk. The final chapter takes stock of romantic comedy in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Deleyto, Celestino. The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009.

    After discussing genre theory, this intelligent book presents a theory of romantic comedy addressing the importance of laughter, the function of the mid-plot, and the space of romantic comedy. Analyses of films on the margins of the genre follow: To Be or Not To Be (1942), Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), Rear Window (1954), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and Before Sunset (2004).

  • Grindon, Leger. The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversies. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    Fluent survey explains the conventions of dramatic conflict, plotting, characters, setting, and humor. The history of the genre since the coming of sound reviews nine distinct cycles, and ten key films are analyzed from Trouble in Paradise (1932) through There’s Something About Mary (1998) and beyond. The literary heritage, function of humor, and cultural politics of the genre are addressed.

  • Kimmel, Daniel M. I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008.

    This popular treatment collects revealing stories about the production history of fifteen well-selected classics including Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), Some Like It Hot (1959), and When Harry Met Sally (1989), among others.

  • McDonald, Tamar Jeffers. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. Short Cuts 34. London: Wallflower, 2007.

    Introduction provides a review of generic iconography and ideology before reviewing four key periods: screwball, the sex comedy, the radical transformation of the 1960s and 1970s, and the neo-traditional patterns of contemporary romantic comedy. Each chapter includes a detailed commentary on a representative film, such as Pillow Talk (1959) or Annie Hall (1977).

  • Mernit, Billy. Writing the Romantic Comedy. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

    A “how to” screenwriting manual presents a well-grounded sense of the history and conventions of the genre with case studies of classic movies. One can analyze humor, but it is impossible to teach someone how to be funny.

  • Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. Texas Film Studies Series. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

    The second half of the book offers a detailed survey of Hollywood romantic comedy from Mae West through Moonstruck (1987), stressing a feminist interpretation of the comic performances of actresses such as Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Marilyn Monroe. After a general introduction emphasizing the antiauthoritarianism and transformation in romantic comedy, Rowe presents a detailed commentary on ten key films.

  • Rubinfeld, Mark D. Bound to Bond: Gender, Genre, and the Hollywood Romantic Comedy. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

    The book offers a quantitative, sociological approach with a range of tables and statistics analyzing the romantic comedy from 1970–1990. Rubinfeld poses four common plot types: pursuit, redemption, foil, and permission. He finds that though some challenging works emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most romantic comedies reinforce orthodox gender roles and traditional family values and support patriarchy.

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