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Fall In Love: The Playlist's Favorite Romantic Comedies

by Oliver Lyttelton
April 27, 2012 10:56 AM
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Trouble In Paradise
"Trouble In Paradise" (1932)
It may be eighty years old, but few rom-coms since have matched the cleverness, wit, sexiness and sheer joy of the meet-cute (a term that barely holds a candle to the sophistication of the film) that opens Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble In Paradise.” The dashing and infamous Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and the gorgeous Lily (Miriam Hopkins) -- both thieves -- are in Venice, and on a date under the guise of being a Baron and a Countess, but it isn’t long before the crooks realize they are in like-minded company. After they flirt by showing what they have lifted off one another over the course of the evening, Gaston closes the deal with a simple rhetorical question, “You know the man that walked into the bank of Constaninople, and then walked out with the bank of Constantinople?” It’s love. Fast-forward and Gaston and Lily are happily together, scheming their way around Europe, when Gaston sets his eyes on Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the widowed owner of a lucrative cosmetics company. With more money than she knows what to do with, Gaston wheedles his way into becoming her personal secretary, taking over both her business and personal finances with an end game to make off with as much cash as he can. But of course, he starts falling for her too, and Gaston is forced to choose between his love of money and the love of his life. Based on a play, the film isn’t exactly cinematic, but it hardly matters when the wordplay is as sharp and dazzling as it is here. Marshall carries the film with a confident swagger that makes you believe this man could work his way into the heart and business of a woman in a matter of weeks. And Hopkins and Francis are no mere shells, showing two wildly different women -- one cool and collected, the other impulsive and passionate -- who both have plenty to offer Gaston. It’s a tricky balancing act but the film’s finale, which sees Lubitsch masterfully write his way to an ending that sees all three get what they want and then mirror the opening sequence to top it all off (has pickpocketing ever been done as an act of affection since?), is a total joy to behold. Yes, the film is a total fantasy -- two thieves moving from European capital to another, swindling their way through life -- but Lubitsch knows if the feelings aren’t genuine it won’t work, and by the end of the picture, you really are rooting for Gaston to make the right choice. It’s hard to explain just how brilliant and breezy (the movie runs at a crisp 82 minutes), deeply romantic and laugh out loud funny “Trouble In Paradise” is without just rolling out a bunch of quotes, but this one, spoken by Lily trying to hang on to her man, sums it up best: “Darling, remember, you are Gaston Monescu. You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don't become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos.” Divine. -- Kevin Jagernauth

It Happened One Night
“It Happened One Night” (1934)
While Howard Hawks' “His Girl Friday” is a wonderful almost anti-romantic comedy and perhaps considered the blueprint for couples that have to duke it out before they can fall in love, perhaps an even more pugnacious would-be relationship film is Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night.” The first film to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay and only two other films have done that since), while “It Happened One Night” is often considered a classic romantic comedy, it’s actually quite sarcastic and much more of a traditional screwball comedy with its elbow-to-the-ribs repartees. And to be blunt about it, it’s not that romantic. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert star as a rakish newspaper reporter and a pampered and recently married heiress who fall for each other on a cross-country trip despite their clashing temperaments. The pair are as mismatched as can be; she’s trying to get out from under her overbearing father’s thumb (who’s trying to annul her marriage) and runs away and he selfishly smells the scoop of the century when he realizes who she is. What ensues are almost corrosive verbal fireworks between the two. He thinks she’s a spoiled brat, and she believes he’s a gruff, self-serving jackass. While they’re both on the mark, this witty, hilarious picture, written by Capra-regular Robert Riskin, makes the most of this unlikely pair with its jagged and droll battle-of-the-sexes humor and unsentimental approach to romance. There’s a lot of deep and understated affection in the comedy, but the way the picture uses diverting sharp barbs to mask those sentiments is incredibly sophisticated for its time. Then again, maybe this movie just indicates that I was born four decades too late. Extra bonus points. I’ve always loved a wisenheimer and Clark Cable’s character in the film is a big influence of one of my most beloved wiseasses of all time: good ol’ Bugs Bunny. -- RP

Two For The Road
“Two For The Road” (1967)
Landing smack-dab in the middle of three '60s films depicting fractured relationships with a French New Wave influence to accompany it (the other two being the Julie Christie vehicles “Darling” and “Petulia”), Stanley Donen's 1967 gem “Two For the Road” excels above the rest by delving beneath its surface romantic-comedy appearance to its characters' romantic desperation underneath. Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn play the doomed couple in question, wondering over the course of a European vacation about the solution to their marriage crisis, told in a near-experimental non-linear fashion, and the result is a beautiful travelogue, filled with still-relevant insights, a stellar Henry Mancini score, and Frederic Raphael's bold, witty screenplay at its core. The film is dated, sure, but never in an embarrassing way. Hepburn's eccentric fashion choices (read: leather pantsuits) still somehow look incredible, and the slightly stale observations (What kind of people just sit in a restaurant and don't say one word to each other?" Finney asks Hepburn during dinner) are rescued by Finney and Hepburn's flawless chemistry and comedic timing. They aim for that conflicted feeling of simultaneous hatred mixed with undeniable affection, and it's to both actors' credit that they shed any self-image worries to portray it accurately. “Annie Hall” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” would be nothing without these radical genre attempts, so you owe it to yourself to catch up on this Donen classic, if you haven't already. -- Charlie Schmidlin

High Fidelity
“High Fidelity” (2000)
Is "High Fidelity" a romantic comedy devoid of romance? The main thrust of Stephen Frears’ (seamlessly relocated from London to Chicago) adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel comes when John Cusack’s Rob Gordon splits up with his long-time girlfriend Laura, prompting him to go back and pick over the bones of his Top 5 Break-Ups. It’s all rather more tragic than it is romantic, and as a result the associated comedic moments are dry and sardonic. This is a very different John Cusack romantic lead – while Lloyd Dobler stood outside his girl’s window holding a boombox, the laconic Rob Gordon stands in the same place shouting bitter obscenities. Even as the story progresses and the outlook becomes brighter, the romance is still decidedly lacking in areas which are usually ripe for it – a sex scene and a proposal, in particular. But while the romance may be lacking, the things that you associate with it aren’t. "High Fidelity" is about learning how to love someone, the importance of companionship, and the beauty in two people simply being able to make one another happy. That brings with it an authenticity, which -- coupled with a stunning musical backdrop and a pitch-perfect, fourth-wall breaking performance from John Cusack –- sets it apart from the crowd, while ultimately remaining just as sweet and life-affirming as so many of its peers. -- Joe Cunningham

Harold And Maude
"Harold and Maude" (1971)
As far as loveable rom-com couples go, it's hard to look past Hal Ashby’s "Harold and Maude." It's the kind of film I can't really imagine being made today, with the story centering on the innocent romance between the young death-obsessed Harold (played by Bud Cort) and the 79-year-old and carefree Dame Marjorie “Maude” Chardin (Ruth Gordon). The film's setup of Cat Stevens singing "Don't Be Shy," as Harold methodically goes through the motions of faking his own death, to the complete lack of amusement or shock of his mother who walks in on him, sets the tone beautifully for this romantic comedy, that balances its blackish heart with a sweet first love/coming of age story. Harold and Maude meet at a mutual stranger’s funeral, and Harold falls hard for Maude, who shows him there is more to life than death e.g. flowers, dancing and playing the banjo, which in the hands of a lesser actress would be insufferably twee. Though Cort was in his early 20s when the film was made, his wide-eyed stare and floppy hair make him appear eternally boyish, in contrast with Gordon’s Maude, who is in no way the graceful ageing lady – but as a couple they are incredibly endearing, and the film's effective statement of a deep connection winning over superficiality in the game of love should not be overlooked. Laughs come courtesy of Harold’s idiot mother who tries to set him up with various prospective wives, who he frightens off with more phony, gore-filled suicide attempts so he can instead go on adventures with Maude and her petty-crime sprees. Ashby made the inspired choice of having Cat Stevens soundtrack the film, perfectly underscoring some of the sadder moments, to the point of tears on more than one occasion for this writer. In fact, it's the film's mix of deadpan humour and heartfelt emotions that make it so adorable and continuously watchable. -- Sam Chater

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  • Nia | May 8, 2012 11:08 AMReply

    well its a "omantic comedies" list so why Punch Drunk Love and Berfore Sunrise/Sunset should even be mentioned I dont understand Eternal Sunshine is probably my fav movie - hadnt realized it coukd be considered a rom-com so yeah! I've got a weak point for Bridget Jones 1 and I'm glad Bridesmais wasnt mentioned cause - over-rated much?!

  • Nia | May 8, 2012 11:10 AM

    oh god the typos: "well its a "romantic comedies" list so why Punch Drunk Love and Before Sunrise/Sunset should even be mentioned I dont understand. Eternal Sunshine is probably my fav movie - hadnt realized it could be considered a rom-com so yeah! I've got a weak point for Bridget Jones 1 and I'm glad Bridesmais wasnt mentioned cause - over-rated much?!

  • Lilly | May 3, 2012 2:32 PMReply

    I love My Man Godfrey, William Powell is one of my all-time favorite actors he and Carole Lombard had such great chemistry in that movie. I love the part where she kissed him and he looks at her all befuddled and tries to walk away with as much of his dignity as he can, but you know she got to him.

  • Domi Arcangeli | May 1, 2012 9:27 AMReply

    Uhm... HighFidelity is way overrated, and I hate not seeing "Punch-Drunk Love, by my favorite P.T. Anderson, but again, after seeing-in the same article - Stanley Donen's very charming, but aged and very telephoned mainstream fare like "Two for the Roads",preferred to 2 classic's of the same Time, Schlesinger's much more poignant, unforgettable "Darling" (Best Actress Oscar to Julie Christie and to its Screenplay from the divine Frederic Raphael,who also penned the way minor,if still sophisticated,"Two for the Roads") and,then, one of the most innovative,brilliant,if unsettling, romantic bitter sweet comedies of all time, Richard Lester's masterpiece"Petulia"(1968) starring also Julie Christie (whom by the way, had turned down "Two for the Road" finding it less unique than the other two!) at her very top, and lit by genius Nicolas Roeg,with a dazzling,unforgettable production design by Tony Walton and Dean Tavoularis (Academy Award for Apocalypse Now,1980), well, after such considerations, I am not surprised to see memorable titles left out of much more less memorable others!
    Sorry! It started real well by remembering a real gem, like, 1936's Carol Lombard's classic masterpiece "My Man's Godfrey",but it's been going down, citing a few well known and more conventional films after another!
    By the way, since, we love Julie Christie, hey, i don't know if the true Classic, "Shampoo"(1975), could be really considered somewhat of a romantic comedy also; and,even though there's a lot of romance at the end, the film is more focused on developing its deeply flawed characters,while portraying with incredible Gusto,unfolding with wit and some of the most clever odd moments ever seen in a mainstream huge film,an array of situations that remain classic and still completely true, even today! That yes, was an incredible film who should be cited more often, WOW, if I only think about such a phenomenal script by Robert Towne(probably his very best, right next to "Chinatown") so insightful and disenchanted in describing that riot of a plot, yet always with the firm realism necessary to nail, once and forever, the absolute,corrupted game between love,power,politic's and,of course, hair and appearance, in one of the finest and most sophisticated,haunting portraits of LA, or better, Beverly Hills, ever, and i mean, truly ever filmed,so far,lining up a cast of stars that besides the already cited,Christie, truly divine here,portraying the jaded Jackie Shawn, but also, Warren Beatty, probably at his very peak, both as a movie star and as a clever Producer and strength, behind this incredible film, but also a smashing supporting Cast, featuring some of its Stars' Best Performances ever: Goldie Hawn (truly never so measured and touching as in this one,ever again!), Lee Grant (truly incredible and rightly Awarded by an Oscar for her great supporting turn as the most wealthy and most unhappy of the Beverly Hills wives ever seen on screen!),the outstanding Jack Warden, here also probably getting his most defining role of his long Film and Stage Career, and even Tony Bill and Carrie Fisher, Andrew Stevens or others classic Hollywood's characters directed and cast as their most finest! Hal Ashby ("Harold and Maude" and "Being There", and that's saying something, isn't it?) directed this masterpiece, whose fame, directors and cast should be remembered way more often! If you haven't seen it, this is a MUST!! Forget "High Fidelity", please...... lol

  • jimmiescoffee | April 30, 2012 9:00 PMReply

    i like 'High Fidelity' but think its very overrated.

  • Luke | April 29, 2012 7:00 PMReply

    I was surprised to see Punch-Drunk Love didn't make the list.

  • Lucy | April 29, 2012 6:20 PMReply

    Haha great picks, some of my favorites! :) I agree with some of the other posters Before Sunrise and Before Sunset ( the latter is my favorite) also You've Got Mail I don't know why but that movie is so damn charming.

  • Rosanna | April 29, 2012 12:15 PMReply

    FINALLY you write about the only genre of film worth writing about!

  • Jorinhs | April 28, 2012 7:50 AMReply

    Give a listen at my aternative soundtrack to Eternal:)

  • Milan | April 27, 2012 8:02 PMReply

    Grosse Pointe Blank. That is all.

  • Dan | April 27, 2012 5:35 PMReply

    Fuck overboard. and i agree with whoever said the apartment. that is all.

  • Lou | April 27, 2012 3:33 PMReply

    Definitely, maybe? The neighbour's grass? The apartment? Indiscreet?

  • shark | April 27, 2012 2:19 PMReply

    Really interesting list. Hmmm...if I were restricted to films not listed here for my favorite rom-coms list...

    Down With Love - It's so artificial, and yet that artificiality is its entire point, acknowledging that the battle of the sexes is a silly facade. And Zellweger and McGregor (and Hyde Pierce and Paulson) have NEVER been better. And I can't help but wonder if Pierce and Paulson were deliberately cast, as Pierce is out gay and Paulson is out lesbian.
    Music and Lyrics - Okay, so it's not directed with much flair or anything other than plain competence. That aside, Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore just WORK. And if nothing else, the music is fucking amazing. I still listen to Pop! Goes My Heart and Way Back into Love all the time.
    Punch-Drunk Love - Well, duh. I don't know what I can say here that hasn't been said elsewhere, but a film that manages to turn Sandler's manchild instincts into a source of strength rather than a crippling flaw is impressive. Also, it's kind of a super-hero film. Or an alien film. Kind of open to interpretation.
    WALL-E - Okay, so it's also an animated science fiction film. But the core story is about a lonely janitor who meets a dream girl and then EARNS her love the hard way, following her across the galaxy and beating his programming just to fulfill HER objective. Okay, granted, you could take it as the ultimate Internet Nice Guy story, but I choose not to, okay?
    Ninotchka - God, I wish Garbo had been a comedy star. Knowing this is her only major comedy role is DEVASTATING, because she takes to it like a fish in water. Or like a conservative politician at an NRA meeting. Well, you get the idea.
    Raising Arizona - Because romantic comedies don't have to be about meet-cutes. Some of the best are about husbands and wives falling back into love with each other, or renewing their commitment, or proving themselves to each other. And I can't think of many screen couples I wanted to succeed while watching the film more than Hi and Ed.
    Adam's Rib - Another terrific dissection of the BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Spencer Tracy was always sort of manly, but he tended to be best at playing deeply empathetic characters with a more feminine sense of understanding for his fellow man, and so his match with Hepburn is screen bliss, a hard-driving woman and a sympathetic man, each testing at the boundaries of their gender while at each other's throats.
    What's Up, Doc? - because before seeing this movie, I hated Barbra Streisand. And now I can't. Also because Ryan O'Neal is a seriously underrated actor (or he was just used well in three masterpieces: Doc, Paper Moon, and Barry Lyndon). And that chase down the streets of San Francisco is pure madcap bliss.
    Moonstruck - I guess I'd have to say Nic Cage was never better than as a goofy romantic figure. I mean, I know it's cheesy and maybe full of stereotypes, but every actor brings these stereotypes into the realm of living, breathing humans. Not just Cage and the divine Cher, but Dukakis, Gardenia, Mahoney, Aiello, and the rest.

  • TheoC | April 27, 2012 12:24 PMReply

    Oh Overboard or "that Kurt Russell date rape movie".

    Nice list all the same.

  • Shala | April 27, 2012 12:17 PMReply

    Corey, I was also born in November '81 and agree with all your sentiments on "Reality Bites". Great list from everyone. Glad to see "Eternal Sunshine" but also disappointed not to see "Before Sunrise/Sunset" probably my favorite of all.

  • Kyle | April 27, 2012 11:28 AMReply

    I agree, You've done a really great job with this, though its a shame to not see Before Sunrise/Sunset or Punch Drunk Love featured (among others)

    Would Rushmore count a romantic comedy? it focuses on a (twisted) love triangle and is damn funny

  • cory everett | April 27, 2012 11:31 AM

    The list was really just each person picking one (as opposed to us collectively deciding our favorites and then everyone writing up one) and mine came down to "Reality Bites" vs. "Punch-Drunk Love." Went with RB just because I've seen it more times.

  • brace | April 27, 2012 11:25 AMReply

    Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite romantic comedies ever along with these mentioned here.

  • kris | April 27, 2012 11:22 AMReply

    great list. also
    Breakfast at Tiffany's
    Roman Holiday
    The Philadelphia Story
    My Best Friends Wedding

  • anonymous | May 9, 2012 2:34 AM

    "and while it doesn't quite hit the heights of "Annie Hall" and "When Harry Met Sally" that it was aiming for (read our review here), it's as good a stab at the genre as we've had in recent years. "

    What about 500 Days of Summer and Crazy,Stupid Love? They weren't bad.

    " Martin Scorsese’s regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus – who lends “Broadcast News” a cinematic look that certainly breaks away from the sitcom-level look of most romantic comedies today."

    A lot of recent romantic comedies really do have mediocre cinematography. I like it when the cinematography actually adds to the movie.

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