When’s the last time a movie made you cry? (Admission prices for 3-D blockbusters don’t count)
Years ago Hollywood used what were known as melodramas, tearjerkers, or weepies to make their theater turnstiles hum with female patrons, particularly on Valentine’s Day. Their stories relied upon the heroism, sacrifice, and devotion of the lead actors (Always a heterosexual couple in those days) to triumph over misfortune and reunite in time for a heartfelt kiss.
Sometimes they did not, which made their sacrifices and the resultant tragedy seem that much greater. That alternative did not necessarily mean those films were more realistic or truer to life. But if art does imitate life, the depth of a screen couple’s unhappiness was a prime component in the exaltation experienced when their attachment to one another triumphed over adversity—a feeling songwriter Cole Porter referred to as "this thing called love."
Certain narratives and situations tended to be repeated or imitated if the original story or the film adapted from it was successful. Audiences and critics rewarded actors and directors for their work in such films, and expected to see them in similar romantic films. Though they might have been successful in other genres, many of these films are recognized as their finest work.
Film director Sidney Lumet was quoted in an interview with Charlie Rose that “in a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story." The best romantic films combine both of these elements--the commonplace and the exceptional--to create an unforgettable movie experience.
Here is one baby boomer’s list of a dozen film romances that are almost guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye on Valentine’s Day (All available on video, DVD, or digital streaming).
Though Leo Tolstoy's story about a love affair between a Russian aristocrat and her officer lover, including a version entitled "Love," no other actress before or since could express the passion of a doomed romance like the "Divine One," Greta Garbo. This is one of her best.
Perhaps the most poignant screen romance. Two ordinary people meet in London subway and have a torrid affair. Too in love to give each other up and too decent not to, they experience all the remorse and longing author Noel Coward can dish out. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are superb as the leads, and you'll never listen to Rachmaninoff's "Second Piano Concerto" the same way again.
The touchstone for all romantic films. The fact that Hollywood has not tried to remake this film in seventy years testifies to the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. No other film could make a line like "Here's looking at you, kid" so memorable.
This expressionistic film by director Fritz Lang, entitled "Der mude Tod" (Weary Death) in German, tells the story of a how Death offers a woman three chances to save her lover if she can find someone willing to take his place. A fascinating, memorable silent film that paved the way for "Metropolis" and all of Lang's future films in America.
Romance films don't necessarily need the backdrop of war and revolution to be successful, but they do create the impediments that make for fine tearjerkers. Omar Sharif and Julie Christie are excellent as the star-crossed lovers, an emotionally stirring score and Oscar-winning cinematography make this the best romance among all of director David Lean's work.
The English Patient
Getting awfully close to the present with this one, but Ralph Fiennes is one of today's best romantic actors. He along with Kristin Scott-Thomas and the rest of the cast make this Anthony Minghella film of his novel one of the screen's most haunting adaptations. Next time, try taking the train.
Few people remember, but Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer were great romantic stars back in the nineteen-thirties. Though director Leo McCarey tried to duplicate this film with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and Nora Ephron imitated him with her "Sleepless in Seattle," the original tops the others in terms of genuine romance.
The title says it all. This adaptation of Erich Segal's novel was one of the first blockbusters of the 1970s. It introduced a schmaltzy catch-phrase and dying heroine, yet Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw's performances enable this film to rise above all others with the same theme or title.
Here Cary Grant with his favorite co-star (aside from Katherine Hepburn) Irene Dunne suffer the hardship of an unborn child. Director George Stevens makes them and their situation touching, believable, and memorable.
One of film's great romantic leads, Ronald Colman, makes the viewer care deeply whether he'll ever recover his memory and reunite with the woman he loves, Greer Garson. Done what seems like a thousand times, yet this version is still the best.
Romeo and Juliet
Though Shakespeare's play of lovers from rival families has been filmed numerous times, Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version was the first to employ actors, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, whose ages approximated those of the title characters. That may have made the fate of these star-crossed lovers more believable, but their performances and the production in general certainly helped.
Getting perilously close to the present again, but Leonardo DeCaprio's performance confirmed him as the other quintessential romantic leading man of this century. Kate Winslet and James Cameron's spare-no-expense sinking of the historic ship certainly helped, but DeCaprio's performance gave the story a tear-jerking conviction few teenage girls could resist.