There are few things more codified in the film canon than that of the romantic comedy. Silly tales of love, loss, and love again that capture hearts and enrapture minds. They’re a staple of slumber parties, PMS recoveries, and any time you’re in need of a good happy cry. But what a romantic comedy is has changed a lot over time and that isn’t stopping any time soon.
In film the genre had difficult beginnings. American romantic comedies had to change pace after the introduction of the Hays Code in 1930. The Hays Code was Hollywood’s first attempt at self-censorship, in response to the government threatening to do it for them. Because of these new rules, the subgenre of screwball comedies was born. Screwball comedies are romantic comedies that avoid outright sexual tension in order to follow these new regulations. Films would get around the restrictions by relying on innuendo and witty banter in order to get their point across.
Despite the restrictive era of the screwball comedy, the genre pushed on. Many attribute the first modern romantic comedy to be Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night.” The film stars Clark Gable as a newspaperman in need of a scoop and Claudette Colbert as an heiress escaping her father in search of her husband. The movie technically counts as a screwball comedy, but it uses a number of genre conceits that currently describe modern romantic comedies. Some examples of these are the meet-cute, pretending to be nice to someone because you have an ulterior motive, and one main character being a jerk and the other loving them for it. The film would go on to win the 1935 Oscar for best picture, as well become the first film to sweep the major categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best-Adapted Screenplay).
The genre would lose its prominence in the mid-twentieth century but returned with a vengeance in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Within this timeframe, modern classics such as “Pretty Woman,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Jerry Maguire” would premiere to much acclaim within the hearts of young film fans. In its prime, the genre would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for their respective studios, as well as solidify notable genre conventions. But with its success would also come criticism regarding some of the strange plot contrivances that became commonplace in the genre.
The late 2000s and early 2010s then gave way to the subversive rom-com. Romantic comedies that changed the genre conventions weren’t something this era invented, but it is something they perfected. Films such “Don Jon” and “Knocked Up” put a larger emphasis on sex than the genre’s more tame counterparts, and movies like “I Love You, Man” created a sort of bromantic comedy -not an actual term- that had a focus on friendly love rather than romantic love. But despite this move toward subversion, the romantic comedy genre has fallen back into a lull. While romantic comedies will likely never truly go the way of the western, they’ve certainly fallen out of favor. Recent big studio releases in this genre have lost the ability to stick in the public consciousness. Films like “Trainwreck” were lauded for changing up an outdated system, and then were forgotten about within a year or two.
The world of romantic comedies is still in flux. Streaming services are starting to see an interest in the genre again, thanks to Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and more diverse fare like “Crazy Rich Asians.” While the future of the genre is still unclear, it’s safe to say that romantic comedies will stick around for quite some time.