“I think if old Saint Valentine but knew
The way his fête-day’s now commemorated
And if the strange productions met his view
That fill our picture-shops, at any rate, he’d
Be much amused and no doubt marvel, too,
At fame, he surely scarce anticipated.”
From St Valentine’s Day, Mary Eliza Rogers, 1851
Among the strange productions of Valentine’s Day are the annual compilations of the best romantic films, so instead of the usual candidates – Sleepless in Seattle and The Notebook, for example – I’ve chosen ten very good romantic films for my belated Valentine’s Day post: some of them are funny, some sobering, some bittersweet and many unjustly overlooked.
10. Come September(1961)– An absolutely delightful romantic comedy showcasing Rock Hudson’s underappreciated comedic gifts. Hudson plays an American tycoon, who spends his Septembers at his Italian villa with his Italian mistress. He arrives in July to find that his mistress is engaged, his steward has been renting out the villa to American tourists, and the current guests are a gaggle of teenage girls. When their chaperone is injured, Hudson winds up looking after the young charges, counseling them on propriety and virtue while trying to win back his lady love. Co-starring Gina Lollabrigida, Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin, who performs his 1961 hit, Multiplication.
9. Electric Dreams (1984) – A 20thcentury, high tech (for the era) Cyrano, with the three points of the love triangle being the socially awkward architect
Miles (Lenny von Dohlen), the pretty cellist upstairs, Madeline (Virginia Madsen) and Miles’s home computer, “Edgar”. Miles loves Madeline, Madeline loves the duettist who accompanies her through the air ducts, unaware that it is not Miles, but Edgar, and Edgar begins to develop “feelings” for Madeline. The technology may be dated, but the performances are fresh and unpretentious, the musical score is vintage 80s and a nod must go to Bud Cort as the voice of Edgar.
8. Betsy’s Wedding (1990) – Free-spirit aspiring designer Betsy (Molly Ringwald) is marrying buttoned-down banker Jake (Dylan Walsh). Wackiness ensues. This would be no more than a pleasant ensemble comedy except for an utterly charming subplot that involves the budding romance between Betsy’s cop sister and a mobster’s nephew Stevie Dee (Anthony LaPaglia who is terrific). His dogged, formal courtship is both touching and hilarious (“I have the highest respect for your father. Do you think he would be offended if I requested your permission for a kiss good-night.”) Ally Sheedy turns in a very sweet performance as the object of his affection.
7. Love Me Or Leave Me(1955) – This is not a hearts-and-flowers lighthearted comedy, but an earnest biopic of torch singer Ruth Etting and her turbulent marriage to manager/mobster Martin Synder (James Cagney). The ambitious, long-suffering Etting is beautifully played – and sung – by Doris Day, and the volatile relationship is treated with remarkable frankness. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including one for Cagney’s performance, though, unaccountably, not Day’s. It won for best story.
6. Something New(2006) – Wealthy, upscale Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) is moving up the corporate ladder. Brian (Simon Baker) left the corporate world for the blue-collar life of a landscaper. The social and economic differences would have been enough for a love-against-obstacles romantic comedy, but the added hurdle is that Kenya is black and Brian is white. An interracial romance – particularly in a romantic comedy walks a fine line: it either risks being preachy by hammering the racial issue, or being too saccharine in pretending it’s not an issue at all. Screenwriter Kriss Turner and director Sanaa Hamri get it just right. Not a weak link in the cast; Earl Billings is especially charming as Kenya’s pragmatic father.
5. Two for the Road(1967) – This bittersweet tale of a decade in a marriage was ahead of its time for its non-linear storytelling. Instead of a
chronological narrative, the romance and betrayal, exhilaration and trials of Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) and Mark (Albert Finney) are told through a series of road trips that occur during stress points in their marriage. Even after forty years, the film still has a very contemporary feel, and thanks to the assured direction of Stanley Donen and editing of Madeleine Gug and Richard Marden, and the score may be Henry Mancini’s best.
4. Happy Accidents (2000) – Ruby (Marisa Tomei) has a habit of picking fixer-uppers who let her down. Along comes Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio) who is sweet and devoted and the perfect man except for his claim to be a “backtraveler” from the year 2470. Is he from the future, or hopelessly delusional, and, if he’s the perfect man for Ruby, does it matter? Writer, director and editor Brad Anderson deftly meshes romance, mystery, suspense and time travel into an original take on the modern love story.
3. The Whole Wide World (1996) – This was the last small film that Renee Zellweger made before Jerry Maguire. Based on One Who Walked Alone, the
memoir of Novalyne Price, The Whole Wide Worldrecounts Price’s time as a Depression-era Texas schoolteacher, and her friendship and budding romance with prolific fantasy writer Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio). Many romantic films follow the pairing of two eccentrics; here, there is only one, “this morose, ungainly misfit among men”, and the woman who is pragmatic enough to know that there is no future, yet romantic enough to hold out hope a bit too long. Beautifully directed by Dan Ireland; D’Onofrio deserved a lot more recognition for this performance.
2. The Perez Family (1995) – After 20 years in a Cuban prison, Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina) is released and is dispatched to Miami with a group of Marielitos, and to a hoped-for reunion with his wife and daughter. To expedite the process, Perez agrees to form a “family” with the spirited Dorita Perez (Marisa Tomei) and two other Perezes in order to get priority placement with a sponsor. The problem? Perez’s wife, Carmela is comfortably Americanized and involved with a charming police detective, and Perez finds himself falling in love with Dorita.
- Crossing Delancey (1988) – It baffles me that Crossing Delancey is overlooked when people are listing their favorite romantic comedies. It is a fresh, witty, winning tale of the romantic complications of a thirtysomething Manhattanite, predating Sex and the Cityby a decade, and far more engaging. Izzy Grossman lives uptown, plans author events for an upscale independent bookstore and is infatuated with a European novelist. Her Lower East Side grandmother thinks it’s time Izzy found a nice Jewish husband. She engages the local matchmaker and the two old ladies set their sights on Sam, the neighborhood pickle vendor.
Izzy rejects their efforts and tries to foist Sam off on one of her friends while pursuing the novelist, only to figure out that grandma knew best after all. The scenes between Reizl Bozyk, as the grandmother, and Sylvia Miles as the matchmaker are hilarious, the script is sophisticated and clever, and there are probably women who still think of Peter Riegert and “the pickle man”.