This Valentine’s Day weekend, the major big-screen movie releases are Deadpool, Zoolander 2, and How to Be Single. Here we find proof positive that in Hollywood, romance is dead, or at least on life support. These movies may have admirable qualities — a number of my friends have seen Deadpool and enjoyed it immensely — but I doubt most sensible moviegoers would go to these films expecting a well-told love story. Mainstream Hollywood films that give us such are very few and very far between.
But it wasn’t always so. Most of my romantic-cinema daydreams are in black and white. I thought it fitting on this Valentine’s Day 2016 to pay tribute to a few of my favorite movie love stories from classic cinema.
That Hamilton Woman (1941). This movie tells the story of Admiral Lord Nelson’s illicit affair with Lady Emma Hamilton — not so much historical accuracy, but a whole lot of romance, thanks to Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in their gorgeous prime, a smart, sweet screenplay by R.C. Sheriff, and a sweeping, heartbreaking score by Miklos Rosza. In real life Emma Hamilton may have been an unrepentant social climber, but Leigh plays her as an engaging heroine, a shallow airhead who becomes smarter, wiser, and better as a result of her love for Nelson and who rescues him from distress on several occasions.
Now, Voyager (1942). Paul Henried may not be the most charismatic of actors, but he’s charming as the witty, sophisticated, unhappily married man who brings some much needed romance into the life of abused ex-mental patient Bette Davis, whose relentless emotional abuse by her mother has left her with a crippling lack of self-esteem. Davis blossoms, becoming a confident woman who can face her mother (a hissable Gladys Cooper) without fear (I love the expression that comes across her face as she says, “I’m not afraid,” and realizes she means it) and who can envision and plan a future for herself even if Henried can never be hers. Favorite line: “No one has ever called me ‘darling’ before.”
Random Harvest (1942). 1942 was a great year for the romantic drama. Here we have a soap-opera plot of an amnesiac World War I veteran (Ronald Colman) who finds love with a big-hearted showgirl (Greer Garson), only to forget her when he recovers his original identity. Corny, right? Wrong! Colman and Garson bring this drama to life with sympathy and style, and as we watch it unfold, we totally buy it. Colman gives a solid performance in essentially two roles, as his personality changes when he gets his original memories back and fails to recognize Garson when she re-enters his life. And Garson radiates warmth, compassion, good sense, and good humor. I like her performance here much better than her Oscar-winning turn as the titular Mrs. Miniver the same year.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). My Fair Lady notwithstanding, this film features my favorite Rex Harrison performance as the ghost of the title, a salty sea captain with a sentimental streak that comes out in surprising ways. The female lead, Gene Tierney, may seen a little ordinary by comparison, but this story does not fall into the Twilight school of depressingly colorless human girls who fall for dashing, charismatic nonhuman guys. Tierney’s Mrs. Muir reveals a solid base of courage, sense, and even humor as we get to know her. Like Davis in Now, Voyager, she grows in confidence and wisdom as a result of her relationship, but in the end she must find a way to live without him. Both heroines come out strong. Helping the movie work so well is a lush score by Bernard Herrmann. (Never underestimate the power of a beautiful music score.)
All This, and Heaven Too (1940). In case it’s not already apparent, I like my movie love stories poignant and sad. Of course I get a kick out of a good romantic comedy (It Happened One Night, The African Queen, Singin’ in the Rain), but the tragic romances have my heart, and this one, in which nobleman Charles Boyer and governess Bette Davis fall in love as his possessive, paranoid wife makes life increasingly intolerable for him and his children, is the saddest of the films on this list. If you’re not in the mood to cry, don’t watch it. But if you are, sit back and enjoy a love story that develops slowly, steadily, and movingly, as Davis for once gets to play opposite a leading man who can match her in charisma. Barbara O’Neill is downright horrifying as Boyer’s wife. We can see all too clearly why Boyer is so inexorably drawn to the smart, gentle, empathetic Davis. We root for them even though we know their story cannot end well.