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A Love/Hate Relationship with the AFI's 100 Romances

by Elizabeth,

June 11, 2002

Lists ... shmists... twists... jists... mists... The American Film Institute continues to make them because they usually spark a little controversy and temporarily reignite public interest in the ever-declining medium of movies, providing a nice promotional platform for the AFI and, indirectly, its efforts toward film preservation. Thus, all things considered, I support the list-making because it promotes a worthy cause, even if I can't help but disagree with the way things turn out much of the time.

In its most recent list, "100 Years ... 100 Passions," the AFI has ranked the greatest love stories of the first century of American cinema. That CASABLANCA (1942) came in at #1 was no great surprise. The film is worthy of its legendary status and few would venture to dispute its position as the silver screen's greatest romance. That GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and WEST SIDE STORY (1961) came next also lacked any shock value -- the former, the epitome of a sprawling, epic film romance, and the latter, a modernized Romeo-and-Juliet romantic tragedy as eternal as love itself. But the lack of controversy among the top three vote-getters does not make the list worth complaining about. Indeed, when a consensus exists, it is only proper that the list should reflect it. I also have no complaints about the general trend in the list toward unrequited-love stories. (Seven of the top ten films do not have happily-ever-after endings, and an eighth is ambiguous as to its finale outcome.) Personally, I have always been partial to romances that don't work out in conventional terms, because they give you a taste of perfection and leave the rest of what might have been to your imagination - the imagination being the ultimate romantic medium because it permits brief memories of potent screen moments to evolve into meaningful, personalized fantasies.

My complaints -- and they are personal - are in the details.  Primarily, the AFI voters seem to have been unable to set aside their critical eye and appreciate the sheer emotion of these screen romances without analyzing the writing, lighting, cutting and camera angles they are made of. Two primary examples:

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) is one of the great movie musicals of all time, and its predecessor, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951), though it won a Best Picture Oscar for the innovation of its "American in Paris Ballet" sequence and its contribution to the art of film dance, is another excellent yet somewhat less-worthy film. Both star Gene Kelly, undeniably one of the silver screen's sexiest dancers in pants. However, for all its charms (of which there are many), SINGIN' IN THE RAIN is much more of a satirical comedy than a love story. In fact, romantic chemistry is virtually non-existent in the film. You sure don't see it between Kelly and co-star Debbie Reynolds, and what is there is most evident when Kelly is alone with his umbrella, "dancin' and singin' in the rain." AN AMERICAN IN PARIS on the other hand, is a love story. Though it lacks SINGIN' IN THE RAIN's wit, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and its swaying, Gershwin-scored pas-de-deux between Kelly and Leslie Caron far surpasses the former in the romantic chemistry department. Yet the AFI voters ranked SINGIN' IN THE RAIN 16th on the list, while AN AMERICAN IN PARIS came in at #39. Relatively speaking, in terms of their romantic content, their positions should have been reversed. And to carry the argument still further, BRIGADOON, Kelly's 1954 ballet-romance with long-legged dance dynamo Cyd Charisse, didn't even make the list. Charisse's two specialty numbers in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN had provided that film with a much-needed jolt of sexual chemistry, further diminishing Debbie Reynolds' romantic appeal, and when she and Kelly were finally left alone together in BRIGADOON, the fire they ignited in the heather on the hill was enough to establish theirs as the purest form of love-making-through-dance on screen.  And yet the AFI voters chose to ignore this film entirely.

In a similar example of relative mis-values, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (the list's top two romantic performers) appeared together in four films, two of which made the list: THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) at #44 and BRINGING UP BABY (1938) at #51. Much of the romantic appeal of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is attributable to the added presence of Jimmy Stewart however, and the romantic triangle he anchors in the film makes a comparison with BRINGING UP BABY unfair. Instead, the ranking of BRINGING UP BABY should be reconsidered in the presence of another list no-show, Hepburn and Grant's second teaming of 1938, HOLIDAY. While both HOLIDAY and BRINGING UP BABY can accurately be described as screwball comedies, BRINGING UP BABY, with its leopards, loon calls and dinosaur bones, is far more screwy than HOLIDAY, which for all its eccentricities, is at heart, a love story between two, free-thinking social outcasts. While BRINGING UP BABY is probably a better film overall, and certainly a better comedy, HOLIDAY is a superior love story, and once again, the critical eye of the AFI voters failed to make the distinction between a great film and a great film romance.

For the record, other list features which amazed me were the surprisingly low ranking of THE QUIET MAN (1952) (#76) and the surprisingly high ranking of MY FAIR LADY (1964) (#12). Unquestionably a romance, and one with unique and charming character, THE QUIET MAN is a delightful film about two strong-willed characters (John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara) who are meant for each other and fall in love at first sight, yet require the help of an entire Irish village to surmount the personal and cultural obstacles between them. The romantic and sexual chemistry between Wayne and O'Hara is unmistakable (their kiss in the rain compares favorably to the end of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1961) (#61)), and the only way I can explain THE QUIET MAN's place at #76 is to suggest that the Vietnam-scarred AFI voters probably still find themselves reluctant to acknowledge all-American icon John Wayne in any capacity. In this case, such prejudices are really a shame because THE QUIET MAN is one of Wayne's best performances and one of his least iconic films.

MY FAIR LADY's ranking at #12 surprises me because, like SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, it is a better satire than a love story, and the chemistry simply isn't there. Again, the film's best romantic moments occur when the principal characters (Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison and Jeremy Brett) are alone, singing "I Could Have Danced All Night," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and "On the Street Where You Live" respectively. And while Harrison and Brett's songs are both specifically about Hepburn, her "I Could Have Danced All Night" is as deliberately ambiguous as the romantic plotting of the film itself. It may be a Cinderella story, but the casting of Prince Charming is definitely against type, and it is not altogether clear at the end that he even understands the value of the prize he has won. Though a marvelous movie musical, the strong romantic appeal of MY FAIR LADY to the AFI voters escapes me, and I can only attribute it to the combination of classic love story elements (taken from the Greek myth of Pygmalion which, interestingly enough, did not have a happy ending) and the generic love affair which audiences have always carried on with Audrey Hepburn, no matter her co-star.

In a brief aside, it seems a crime to include such worthy films as SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993) (#45) and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957) (#5) without acknowledging the film that inspired both of them, LOVE AFFAIR (1939) with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Though the original has its short-comings and suffers somewhat from its quick, cost-cutting, 1939 pacing, Dunne captures the joys and sorrows of a woman in love better than any of the leading ladies who have succeeded her, and to leave her performance out seems entirely unfair.

On a positive note, I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion (or relatively high ranking) of such films as A STAR IS BORN (1954) (#43), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991) (#34), ON GOLDEN POND (1981) (#22) and CITY LIGHTS (1931) (#10), all of which evidenced a willingness on the part of some AFI voters to follow their hearts and think a little outside the box.  But when it comes to KING KONG (1933) (#24), the voters appear to have left the box behind entirely and pulled one out of left field.  While definitely a love story, to rank this one-sided, gorilla-loves-constantly-screaming-Fay-Wray romance in the top 25 seems downright bizarre.

Lastly, a few more no-shows which would have made my list: GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1939), WATERLOO BRIDGE (1940), HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)Review, PENNY SERENADE (1941), THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942), THE VALLEY OF DECISION (1945), THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), ROBIN AND MARIAN (1976), and (outside the box) NATIONAL VELVET (1944), THE YEARLING (1946) and HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (1957)Review. Of these eleven films, only three (GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS, WATERLOO BRIDGE and ROBIN AND MARIAN) even made the AFI's list of the 400 nominated films from which the voters were asked to chose their top 100, which to me demonstrates the power of suggestion. Other romantic films the AFI neglected to nominate which might otherwise have made the list include A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935), YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937), OUR TOWN (1940), PEOPLE WILL TALK (1951), INVITATION (1952), THE LONG GRAY LINE (1955), GIANT (1956), MIRACLE IN THE RAIN (1956), THE RAINMAKER (1956), SEPARATE TABLES (1958) and EL CID (1961). Failure to include the majority of these films as nominees was a major oversight on the part of the AFI, which I can't help but attribute to a propensity toward flattering the egos of filmmakers and stars who are still living (and thus, still potential AFI patrons) as well as a desire to line the pockets of the film industry by choosing movies that are more widely available on video and DVD over less-publicized greats. Cynical of me? Yes. Calculating and political of them? Yes. But remember, there is a motive and a method to the madness of these lists which we the audience are not meant to understand or contemplate beyond our ability to count to 100.

2002 Reel Classics, L.L.C.

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