Copyright 1995. Published, "100 Years of Moving Pictures, The Centenary of the Motion Picture" official souvenir magazine. Note: You may notice a few words are spelled in the British form. The publication came out of London.
In 1896, with a camera rolling and Thomas Edison directing, stage performers John Rice and May Irwin kissed. Romance on film was born, exciting the masses. Moralists were shocked when this private act was made public, but viewers wanted more.
In 1914, actress Theda Bara was launched as a "sexual vampire" and the line was blurred between innocence and carnality. Then came Rudolph Valentino. The screen now had idols of both sexes, faces upon which to pin their dreams of love.
The industry was new, and creativity was given a wide hand. Stories such as CAMILLE, rich in pathos, sentimentality, tragedy, and eternal adoration, were perfect vehicles through which to carry a "love conquers all" message. First filmed in 1915 with Clara Kimball Young, Theda Bara revived the infamous role in 1917. Nazimova, with Valentino at her side, brought it alive again in 1921. The most famous version made a screen idol of Robert Taylor, as young Armand, and re-established the career of Greta Garbo, in 1937. A lesser-known rendition was made in Europe in 1984, starring Greta Scacchi.
In the 1920s, ticket sales implied that love and lust weren't only viable; they were universal. Such large-scale acceptance gave way for experimentation into a complex marriage of chaste love and its controversial side, sexuality. This was indeed romance. The boundaries between storyline and truth blurred. Romance films evolved as a reckoning force behind the greater social conscience, and their importance to hearth and home was now without question.
Such private intrusion into public fantasy created the organised monitoring of content, starting an ongoing war between what ticket sales proved the public wanted to see, and what some critics thought the public should see. Industry watchdogs required careful evaluation of film scripts.
This continued through the 1930s. Films skirted regulations with serious looks into the hearts of their characters. Yet a kiss couldn't be intense or too long. Marriage was viewed by censors as an institution rather than an emotional and physical union. The bedroom had one purpose: sleep.
GONE WITIH THE WIND (1939) was one of the most famous examples. Seen as possibly the greatest love story of all time, it walked a line between acceptability and immorality. The character of Scarlett O'Hara was sexually and socially scandalous, not only for the time but because she was a woman. Rhett Butler, her friend, husband, and lover, shocked the public when he uttered the earliest widely-known screen use of profanity -- "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." But he did. And so did the public. They wanted more. Love made the world go round, and people wanted to watch.
Movie relationships during the war years often mirrored life and death. Was love fleeting -- hasty, battle-determined liaisons? Or a blessed constant -- the wife at home, awaiting her husband's return? Film allowed the complexities of life to be dissected for all to view.
While the purely innocent film was still made, it ceased to be a strong draw. Films now regularly incorporated social accountability. Few exhibited this uncertain balance better than WATERLOO BRIDGE (1940). Vivien Leigh, who'd so expertly played Scarlett a year earlier, gave a brilliant portrayal of a young dancer alone in the world except for one dear friend. Torn between an overwhelming love for a soldier she meets during an air raid (Robert Taylor) and the universal need to feed and clothe herself, she becomes a prostitute after hearing that her lover has been killed in battle. Later, when she learns he hasn't died and he comes back for her, she must stoically face her shame, without ruining his good name.
Such a story addressed deeply disturbing social issues -- poverty, prostitution, class structures -- in the guise of an intense, entertaining romance. It showed how the public's tastes for relationship-based films were growing from a once myopic curiosity with sexuality.
When television arrived, the film industry had to reconsider its offerings. Television had even stricter moral codes, and this benefited film romance. It could delve into the genre's complexities; television could not. The official age-specific rating system was created, bringing about the advent of "family" versus "adult" entertainment, and variations in between. In the 1950s, film love seemed to seesaw at either end of the spectrum. They were either drastically innocuous, or overly dramatic and seamy. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) proved just how far into the psyche the movie industry was prepared to delve. Hardly a traditional romance, it nonetheless examined the emotional variations of the human condition, and blatantly showed how love often wears many unsavoury faces.
ROMEO AND JULIET (1968) had an ever-workable storyline. It came to the screen in the 1930s, then in the 1950s, and made its biggest splash in the 1960s as a testament to youthful love and the unfairness of life. Pretty, almost child-faced actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting brought a mournful sense that existence and love may well be little more than coincidence, both tragic and wonderful. The film appealed to older teenagers as well as adults; it offered just enough romantic sensationalism to shock the former and satiate the latter.
At the same time, musical romances flourished as vehicles through which all ages could enjoy a love story. Though such films always held public favour, they were re-heralded as wholesome. Within simple storylines, dancing and singing supported the plot. This renewed the vision of film fantasy. Musical romance offered a wishful view of life. The relationship between Maria and Colonel Von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) was one of the most popular, tender, musical and innocent depictions of a truly clandestine situation -- a Catholic nun falling in love with a man engaged to another woman.
Love, sex, and violence as a package commenced in earnest in the mid-1960s, forecasting a new era. Romance was shot through with a cold-water-in-the-face dose of real life, and the genre had to adapt. Innocence of earlier years was killed. Sex and violence had been employed together before; however, in the decade of freedom and truth, the combination received drastically different treatment.
A European influence infused film with a stark reality previously ignored. Though the world at large was a part of film from its inception, it had been overshadowed by the Hollywood machine since the German, French and Swedish directors moved into town in the 1920s. When the studio system disintegrated, Europe came into its own. Romance was showing an expanded facade. A MAN IN LOVE (1987) was made in Europe under French/Italian direction. It employed both American and European actors, with Peter Coyote and Greta Scacchi in the leads. Coyote was a married American filmmaker in Italy, Scacchi a bit actor in his film. They fell in love, complete with realistic lovemaking, and had to deal with the consequences in their lives. The story ran the gamut of emotions and hardships while holding on to an almost ethereal feel of enduring attachment between the main characters.
Until this point, European styles had been at odds with the cellophane-wrapped view of life presented by Hollywood; the evolving difference was obvious in how romance was treated by all filmmakers. Stories still centred on how people loved, and good versus bad, yet the hardness of reality received equal time against the softness of fantasy. The public finally accepted the sophisticated combination.
Hollywood and Europe had made their peace. Everywhere, love was receiving both idealistic and realistic representation. PRETTY WOMAN (1990), a commercial if not an artistic success, was an American-made film which employed tried-and-trusted plot devices -- hard knocks versus the easy life, class structure struggles, societal hypocrisy -- and turned it into a happy-ever-after fairy tale. It also showed how the industry was still using the screen idol system to bring in audiences; in this case, beautiful, sexy actors Juila Roberts and Richard Gere.
Love and romance on film continue to be idealised as worthy goals. The need to put a new bent on tradition endures, while a determination to retain ideals of true love never waivers. As long as people continue to fall in love, romance films will prosper.