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Elision of the Classical Paradigm in Romantic Comedy

The paradigm of romantic comedy involves a specific structure and repetition of conventions that the audience expects to see within the genre. Romantic comedy is known for fragmentation, which occurs most fundamentally at the level of eros between the male and female. This subgenre takes place in the public and private spheres and involves a battle of the sexes between intellectual equals who engage one another and eventual come together in union. Classical romantic comedy is concerned with the inextricability of sex, love, and marriage. Both Goodbye, Columbus, and The Owl and the Pussycat exemplify the elision of the classical paradigm of Hollywood Romantic Comedy.

Goodbye, Columbus begins with images of skimpily clad girls in a pool. Images of sensuality are out in the open from the start; there is no sense of anything being hidden, or left to the imagination. The romantics “meet cute” according to convention as Brenda Patimpkin asks Neil Klugman to hold her glasses. She initiates contact, but he is smitten and pursues her. They are an odd couple representing opposites: she is an upper-class, flippant college student from a ‘good family,’ while he is a lower-class, cynical college drop out who lives with relatives.

The elision of the classical paradigm occurs during the wooing of these lovers. After the first encounter, the second movement of romantic comedy is flirtation, characterized by sexy, romantic talk. Repartee should occur in a fusillade of words, double entendres, motifs and jokes. Such talk, however is absent. The flirtation in the film is depicted by the lovers holding hands as we see them walking in the distance, music playing under the image. Devices like this are cheap substitutions. The director also substitutes formal strategy for talk during the scene at the pool where they first make love. Instead of repartee, the director chooses to frenetically cut back to scenes of the roaring party.

The romantic comedy genre is undermined in this way because with the absence of censorship, the need for subtlety has disappeared. There is no need for double entendre when sex is spoken about bluntly and Brenda finds it so easy to disrobe and dive into the pool.

Additionally, Brenda initiates the sex. Unlike the icons of the sex comedy, she is not tricked into this initiation by a male masquerade. Instead, she asks Neil if he loves her and tells him that she is willing to have sex with him whether he loves her or not. The sexual mores of the time allow them to separate love and marriage from sex, and experience sex simply as pleasure. At the same time, both claim to love each other, though it is difficult to believe the honesty of either one. In the end, it is no great tragedy that the lovers don’t end up together because the audience doesn’t believe in the validity of their love in the first place. The ending is not the conventional one involving the union of a happy couple.

The Owl and The Pussycat also involves an odd couple. Felix is a frustrated glasses-wearing, straight-laced, writer while Doris is a loquacious stripper of limited vocabulary. Their conventional primary encounter is hateful; Felix got Doris kicked out of her apartment so she pays a visit to his. She keeps him awake, gets him kicked out of his own apartment, and continues to chatter incessantly once they shack up in a friend’s apartment. There is talk in this instance, certainly. But the talk is empty. The dialogue is direct and on the nose, without subterfuge, metaphor, or wit. With wordplay unnecessary, the words become vulgar. Doris swears incessantly at Felix throughout the first encounter, attempting to diminish his masculinity by throwing slurs at him. She later broaches the topic of sex with the absence of any subtlety. When she finds herself unable to sleep, she blatantly asks him, “You wanna fool around?”

With the myth and convention of the sex comedy being undermined in this way, the genre had to redefine itself according to the sexual mores of its time. As a result, it looks to the past for answers and resurrects the archetypal cycle of romantic comedy. As a result, we see a re-hashing of the odd couple union in The Owl and the Pussy Cat and Goodbye Columbus.

Casper, Drew. Postwar Hollywood: 1946-1962. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Glitre, Kathrina. Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union, 1934-1965. United Kingdom: Manchester UP, 2006.

Film Romantic Comedy Hollywood History


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