Shifting Function and Meaning in Hollywood Romantic Comedy

In Hollywood Romantic Comedy 1934-1965, Katherina Glitre argues that “The structures of comedy have remained relatively consistent, but their functions and meanings have shifted with changing circumstances.” In short, the meanings of romantic comedy are influenced by industrial, historical, and cultural factors.

One important convention of romantic comedy is that of a happy ending. In Goodbye, Columbus, the lovers, Brenda Patimpkin and Neil Klugman are separated at the end. Brenda leaves her diaphragm in her drawer at home and when her parents discover it, Neil accuses her of leaving it on purpose. The relationship ends with Neil storming out and Brenda left crying in the hotel room. We must ask ourselves what this separation means in regards to the films cultural context. The sixties were a time of redefining a culture. Counterculture movements emerged as some began to reject the mainstream. Brenda is a representation of a conformist attitude. She initially acts as though she isn’t concerned what anyone thinks, but in the end she feels compelled to return to her traditional parent’s dinner table. Neil sees this in her and rejects her in return. He is a character who walks on the periphery of society, liberated from traditional institutions, yet having no place in which he fits.

In Goodbye, Columbus the romance is subsumed by the social satire. The satire surrounds the materialism and lifestyle surrounding the upper-class Jewish family aspiring to WASP-ishness. The children are spoiled by their father, especially the youngest. Brenda and her brother have both had nose jobs. The family eats formal dinners served by a maid and are members of a country club. The most gripping display of decadence occurs during the wedding as all of the families converge on the food in a mad rush. In pre-war classical romantic comedies, the satire was reserved for the realm of eros. In this film it moves out of the eros realm and can cast a gaze on society as well. The sixties were a time of reactionary perspectives so it is understandable that this film takes a reactionary position.

Adam’s Rib, as discussed by Glitre also ends on a relatively unstable note, reflective of the culture of the time. A career woman comedy, this film involves a battle between two married lawyers, Amanda and Adam, who argue the same case. Amanda wins this case, using gender equality as the crux of her argument. Much to her chagrin, Adam later tricks her into more or less admitting that her client was, in fact, guilty. After they reconcile, they spend the night in their country home. Adam teases Amanda with a song and Amanda coyly implies that she may run against Adam for a judgeship. Amanda is clearly not the submitted female; as she and Adam continue their battle of the sexes, they are continuing to renegotiate their positions. Yet they each playfully put on their hats before going to bed - his manly and hers feminine. So, ultimately the contradictions found in this ending scene are indicative of the culture of the time. (Glitre 93)

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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