By Maureen Lee Lenker
It’s February, which means it’s a month for romance -- the time of year where flowers, chocolates, and love poems abound. But most importantly for us cinephiles here at Night Owl TV, it’s the time of year where you can devour classic romantic movies with no shame. So if you’re looking for the perfect film to watch with your special someone or to celebrate Valentine’s Day with your gal pals or to merely raise a glass to your awesome self all by your lonesome, we’ve got a classic film for every type of romantic. If nothing else there’s plenty of opportunities here to spend an evening in the company of Cary Grant.
For the Romantic Who Loves to Travel
In the studio era, it was rare for a production to go overseas and take advantage of stunning international locales when it was much more cost effective to shoot on a soundstage. Both of these romances (shot on location in Ireland and Rome respectively) are lush feasts for the eyes taking viewers into the sights and sounds of faraway settings.
1. The Quiet Man (1952)
The verdant green hills of Ireland lend an absolutely stunning backdrop to this romantic tale of an American boxer, Sean Thornton (John Wayne) who moves back to his Irish birthplace and falls in love with the spirited lass Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). Trouble arises when Danaher’s brother refuses to pay her dowry and her new husband won’t fight for her rights. The film is the pinnacle in partnership between director John Ford and his stars O’Hara and Wayne. Both O’Hara and Wayne named this their favorite of their films together as it is the most romantic and deeply emotional of their onscreen pairings. Her fire matches his solid masculinity blow for blow; in the famous scene where they first kiss and she slaps him, O’Hara swung at him with such force that she broke a bone in her hand -- it’s the perfect testament to how well-matched she and Wayne were as an onscreen pair. The film also finds space for quieter romantic moments and a solid comedic payoff at the end when Wayne gives O’Hara a taste of her own medicine.
2. Roman Holiday (1953)
The film that introduced the world to Audrey Hepburn in her first starring role (in which she won an Oscar to boot) is also a touching tale of romance between a charming princess and the journalist who sees the opportunity for the scoop of the century when as they spend the day together. Gregory Peck is utterly delightful in his first comedic role as journalist Joe Bradley who has his cynical heart melted by the princess with an infectious joie de vivre. It was the first American film shot entirely in Italy and it showcased many iconic tourist attractions including the Spanish Steps and the Tiber River. Peck and Hepburn made movie magic (and history) with the scene where he tests the famous “Mouth of Truth” and tricks her into believing his hand has been bitten off -- Peck improvised this moment, provoking a genuine response of terror and relief from Hepburn.
For the Romantic Who Wants a Good Cry
3. Love Story (1970)
It’s a classic “weepie” made past the golden age of the type of women’s pictures that excelled at turning on the waterworks. Catapulting stars Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw to stardom, the film tells the story of preppy Harvard Law student Oliver Barrett and music student Jennifer Cavilleri as they fight to overcome class differences and cancer in their quest for true love. The film marked the screen debut of Tommy Lee Jones, who actually inspired Ryan O’Neal’s character in the film (mixed in with writer Erich Segal’s Harvard roommate Al Gore). It spawned an iconic Oscar winning score and the memorable line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” That may not always be true but if you’re looking for a tearjerker with undeniable chemistry between its two leads and heaps of sentiment, you can’t go wrong with Love Story.
4. A Place in the Sun (1951)
Elizabeth Taylor may forever be linked with Richard Burton in the history of great screen romance but she never had a more perfect on-screen partner than Montgomery Clift. Based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy,” the story tells the rise and fall of George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) as he seeks the “American dream” and romantic happiness. As Angela Vickers and George Eastman, Taylor and Clift are at the peak of their physical beauty. When they dance into the wee hours of the morning their faces fit together as if they were two puzzle pieces made for each other. Their romance is ultimately doomed but so compelling is their chemistry that you almost find yourself rooting for Clift to murder Shelley Winters’ Alice Tripp, the inconvenient first girlfriend in their love triangle. This was Taylor’s first really demanding role as an adult actress, and she formed a lifelong friendship with Clift when he quieted her fears about her acting abilities.
For the Musical Romantic
5. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Nearly every musical has a romantic aspect to it but you can’t beat this tale of movie star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) who falls for chorus girl turned voice of the leading lady Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Reynolds never looked lovelier than in her romantic scenes with Kelly where she is lit to perfection with an alluring periwinkle backdrop. Their romance is conveyed through song and dance and what better way to express the giddiness of the throes of a budding romance than the joyous titular number? Kelly captures the effervescence of a man coming home from a great date with expressive and infectious joy through his dance. You also get such a delightful meet-cute between the two characters with Lockwood jumping into Selden’s car as an escape route and she pretentiously sneers at his profession as a film actor. This is all enhanced by Selden’s embarrassment in the next scene when she jumps out of a cake and is exposed as a far less serious actress than she purported herself to be.
For the Whip-Smart Romantic
6. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is set to marry social climber George Kittredge (John Howard) with her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) on the scene to confound matters. To further complicate the event, photographer Elizabeth Imrie (Ruth Hussey) and reporter Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) arrive to cover the wedding weekend for tabloid Spy magazine. The film is a crackling romantic comedy with sparks flying between Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart; their chemistry is so superb that you’re left guessing until the very last moments who Hepburn will ultimately choose. The film saved Hepburn’s career (she’d been dubbed “box office poison” at the time) and Stewart won an Oscar for his slightly off-type portrayal of a romantic newsman who drunkenly woos Hepburn. His line, “Whiskey is a slap on the back, and champagne's heavy mist before my eyes” is a charming testament to the romanticism of champagne. But the most remarkable thing about the film is its rather feminist portrayal of a woman who must lower her defenses enough to realize she wants to be loved as a flesh and blood woman with faults, rather than as a queen on a pedestal.
7. It Happened One Night (1934)
With its leading actors (Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) and Columbia Studios not expecting much from the film, It Happened One Night went on to shock everyone becoming the first film of only three to win a “grand slam” at the Oscars (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay). It is often cited as the first “screwball comedy” with its madcap tale of an heiress on the run from her family who receives help from a reporter on the lookout for a juicy story. As fate would have it, the mismatched pair fall in love. The film made Frank Capra a beloved director in Hollywood. It features many memorable scenes including one in which Colbert’s Ellie hitchhikes by pulling up her skirt and flashing some leg. Capra was known for his witty, sharp dialogue, which Colbert and Gable execute flawlessly throughout. When Clark Gable appeared in a scene where he’s undressing for bed without an undershirt it sent undershirt sales around the country plummeting. The film is a delightful romantic comedy and a testament to the unexpected impact of star power.
For the Romantic who loves Suspense
8. Notorious (1946)
Although it’s not as well-known as Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954), or North by Northwest (1959), Notorious is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces. Its tale of two spies (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman) who fall in love in the midst of trying to take down a Nazi plot that requires her to marry Claude Rains is the stuff of grand romantic tragedy. Grant and Bergman are luscious together and their erotic chemistry nearly burns up the film stock. Hitchcock got around the production code’s requirement that onscreen kisses not exceed three seconds by filming a delectable two-minute on and off again kiss between the pair that sizzles. Hitchcock also upped his game as a filmmaker experimenting with tracking shots and forced perspective that only enhance the suspense and movie magic at play. But it’s the chemistry between Grant and Bergman that’s present even when they don’t share the screen that makes this film an unforgettable classic.
For a Romantic Looking for a Good Laugh
9. Some Like it Hot (1959)
Many may not think of this film as a romance at first glance but it’s ultimately the tale of mixed up people looking for love in a crazy world. Jack Lemmon’s Jerry in drag (as Daphne) escapes with Joe E. Brown’s millionaire Osgood Fielding III; while Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane falls for Tony Curtis’ Joe. The film is a hysterical tale of cross-dressing, mistaken identity, and the vagaries of romance (and our tendency to make the same mistakes over and over despite our best intentions). The film features flawless comedic timing from its three leads and Lemmon is touchingly believable in his embrace of his feminine identity. Cary Grant appears in many films on this list and inadvertently he makes an appearance here with Tony Curtis mimicking his speech patterns when he masquerades as oil tycoon Junior. Nearly sixty years after its release the film is still comedic gold and reminds us all that when looking for romance, it’s important to remember that “nobody’s perfect.”
For Romantics who love Historical Epics
10. Gone with the Wind (1939)
In perhaps the greatest screen romance ever, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) fight for and with each other against the backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The film is considered AFI’s number two on-screen romance (second only to Casablanca (1942) and holds the top spot in AFI’s movie lines list with “Frankly, My Dear I Don’t Give a Damn.” With a production history as storied and complex as the four-hour epic itself, Gone with the Wind is pure Hollywood legend. Why does this four-hour extravaganza remain a favorite among so many? It has much to offer with its stunning costumes, immortal script, and tale of Scarlett O’Hara’s survival. But what keeps so many coming back year after year is the romance between Rhett and Scarlett. Never were two characters more perfect for each other and the actors embody them to a tee. Gable was America’s first choice for the role and he delivered a knockout performance. Brit Vivien Leigh conquered the mammoth role of Southern Belle Scarlett with aplomb. And they’re backed up by a stellar supporting cast including a subtle turn from Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett’s sister on the home-front and romantic rival. If you’re a costume lover, it’s also worth the watch for Scarlett’s love affair with clothes, including her drapery inspired green velvet gown.
For the Hopeless Romantic
11. An Affair to Remember (1957)
Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, An Affair to Remember is the love story for the most romantic part of our souls. The film was written and directed by Leo McCarey in a remake of his own 1939 hit Love Affair (the film would be remade again in 1994 under the same title). As Terry McKay and Nickie Ferrante, Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant meet onboard an ocean liner and fall desperately in love despite both being attached to other people. They agree to meet in six months’ time atop the Empire State Building to start their life together, but fate intervenes. The film’s conclusion is so emotional that even star Cary Grant said he could never watch the film without crying at the ending. It became an indelible part of movie history in 1993 when Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle referenced the film as the pinnacle of cinematic romance inspiring Meg Ryan’s Annie to meet Tom Hanks’ Sam atop the Empire State Building. Together, the films made the NYC landmark a symbol of romance and the ultimate romantic gesture. Kerr and Grant are magical together; their chemistry and range as actors lending them great emotional depth in a story that might seem silly in the hands of lesser actors. “Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories,” says Kerr’s Terry McKay. Lucky for us, this film gives us plenty.
Whether you’re looking for a tearjerker, a suspenseful yarn, a comedy, or a historical epic, we’ve got you covered. Wishing you a Valentine’s Day filled with movie love.