For many pop-culture websites, which we will not name here, the history of cinema apparently begins somewhere around the release of “Star Wars” (1977), with almost everything that preceded it to the big screen being sloughed off as quaint, forgettable and irrelevant.
It’s the sort of thing that people who love movies and movie history can often ignore with the roll of an eye, but when one site recently trumpeted its list of the 50 Best Rom-Coms of All Time — which featured exactly one movie made before 1980 and zero prior to 1970 — we could sit by no longer. (Audiences laughed and fell in love even before Meg Ryan was even born, if you can believe it.)
Here is an alphabetical list of 50 classic romantic comedies that merely scratches the surface of great movies made during ye olden times of 1979 and earlier:
“The Awful Truth” (1937): Cary Grant and Irene Dunne star as a couple who can’t stay married, only to discover that they can’t stay divorced either. But they can’t court each other until each breaks up the other’s new romance.
“Ball of Fire” (1941): Gangster’s moll Barbara Stanwyck hides out with a troupe of encyclopedia-writing brainiacs, led by the shy but sexy Gary Cooper — before long, she’s taught them a lot about hep-cat lingo and hot jazz, with Cooper finding her to be a most engaging tutor.
“Barefoot in the Park” (1967): In the adaptation of Neil Simon’s Broadway hit, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford star as a pair of newlyweds wondering if the differences in personality that brought them together — she’s a free-spirit, he’s kind of a stuffed-shirt — will become a hindrance now that they’re married.
“Bringing Up Baby” (1938): Cary Grant is a dinosaur expert literally swept off his feet by daffy heiress Katharine Hepburn, as they find themselves in pursuit of a leopard and a Brontosaurus bone in this legendarily fast-paced farce.
“Charade” (1963): Recently-widowed Audrey Hepburn can’t decide if she’s falling in love with Cary Grant or if he’s out to kill her for her late husband’s stolen fortune in this sprightly caper comedy.
“Christmas in Connecticut” (1945): Barbara Stanwyck stars as a magazine columnist who’s the Martha Stewart of her day, except that she’s a total fake who lives in a one-bedroom apartment while writing about cooking and housekeeping at her Connecticut estate. When her editor makes her host war hero Dennis Morgan over the holidays, their instant connection threatens her journalistic scam.
“Claudine” (1974): Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones get together in this charming working-class romance, despite Claudine’s children’s suspicions about his intentions and her worries that getting into a relationship will jeopardize the family’s already precarious finances.
“Cousin Cousine” (1975): This sexy, Oscar-nominated French comedy about a pair of cousins-by-marriage (Marie-Christine Barrault, Victor Lanoux) who discover they’ve got a lot more in common with each other than they do with their respective spouses was brilliantly remade in 1989 as “Cousins.”
“Desk Set” (1957): Computer engineer Spencer Tracy falls for research librarian Katharine Hepburn, even as she’s sure his “electronic brain” is going to put her and her whole department out of work in this sparkling, banter-filled romance written by Nora Ephron’s parents, Henry and Phoebe.
“Destry Rides Again” (1939): Few screen actors have had such wildly different screen personas as James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, which is probably why they’ve got such great chemistry as a violence-eschewing sheriff and the saloon singer who falls for him.
“Foul Play” (1978): Goldie Hawn has enough screen chemistry to turn Chevy Chase into a viable romantic lead, as they play (respectively) a librarian and a cop who get caught up in an assassination attempt in this fizzy spoof of Hitchcock movies.
“The Freshman” (1925): Harold Lloyd is the laughing-stock of his college, but he’s determined to become the big man on campus. He joins the football team and, after some hilarious mishaps, winds up being the hero of the gridiron and getting the girl (Jobyna Ralston).
“Funny Face” (1957) Fashion photographer Fred Astaire and beatnik bookstore clerk Audrey Hepburn come from different worlds, but between the glories of Paris in the springtime and the songs of George Gershwin, who can resist falling in love?
“The Gay Divorcee” (1934) One of many films in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers endure misunderstandings and mistaken identities as they dance their way to romance, but this is one of the best, featuring outstanding choreography and a deep bench of wisecracking second bananas.
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953): Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell get their men (and, in Monroe’s case, their diamonds) as a pair of showgirls and steadfast friends on a trans-Atlantic voyage.
“Harold and Maude” (1971): Death-obsessed young Harold (Bud Cort) finds the woman of his dreams in septuagenarian Maude (Ruth Gordon) — a Holocaust survivor determined to live life to the fullest — in this beloved cult classic.
“Heaven Can Wait” (1978): Pro footballer Warren Beatty gets plucked from Earth prematurely due to a clerical error, and when he’s brought back to life in a millionaire’s body, he has to figure out how to resume his sports career while also falling in love with environmental activist Julie Christie.
“His Girl Friday” (1940): Rosalind Russell is a brash reporter looking to retire, but her ex-husband — and editor — Cary Grant knows she prefers deadlines to domesticity in this breathtakingly fast-talking screwball comedy, featuring Ralph Bellamy in the quintessential “Baxter” role.
“Holiday” (1938): Cary Grant stars as a young man whose bohemian dreams are dismissed by the family of his wealthy fiancée (Doris Nolan) — except for her sister (Katharine Hepburn), who might wind up being a better match for him.
“Holiday Affair” (1949): To soften Robert Mitchum’s image after his marijuana arrest, RKO cast him opposite young up-and-comer Janet Leigh; he’s got dreams of moving west to build boats, she’s a war widow raising a young son on her own, and they’ve got palpable screen chemistry.
“How to Steal a Million” (1966): Audrey Hepburn hires art thief Peter O’Toole — or is he? — to help her break into a museum and steal her father’s forgery of a Cellini statue before an insurance investigator can expose the fraud. It’s a caper that forces both of them into some very confined spaces, but neither seems to mind all that much.
“I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945): In this classic from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Wendy Hiller stars as a young woman who has chosen to marry for money rather than for love — but then has second thoughts when fog prevents her from getting to her fiancé’s private island, forcing her to spend time with the handsome and charming Roger Livesey.
“It Happened One Night” (1934): This Oscar-winner provided an oft-repeated blueprint for romantic comedies, as runaway heiress Claudette Colbert and reporter Clark Gable snipe at each other and fall in love while hitchhiking cross-country.
“The Lady Eve” (1941): Wealthy and befuddled entomologist Henry Fonda is no match for gold-digger Barbara Stanwyck — but the player finds herself played as she falls in love with the big, rich goofball in this Preston Sturges classic.
“Lover Come Back” (1961): Advertising exec Doris Day falls for shy, awkward scientist Rock Hudson — never realizing that Hudson is actually her bitterest rival on Madison Avenue, a womanizing playboy who uses booze and showgirls to steal away her clients.
“Masculin Féminin” (1966): Even Jean-Luc Godard isn’t utterly immune to the charms of the rom-com, as nerdy Jean-Pierre Léaud pursues singer Chantal Goya against the backdrop of 1960s Paris youth culture in a film Godard dedicated to “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.”
“Midnight” (1939): A fizzy farce of mistaken identity, this spin on the Cinderella story features Claudette Colbert as a penniless showgirl who finds a fairy godmother in John Barrymore, who sets her up in style so she can steal away the latest boyfriend of Barrymore’s wife Mary Astor. The arrival of Don Ameche, as a Paris cabbie smitten with Colbert, complicates matters deliciously.
“The More the Merrier” (1943): Because of the wartime housing crisis, Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea wind up in the same apartment, with third roommate Charles Coburn doing his best as a matchmaker for the reluctant couple.
“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (1941): Alfred Hitchcock’s only romantic comedy shows he could have been the master of that genre as well, with Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery as a squabbling couple who discover they’re no longer legally married. Despite the director’s reputation for darker material, he has a gift for farce as well — there’s a restaurant segment and a Ferris-wheel scene that are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
“My Favorite Wife” (1940): After years lost at sea, Irene Dunne gets rescued from an island and brought home, only to discover that she’s been declared dead and that husband Cary Grant has just remarried. Great supporting bits from Gail Patrick (as a classic “send them to boarding school” stepmother) and Randolph Scott (Dunne’s island-mate in the movie, Grant’s intimate friend in real life).
“My Man Godfrey” (1936): Ditzy heiress Carole Lombard finds “forgotten man” William Powell in a scavenger hunt and then brings him home to be her protégé. This quintessential screwball comedy features a quintessential screwball supporting cast, including Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, Mischa Auer, and Gail Patrick.
“The Navigator” (1924): Director Buster Keaton stars as a hapless millionaire who gets stranded on a boat with the equally hapless (and equally wealthy) Kathryn McGuire. Despite being pampered and spoiled, the two figure out how keep the boat afloat and find safe harbor, falling in love along the way.
“Ninotchka” (1939): This Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece (co-written by Billy Wilder) stars Greta Garbo as a no-nonsense Soviet functionary who is seduced by Paris, champagne, and Melvyn Douglas (not necessarily in that order) in this sparkling and brilliantly funny love story.
“Nothing Sacred” (1937): Carole Lombard fakes a terminal illness, with reporter Fredric March turning her into a sob story from coast to coast. Complications arise as the truth surfaces just as the two of them are falling madly in love in this raucous comedy.
“The Palm Beach Story” (1942): Claudette Colbert travels to Florida to marry a millionaire so that she can underwrite the inventions of penniless, soon-to-be-ex-husband Joel McCrea. McCrea turns up just as Colbert is getting her hooks into Rudy Vallee, whose sister Mary Astor likes the looks of McCrea in this breathlessly energetic and outrageous farce from Preston Sturges.
“Paris When It Sizzles” (1964): William Holden stars as a boozy writer who’s got one weekend to finish his unstarted new screenplay, imagining himself and typist Audrey Hepburn as the protagonists of the movie he keeps writing and rewriting, hopping around between genres, character motivations, and plot twists.
“The Philadelphia Story” (1940): Katharine Hepburn’s heiress prepares for her second trip down the aisle, despite the presence of tabloid-news reporters James Steward and Ruth Hussey and the charming machinations of first husband Cary Grant. If rom-coms have a Platonic ideal, this might be it.
“Pillow Talk” (1959): Interior decorator Doris Day despises womanizing playboy Rock Hudson, with whom she shares a party line, but since she has no idea what he looks like, she falls madly for him as he pretends to be shy, awkward, and in need of romantic education.
“Remember the Night” (1940): District attorney Fred MacMurray brings shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck home to Indiana with him for Christmas, and as she spends time with his loving family, he sees a completely different side of her in witty and sentimental romance (written by Preston Sturges — it’s the last film he wrote but didn’t direct).
“Roman Holiday” (1953): Setting the tone for countless Hallmark movies about royals playing hooky, princess Audrey Hepburn sneaks away from her diplomatic duties to spend the day running around the Eternal City with reporter Gregory Peck, who’s torn between landing a scoop and falling in love.
“Sex and the Single Girl” (1964): Natalie Wood is a virginal sexpert and Tony Curtis is the sleazy tabloid reporter out to bring her down in this farcical take on Helen Gurley Brown’s paradigm-shifting best-seller. Features one of the best (and silliest) L.A. car chases ever filmed.
“The Shop Around the Corner” (1940): Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart are combative co-workers in a Budapest department store, but unbeknownst to them, they’re madly in love as anonymous pen pals in this Ernst Lubitsch classic, later remade with Judy Garland and Van Johnson (“In the Good Old Summertime”) and Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks (“You’ve Got Mail”).
“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952): This classic musical is one of the greatest Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies ever made, yes, but it’s also about a young, fresh-faced chorine (played by Debbie Reynolds, in one of her first film roles) who wins the heart of a dashing silent-film star (Gene Kelly).
“Some Like It Hot” (1959): Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dress as women to elude Chicago mobsters, but their masquerade is just beginning, as Curtis also pretends to be a millionaire to seduce Marilyn Monroe while a girdle-wearing Lemmon finds himself being swept off his feet by rich cad Joe E. Brown.
“Starting Over” (1979): Burt Reynolds stars as a neurotic divorcée caught between ex Candice Bergen (who got an Oscar nomination for one of the first roles that demonstrated her comic chops) and new girlfriend Jill Clayburgh (who knew a thing or two about divorce herself, having just starred in “An Unmarried Woman”). A rare comedy from director Alan J. Pakula (“All the President’s Men,” “Sophie’s Choice”), written by James L. Brooks, who was just beginning to make the leap from TV to movies.
“A Touch of Class” (1973): Married philanderer George Segal and single designer Glenda Jackson try to make it work in this wonderfully prickly rom-com, which earned Jackson an Academy Award.
“Trouble in Paradise” (1932): Thief Herbert Marshall and pickpocket Miriam Hopkins team up to fleece the wealthy — they seduce each other by stealing from each other — but their partnership runs into a hitch when he falls in love with rich potential victim Kay Francis.
“What a Way to Go!” (1964): Shirley MacLaine stars in this outrageous farce as a woman who keeps marrying for love, only to have a series of husbands (Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly) meet their demise as they suddenly become determined to be successful on her behalf.
“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972): Peter Bogdanovich restages “Bringing Up Baby” with Ryan O’Neal as a geologist who is swept away by the brainy, motormouthed Barbra Streisand in this effervescent screwball comedy homage that introduced the world to the great Madeline Kahn (as O’Neal’s uptight fiancée).
“Where the Boys Are” (1960): Four college girls (Delores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux, and Connie Francis) head to Fort Lauderdale for spring break, and while the movie might seem like innocuous hijinks on the surface, it’s clear that these young women have sex on the brain, a subversive notion for the pre-Pill era, when nice girls were expected to wait until they got a wedding ring.