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Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges Paperback – March 22, 1998

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

What could top the charm, the outlandishness, the wit, the loveliness of classic Hollywood romantic comedy? The triumph of James Harvey's book is its ability to convey the delights of the genre when it was at its best, during the 1930s and '40s. Though he devotes chapters to major filmmakers such as Frank Capra and Howard Hawks, and stars like Cary Grant, Claudette Colbert, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers, Harvey's focus is on two of the finest directors of the period: Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. Harvey describes the joys of watching their movies as he offers many intriguing insights into their cinematic styles and comic techniques. One of the best things about this book is its author's willingness to discuss obscure, hard-to-find films. Of course, he covers popular entertainments such as Lubitsch's Ninotchka, Capra's It Happened One Night, and Sturges's The Lady Eve, but he also devotes equal time to little-known, fascinating works like Sturges's The Great Moment and Lubitsch's Angel. This is an invaluable companion for anyone interested in learning more about two of Hollywood's most wonderful auteurs or about romantic comedy in general. --Raphael Shargel

From Publishers Weekly

Why is a book titled Romantic Comedy such a depressing read? Two reasons: with the disappearance of the nation's revival houses and the movie studios' hesitation to put all but the most popular classic films of the '30s and '40s on video, many of the marvelous movies Harvey describes here are virtually unavailable to contemporary viewers; and, sadly, they don't make them like they used to. A State University of New York teacher, Harvey is an enthusiastic student and devotee of the genre, and he has assembled a wealth of information about its leading directors and performers. But as hard as he tries in his detailed film descriptions, he can't recreate the unique spark that characterized screwball comedies and their antecedents. Of course he can'tgenerations of filmmakers have failed to revive the screwball spirit, whose kinetic blend of polish, pacing and personality cannot possibly be captured by print alone. Nevertheless, like too many writers on the topic of film, Harvey attempts the impossible, and loses readers in a jumble of transcribed entrances, exits and asides that, regrettably, do not play on the page. This is aggravated by Harvey's tendency to spend his analytical energies on attempts to articulate viewers' reactions to the films he discussestrying to pin down exactly how we feel about Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, for examplewhich ultimately compels readers to put down the book and head for the video store to see for themselves. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 734 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (March 22, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306808323
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306808326
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #802,941 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Laurie Eno on May 22, 2005
Format: Paperback
... Harvey's book brims with the kind of keen, enthusiastic observations that lovers of the screwball genre will embrace with glee. He casts a thoroughly knowing and intelligent eye on the films, the actors, the directors and the millieu that define what, for many film buffs, was Hollywood's real golden age.

For my money, this is THE de facto handbook to that great twenty years' worth of cinematic Americana. I have loved these old movies for a long time, but Harvey deconstructs why it is that these movies worked well and continue to entertain and draw admirers some seventy and eighty years on. Harvey's engaging prose is steeped not only in an obvious love of these movies, but is remarkably fine in and of itself; this man can write, really write, adroitly sidestepping a swathe of cliches in favor of original thinking and insights that will get and keep you reading, hoping the chapter -- and the book -- will never end.

Reading this book is nearly as much fun as watching the films he writes about with such affection and insight. Rare is the book of film study that affords a measure of tangible pleasure anywhere near that of watching the films themselves. The best of film criticism gets readers to re-thinking films seen perhaps dozens of times; Harvey's Romantic Comedy accomplishes not only that, but provides an irresistible impetus to revisit the entire canon of films post haste. And not a moment too soon.

Justly lauded, and terrific stuff. A five star-plus recommendation for this terrific tome!!!
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A reader on March 6, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is a wonderfully intuitive and enjoyable book, as exuberant as romantic comedy itself. Like other reviewers here, I've been guided to many forgotten gems of romantic comedy (e.g. Theodora Goes Wild -- wonderful Irene Dunne film). Harvey explores these films with intensity and love and reveals the depth of a film tradition that is often misunderstood or taken too lightly. I'm a screenwriter and this book is my bible, I continually turn to it for inspiration.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By George Matusek on November 21, 2002
Format: Paperback
Not only is this a comprehensive survey of the genre of romantic comedy (and its profound sub-genre, screwball comedy), but Harvey's digressions offer many wise comments on pre-1950 films in general. I came away convinced that comedy is more profound than tragedy. A good editor won't spoil "Hamlet" by cutting some of its dialogue, but it would be infinitely harder to cut dialogue from any of the great comedies written and directed by Preston Sturges. As a bonus, Harvey provides a glowing appreciation of the comic artistry of Irene Dunne, along with a wonderful interview with her.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 14, 1999
Format: Paperback
This book is so wonderful, I can't recommend it highly enough. It's making me fall in love with movies all over again. The writing is lucid and intelligent, and Harvey is such a great viewer of films that he makes scenes spring right out of the page. I'm renting lots of movies I've never seen based on his writing about them, and re-watching old favorites with a whole new understanding. If you love movies, buy this book. You won't be sorry.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Ron Dionne on June 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
James Harvey does a wonderful job of conveying the ebullience, spirit, humanity and grace of the lightest of golden age Hollywood fare--the romantic comedies. I studied under Prof. Harvey at SUNY Stony Brook and his courses on these films and others (particularly film noir and the films of Robert Bresson) have stayed with me nearly twenty years later, like beacons of taste and good sense. What this book does is describe a moade of being that comes from the studio system. I often rue the fact that today's good movies are almost always "one-shots," utterly individualistic enterprises that seem unrelated to each other in any meaningful way. You can't group today's movies the way you could the films of Lubitsch, Sturges and Hawks. There may indeed be in our time a palate of stars that could rival Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, and character actors like William Demarest, Eugene Pallette, Al Bridge and Felix Bressart--but they don't have the school of movies to appear in. It's a shame, but its great that we have those old movies to look at, and books like this one to remind us that there really was a time when adults with grace and wit were simply terrific on the screen.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 2, 1999
Format: Paperback
"Romantic Comedy" is a fun read. Perfect for those intersted in the wonderful screwball comedies of the 30's. Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Nancy C. Beck on January 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I've got all the coffetable movie books on most of the Hollywood studios (The Warner Bros. Story, etc.), and I've enjoyed getting other types of these books to get more in-depth information on different genres.

A lot of the romantic comedies of the 1930s - and even into the 1940s - were commonly known as screwball comedies, those comedies with plots (and characters; oh, the characters!) that were wacky and unbelievable. This is a great look at the lot of them, starting with Lubitsch's early Hollywood comedies like The Love Parade, continuing through The Awful Truth (with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne), and onto the wonderfully wacky comedies of Preston Sturges (Hail the Conquering Hero, which he also directed; although he also wrote just the screenplays of other films before doing double duty).

This is a very comprehensive look at these films, with plenty of commentary from the writer (I would have preferred less of his commentary, though). It seems the writer has a bone to pick about Frank Capra's films, which is fine, but it got tiresome to me after a while.

Don't let that stop you from enjoying this book, because there is a lot to enjoy. The writer even touches on the individual actors, which I found fascinating (and included some more background on one of my favorite sleeper movies that more people should appreciate: Bachelor Mother, with Ginger Rogers, David Niven in one of his earliest roles, and the wonderful Charles Coburn as David Niven's father).

The other reason I took off a star (besides the occasional irksome commentary) was because I felt there was too much attention bestowed on Lubitsch. Not that I don't think Lubitsch was a superb director; but page after page after page on just one film? Again, I felt this went overboard.

But you can easily skim through whatever (might) annoy you, as I did, because this is an overall wonderful book that should be on every 1930s/1940s moviephile's bookshelf.
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