Our new Classic Film Catch-Up feature connects you with classic films to put on your watchlist – beloved favorites and hidden gems alike. With more time at home, there’s no better opportunity to finally watch these titles that helped define cinema as we know it.
The current situation of social distancing has many of us thinking of ways to maximize the time we spend at home. We’re also eating several times a day and annoying our pets, but being productive does cross our minds from time to time. Puzzles, long-abandoned books, craft projects, and New Year’s resolutions have suddenly jumped to the top of our to-do lists. In the RT comments, many of you have shared how you’re catching up on classic films, and here at RT, we happen to agree that now is the perfect time to increase your classic film viewing.
Concentrating on films released before 1980 (both well-known titles and hidden gems), we’re producing new guides to essential classic films curated by theme, filmmaker, actor, genre, or style – all for your classic catch-up needs. Want to see our picks for the best French farces? How about a curated list of Fresh picks from Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Sellers, or Billy Wilder? As well as curating watchlists, we’re breaking down the films, telling you where you can watch them, and giving you some more recent and/or well-known films the classics might remind you of so you can gauge which movies are right for you.
And the movies are more accessible than ever. Turner Classic Movies may have had to cancel their annual classic film festival this year, and 2018 saw the demise of their classic film app, FilmStruck, but between the newly launched The Criterion Channel streaming app and other streaming services, movie fans still have access to thousands of old Hollywood masterworks.
Read below for our list of seminal classic quirky romantic comedies you need to see or revisit. More than simple boy-meets-girl tales, these love stories go far beyond the typical “meet-cute” and in many cases reflect unique moments in film history.
Got other quirky rom-coms you’d add to our list? Have a suggestion for a future theme or classic film to feature in the column? Let us know in the comments.
What is it? Married couple Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) attend a life-changing workshop and swiftly adopt the practices they learned, much to the distress of their best friends Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon). The workshop and its aftermath profoundly change the couples’ marriages and their feelings for one another.
Why you need to see it: Prior to the repeal of the Hays Code – the moral production code that regulated what could be shown on screen – most films could not overtly reference sex. This need to edit out the explicit content was one driver of the tongue-in-cheek sexual innuendo of 1940s and 1950s romantic comedies. After the Hays Code was officially abandoned in 1968, a new wave of sexually explicit comedies flooded cinemas. Bob & Carol Ted & Alice is one of the first sex comedies and one of the best. No longer did screenwriters have to dance around the subject; director and co-writer Paul Mazursky could, in fact, address the elephant in the room. Funnily enough, having your first film score four Oscar nods and make bank at the box office ruins Hollywood, according to Mazursky; the director joked later that the film was almost too perfect, and therefore its success could never be replicated.
What is it? An heiress on the run (Claudette Colbert) joins forces with a man she meets, but little does she know he is actually a reporter in need of a story.
Why you need to see it: One of only three films to ever pull a clean sweep of the five major Oscar categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress), It Happened One Night is one of the truly great romantic comedies. The movie combines Clark Gable’s undeniable charm, Claudette Colbert’s comedic timing, and the feel-good filmmaking of Frank Capra. Our only question is, what has taken you so long to see it?
What is it? Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) is a lovestruck chauffeur’s daughter who nurses an impossible crush for David (William Holden), the youngest son of the family that employs her father. When Sabrina returns home after years in Paris, the newly engaged David is suddenly ready to romance her and dump his fiancée – something that David’s older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) is determined to prevent.
Why you need to see it: This is a must-watch because of Bogie, Hepburn, Holden, and writer-director Billy Wilder. Audrey Hepburn was the perfect choice for the stylish Cinderella love interest and rightfully earned the Best Actress nomination she received for the film. Nominated for six Oscars and taking home the prize for Best Costumes, Sabrina is an early example of a film whose cast was fleshed out with A-list talent and Oscar winners. Bogart, who replaced Wilder’s first choice of Cary Grant, was arguably one of the biggest stars on the planet, and here he was cast alongside Hepburn and Holden, both of whom had taken home Best Acting Oscars in 1953. This was the kind of dream-team casting not often replicated. Bogart was never sure he was the right choice for Linus, but his put-off posturing both on and off set served his performance well.
What is it? Marriage-minded interior decorator Jan Morrow (Doris Day) must share a phone line with her playboy neighbor, Brad Allen (Rock Hudson). When Brad sees the beauty on the other end of his line he decides to woo Jan under a false identity and inadvertently falls in love during the process.
Why you need to see it: Pillow Talk was a risqué project for the squeaky clean Doris Day and Rock Hudson, but turned out to be the first of several successful films the pair made together. The clever innuendos peppered throughout the Oscar-winning script were, in fact, scandalous by 1950s film standards; it was testament to the large screenwriting team that they got past the censor board with the hilarity still intact. Compare it to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and you can acutely appreciate how much progress was made in just one decade. Watching it with a modern eye is a bit like watching classic anti-drug films like Reefer Madness.
What is it? A playboy hairdresser (Warren Beatty) enlists the husband of one of his rich female lovers/clients when he seeks a loan for his salon. A series of events then ensue that places the hairdresser at a party with his girlfriend, her husband, and several ex-lovers – including “the one that got away.”
Why you need to see it: The Owl and the Pussycat and Bob & Carole & Ted & Alice loosened the cap off cinematic sexual oppression, but after the success of X-rated films like Deep Throat and Midnight Cowboy, the initial “shock of sex” had lost its luster by the 1970s. In 1975, a fresh approach was needed to wow audiences, and Warren Beatty provided it with his satirical sex comedy Shampoo – though many at the time did not appreciate it. A sex comedy where nothing happens and *spoiler alert* no one falls in love? It is easy to understand why audiences and many contemporary critics dismissed the film. “The laughs are tempered by bleakness and the film ends up saddened by its characters’ awkwardness,” wrote Time Out London. However, on a second look, you can appreciate how George’s womanizing ways were a direct product of the 1960s’ free love movement, and the film offered a clever depiction of the 1970s hangover that much of America was suffering after all of that ’60s excess. Beatty’s script, which he co-wrote with Robert Towne, acutely understood the character of George and his sexual apathy.
What is it? No-nonsense news editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) has only a few hours to prevent his star reporter – and ex-wife – Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) from quitting the paper to marry a simple-minded insurance salesman she met on vacation. After a convicted murderer escapes from jail, Burns is thrust into a race against time to stop Hildy – and secure the exclusive story.
Why you need to see it: If Capra’s It Happened One Night firmly established the fast-talking screwball comedy, His Girl Friday might have perfected it. It Happened One Night is a near-perfect romantic comedy, but director Howard Hawks took over-talking and quick dialogue to new heights with His Girl Friday, establishing a style that has been replicated everywhere from the Gilmore Girls to Glengarry Glen Ross. “You don’t know whether you have been laughing or having your ears boxed,” wrote New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent at the time of its release.
What is it? An exotic dancer wants a child and her current lover is not willing – but his best friend might be tempted to fill in for him.
Why you need to see it: We could go on and on about how A Woman is a Woman is a clever rebuttal to the American musical comedy. We could talk about Jean-Luc Godard and his visionary camera work and shooting style. We could talk about French New Wave or French sex comedies. But the best reason to see the film is a woman, and that woman is the incomparable Anna Karina. Just gaze into her eyes and let her performance hypnotize you.
What is it? A conservative attorney (Robert Redford) rushes into marriage with a carefree woman (Jane Fonda). Realizing they are very different people, the young couple struggle to stay in love and avoid divorce.
Why you need to see it: It would be criminal not include a Neil Simon film on any list of great classic romantic comedies. Writer of The Goodbye Girl, The Heartbreak Kid, and Seems Like Old Times, Simon was a master of opposites-attract love stories. Jane Fonda plays the free-spirited Corie to seductive perfection, and Robert Redford manages to stifle all his natural charms to embody the stuffed shirt, Paul. It’s a love story where the question is never, “Will these two fall in love?” The only question in Barefoot in Park is, “Can they stay together?” The film was not universally loved upon release, but we tend to agree with Time Magazine, which wrote at the time: “Simon has taken a plot as bland as a potato, sliced it into thin bits – and made it as hard to resist as potato chips.”