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Laughing in the dark

The fundamental formulas of romantic comedies still apply in new millennium

“The love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict,” a somewhat imperious Katharine Hepburn lectures a befuddled Cary Grant shortly after their first star-crossed meeting in Howard Hawks’ 1938 classic, “Bringing Up Baby.”

One of the movies that virtually defined the genre of screwball comedies — “screwball” itself was a popular bit of ’30s slang referring to anything eccentric, impulsive or whimsical — “Baby” set the gold standard along with a few time-honored rules that have never quite gone out of fashion:

  • Screwball romance most often takes place in a glamorously appointed world where love is an indulgence that the idle rich can treat as so much sport — Hepburn’s Susan is, natch, an heiress who first encounters Grant’s bespectacled paleontologist, Dr. David Huxley, on a golf course.

  • An immediate attraction is disguised as hate at first sight — “In moments of quiet I’m strangely drawn toward you,” an annoyed David confesses, adding, “but well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.”

  • For the screwball romantics, the course of love never runs smoothly but rides a roller coaster of verbal repartee, miscommunication and, often, mistaken identity, as well as a slapstick pratfall or two.

Screwball comedies were born, of course, under the oppressive thumb of Hollywood’s old, censorious Production Code, so they made a virtue out of delaying a final clinch, to say nothing of a roll in the hay, until the final reel. Ever since the sexual revolution of the ’60s, though, it’s become almost a cliche that since there are no longer such social impediments for lovers, screwball romance has become an endangered species. But, variations on the screwball comedy persist. Hollywood may no longer traffic in the ice-cream-colored mansions that provided the setting for “The Philadelphia Story” (where Hepburn and Grant teamed up with Jimmy Stewart for an upper-crust three-way) or the equally ritzy “The Palm Beach Story” (Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrae and Rudy Vallee make a veritable menage a trois with the pursuit of money at its core). But upwardly mobile wish fulfillment persists.

In 1990’s “Pretty Woman,” Richard Gere may not be a frivolous playboy, but he does play a high-powered businessman who shows Julia Roberts’ streetwalker how the upper-crust lives — and vice versa.

Roberts’ “Notting Hill” reversed the roles: Like 1936’s “My Man Godfrey,” in which party girl Carole Lombard rescues William Powell’s would-be vagrant from the skids, her slumming actress takes a fancy to Hugh Grant’s unassuming bookstore owner.

Even when a slightly lunatic romance like Norman Jewison’s “Moonstruck” plays out in a middle-class world — Cher is a street-wise Italian-American widow who falls for her fiance’s brother, baker Nicolas Cage — it carries a whiff of a Cinderella fairy tale as Cage whisks Cher away for a dreamy night at the opera.

It’s the women — whether empowered by family money in the old days or by their own high-powered careers in more recent films — that usually have the upper hand in the battles of the sexes that ensue.

“Romantic comedies are often driven by a female point of view,” observes Universal’s ankling president of production Kevin Misher.

In “Force of Nature,” for example, Sandra Bullock is flying off to be married when she first encounters Ben Affleck, and in “Runaway Bride,” it’s Roberts’ skittishness about marriage that first attracts Gere’s curiosity.

But in today’s postfeminist world, more and more romantic comedies have begun adopting male protagonists as audience surrogates. In the Oscar-winning “Annie Hall,” moviegoers were invited into Woody Allen’s reverie about the love he lost in Diane Keaton’s Annie.

Something interesting happens, though, when the focus shifts from woman to man: As Ben Stiller, Hollywood’s newest exemplar of male anxiety, demonstrates as he pursues Cameron Diaz in “There’s Something About Mary” and Teri Polo in “Meet the Parents,” what was once simply madcap turns out to be slightly mad. His movies are screwball comedies whose very screwiness almost overshadows their romantic underpinnings. And while female neuroticism — like Hepburn’s patrician hautiness — can be charming, male neuroticism is often, well, neurotic.

Adding to the complications, miscommunication remains an enduring theme at the heart of the most contemporary seeming romances. The modern media, which frequently invades screwball comedies, doesn’t foster understanding but only compounds the misunderstandings.

Back in 1934’s “It Happened One Night,” heiress-on-the-lam Colbert couldn’t figure out whether Gable’s tabloid reporter was interested in her heart or her story. In 1940’s “His Girl Friday,” Hawks upped the ante as feuding newshounds Rosalind Russell and Grant seem to punctuate nearly every other conversation by slamming down a phone.

The media may have changed, but the song remains the same. Writer-director Nora Ephron has composed a whole set of variations on the theme of miscommunication — technological and otherwise — by focusing first on the phone (which best pals Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal use to share intimacies in “When Harry Met Sally”), the radio (over which Ryan first learns of the lovelorn Tom Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle”) and email (by which Ryan and Hanks meet cute, at least on-line, in “You’ve Got Mail”).

In Ephron’s world, which harkens back to its screwball ancestors, the incessant talk is even more intoxicating than even the promise of sex.

The screwball romance may be an endangered species, but, even in its slightly altered, modern-day incarnations, it remains a heady brew.

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