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Last Updated: Monday, 15 November, 2004, 13:45 GMT
Romancing the box office
By Emma Saunders
BBC News entertainment reporter

Bringing Up Baby
Katherine Hepburn wins over Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby
Bridget Jones returns to the big screen in The Edge of Reason on Friday. But what makes a good romantic comedy?

Etiquette, technology and gender rules may have changed since the romantic comedy genre first arrived in the 1930s and 1940s but the formula remains almost the same to this day.

Classic screwball films like His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby and It Happened One Night, starring the likes of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, set the tone and audiences have been flocking to the cinema ever since.

Bringing Up Baby, which did not do particularly well at the box office when it was released in 1938, stars Cary Grant as a strait-laced palaeontologist who is about to be married before Susan (Hepburn) walks into his life.

Which is the best romantic comedy?
Annie Hall
When Harry Met Sally
Four Weddings and a Funeral
Notting Hill
Bridget Jones' Diary
Love, Actually
8693 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

Chaos ensues, various mishaps take place, including the arrival of a pet leopard but eventually - you've guessed it - the couple fall in love and live happily ever after.

Now considered a classic, the pair's adventures may not sound plausible but it does not seem to matter - the acting, chemistry and dialogue are what make it work.

Most modern "rom coms" now follow the same trusted pattern - boy meets girl, they get together, it all goes wrong but they overcome the obstacles eventually and are reunited at the end.

So it is probably not the suspense that compels us to queue up for a cinema ticket - perhaps it is quite the opposite.

"Cinema is about escapism, we want everything to be rosy when we leave," says Jamie Graham from Total Film magazine.

"No-one watched yet another Doris Day film in the hope of chancing upon a tragic ending."

Turning point

But Woody Allen's Annie Hall marked somewhat of a turning point for the romantic comedy in 1977.

An amusing portrait of the battle of the sexes in 1970s America, it did not quite have the happy ending you might expect.

By the 1980s and 90s, normal service resumed with the likes of When Harry Met Sally in 1989, Pretty Woman in 1990 and 1993's Sleepless in Seattle.

Notting Hill
Rom coms have a lot of dialogue as they are based around two people chatting - it needs to be witty, bubbly and funny
Jamie Graham, Total Film
Famed for its fake orgasm scene, the chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan and the witty writing made When Harry Met Sally a modern classic.

Graham believes the script is crucial.

"The writing is the main thing because, unlike action films for example, rom coms have a lot of dialogue as they are based around two people chatting - it needs to be witty, bubbly and funny," he says.

But while the US continues to produce the odd romantic comedy hit, such as this year's Along Came Polly, the past decade has seen the UK notch up one romantic blockbuster after another.

Richard Curtis of Working Title has cornered the UK market with films such as Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually.

English touch

They contain the usual mishaps, chemistry and humour but have one advantage over their US counterparts - a stereotypical Englishness that appeals to the mass US market.

These comedies of manners and English class have built up real box office muscle, helping the 1999 hit Notting Hill earn $396m (£230m) worldwide.

Its success can also be attributed to the pairing of Hollywood star Julia Roberts with British actor Hugh Grant - the undisputed king of modern romantic comedy.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
Many identify with Bridget Jones' thirty-something heroine
The formula had been perfected by the time Bridget Jones' Diary was released in 2001.

Based on Helen Fielding's novel, which had already become a bestseller, it featured Grant alongside US star Renee Zellweger and Colin Firth - in case one leading man was not enough.

Taking £41.6m in the UK alone, Bridget Jones' Diary had another element crucial to the success of the romantic comedy - a leading character with whom the audience could closely identify.

Thousands of thirty-something women sat down with friends and a glass of wine to watch a thirty-something woman discuss her love life over a glass of wine with friends.

Familiar story

This may explain why Wimbledon - the not-so everyday story of tennis stars, played by Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany - failed to set the cinemas alight this year, when it stuck so closely to the "rom com" formula in every other respect.

Undeterred Grant, Zellweger and Firth have returned in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, a film that at times seems like a re-make rather than a sequel.

We know the characters, we know the actors and we know that at some stage at least one of them will skid off the side of a mountain, fall on their face or fall in love.

A happy ending at the box office seems guaranteed.

Back to top

What are your favourite rom coms? What do you think are the vital ingredients for a successful film of this kind? Send us your views using the form below.

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Does About a boy count as a rom-com, because if so Hugh rules the roost as a latter-day Cary Grant. The only fly in his ointment is his frequent bleating about how demeaning and intolerable acting, and particularly light comedy, is. Stop moaning, Hugh.
Chris King, Islington

What about Shaun of the Dead? The rom-com-zom is the perfect date movie - the romance for the girls, and the zombies for the boys. Everybody's happy! And on that gender stereotyping note...
Phil Hatchard, Exeter, UK

I absolutely cannot live without Singin' in the Rain, The Apartment, Bridget Jones's Diary, My Best Friend's Wedding. Rom coms absolutely need that witty diologue - and, preferably, the characters should hate each other for a bit!
Stephanie, Berkeley, California

What about An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant & Debra Kerr? The best of romance movies!
Cindy Hamilton, Richmond, KY, USA

I absolutely love every single rom com ever made even the ci=onsiderably dire. How and ever, everyone must have a favourite. Mine is One Fine Day (1997). It's got a great script, great actors and set in the most perfect city, NYC. Closely following behind is The Goodbye Girl - also very cool and then An Affair to remember - the ultimate chick flick.
Maria Ryan, Co. Clare, Ireland

Love Actually is the best romantic comedy that I have ever seen. The cast is great and the story is amazing. It doesn't get much better than that. Bridget Jones's Diary is also a favorite of mine.
JKW, Cleveland, USA

To me, Sandra Bullock is the queen of the rom com, yet she hasnt even had a mention on this page!! Also, to me, the American Accent makes a movie ... it's so sexy!! So as much as Hugh Grant is great, I like his American counterparts better.
Liz, Bucks, UK

I hope I'm not the only person to have seen The Cutting Edge, but I know I'm the only one to add it to these lists. It is the classic rom com formula: dueling figure skaters fall in love, of course, while fighting their feelings throughout the film. It's corny, and hokey, and undeniably entertaining!
Emily, Sacramento, CA

What about the movie versions of Nick Hornby's great comic novels? I just love About a Boy and High Fidelity, in both book and movie forms!
Elizabeth, Northfield, MN USA

When Harry Met Sally every time! What makes a good movie is when some of the dialogue transfers over into everyday speaking and culture. "I wish to partake of your peacan pie" or "I'll have what she's having".
Richard Morley, Sacramento, California

Single finest movie of all time has to be the Princess Bride. True love, romance, giants, sword fights, revenge, couple splits and is rejoined in the end. A great book made an excellent movie.
Preston, Berlin, Germany

Nobody has mentioned Some Like it Hot! Wonderful movie, wonderful actors(Marilyn Monroe at her best), great script, and of course, men in drag and the mob out to get the main characters. It doesn't get any better than this! Comic genius.
Julie Martin, Lexington, MA,USA

Roman Holiday not only featured a fun adventure through Rome, but a unique chemistry between Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Few films truly feature that special interaction and even the best scripts or directors cannot substitute that relationship.
Erin, New York, USA

I would have to say Bridget Jones is a quality film, in that covers all the criteria to make a great rom-com, but in a way that makes it more accessible, and belivable to viewers. But hey, I'm biased - I'd watch the test card if it had Colin Firth on it!
AJ, Oxford

How can people be voting for Love Actually? None of the characters had any depth, you just didn't care about any of them at all. Despite my dislike of American films When Harry Met Sally is the best on that list, at least Hugh Grant isn't in it stuttering all the time.
Stewart, UK

Are we not forgetting something? When Harry met Sally and Notting Hill are nothing compared to the elegant romance of Breakfast at Tiffany¿s and Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn. Give me Doris Day anytime; those oldies win hands-down every time!
Lucy Russell, Exeter, England

Philadelphia Story is the best screen romantic comedy out there. Bridget Jones and When Harry Met Sally are also good. Princess Bride is fun. And obviously, Much Ado About Nothing never fails. There's more to it than the formula. Too often filmmakers follow the formula and forget to make a good movie in the process. Everything that goes into a good film - a good script, good direction, good acting, believable characters, etc . . . if they don't come together, it doesn't matter how well you follow the formula, the film will not be good.
Caroline, Oregon, USA

Anything with Hugh Grant! He can play a sweet, charming bloke or a dangerous, delicious cad just as well.
Jenny McCoy, Sheffield, Yorkshire

Suspense, the will-they-won't-they factor, is essential...and also great on-screen chemistry between the leads, you have to really believe they fancy each other. It's also important for the comedy timing to be spot on, and not just rely on the situation/romance. Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin and Jim Carrey make good leads.
Louise, England

You've got mail and When Harry Met Sally are my favorites. Excellent acting makes both of them classics.
Kiran, India

Should Hugh Grant go in for early retirement, I nominate Ewan MacGregor as his successor. Films like Brassed Off, Little Voice, and Down with Love showed off his rom com chops, and all three leading ladies (Tara Fitzgerald, Jane Horrocks, and Renee Zellwegger) were relatable in different ways.
Shelley, Boston, USA

I would have to say my favorite rom com is Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth! Maybe not see as a rom com by everyone but it is in my eyes!
Sarah, Rhode Island, USA

My absolute favorite.....While you were Sleeping, with Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman. Watched it twenty times already and I still love it!
Paula, Las Vegas (ex UK)

Shakespeare in Love - one that did not have the story-book ending. Acting was great, story fantastic, and music that fit perfectly.
John, Oshawa, Canada

Why isn't The Princess Bride on any of these lists? Great script, great acting - and if true love a la pirates and wicked princes isn't rom com, what is?
D, New York, USA

Nobody has mentioned The Truth About Cats And Dogs. It's got the best line at the end: "I've only ever loved one woman and I don't want to lose her twice." The reason why English rom coms do better is the accent. About A Boy, Four Weddings - nothing is sexier than an English accent!
LCT, Houston, USA

My ultimate romantic comedy of all time is Love Actually. Numerous kinds of love stories are presented and every aspect of love explored. But unlike more intellectually slanted films, you leave the cinema feeling that the world will live happily ever after.
Sarah, Derby

Where is Sleepless In Seatle on the voting poll? It would get my vote. And speaking of Meg Ryan, no-one mentions You've Got Mail.
James, Sleaford

It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable, has to be the definitive romantic comedy. It's little known now, having been made in the 30s, but it is really the first time that all the staple elements that we now recognise as being vital in successful rom coms were present. Forget later pretenders to the crown (some of which are very good) - this remains the original and the best.
Charlie, UK

Best rom com has to be Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom. It has music, dancing, an ugly duckling becoming a swan, impossible hairdos and best of all, loads of sequins.
Jayne, UK

I think Sleepless In Seattle has to be near the top. The leading characters don't actually meet right until the very end, so that lovely will they, won't they (when you really know they will) is kept going right to the very end of the movie. That has to be the most important ingredient
Neil, Bristol

Favourite romantic comedy usually depends on how I am feeling at the time. My main selection would have to include Roxanne, Truly Madly Deeply, Sleepless In Seattle, Pillow Talk, both Bridget Jones movies, Edge of Reason was great, When Harry met Sally and a John Hughes film such as Pretty in Pink. If it makes you laugh, cry but in the end uplifted, it's done the job.
JB, Manchester

The Girl Next Door is my current favourite rom com. Very well made with not so famous actors and made me laugh throughout. My favourite classic has to be Pretty Woman though, who wouldn't want to be rescued by a millionaire?
Helen, Surrey

Only You - Robert Downey Jnr at his best!
Frances Sheehan, London

Vital ingredients - good acting, writing and directing. Three excellent examples - The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around The Corner and It Happened One Night. Except in the examples above change the good to great. They are classic movies. I wonder which of the modern ones mentioned in the article will still seem good in sixty years time?
Martin Kelly, Surrey

I find it interesting that men have given comments as well as women-perhaps the audience of rom coms doesn't equate to just 30-something females? Another key ingredient to a good rom com is the soundtrack. The best is that of Pretty Woman - strongly uplifting music for a modern day tale of Cinderella.
Adela , London

The Apartment with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. It's a wonderfully bittersweet love story and also a cutting satire on the corporate America of the day (1960).
Jane, UK

What about French Kiss? Meg Ryan was the queen of rom com for a while, and this movie with the lovely Kevin Kline as a stereotypically sexy Frenchman is funny, charming and touching. It's also highly predictable, which is no bad thing - rom com is supposed to make you feel good, after all!
Debbie, Wiltshire

I really enjoyed A Life Less Ordinary with Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz. Witty, sexy and fast-paced.
Kate, London

Pretty Woman was a remake of My Fair Lady and not that well done! My favourite would have to be Notting Hill of those mentioned. Hugh Grant was quietly reserved and ever apologetic, very English, while Julia played the Hollywood actress with a wonderful gentleness that endeared you to her character. Very well done, I thought.
Jan Cordani, Maryland USA

Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman are not rom-coms - there are more laughs in The Passion Of The Christ. Four Weddings and When Harry Met Sally rule the rom-com roost.
Iain, Edinburgh

Surely Before Sunrise and the sequel Before Sunset made nine years later featuring Ethan Hawke. Both are intelligent, witty and by turns uplifting and heartbreaking. They deserve every bit of praise that was lavished on them by the critics. Each stays with you for a long, long time. And you are still left never knowing what will happen to the two of them. Wonderful stuff.
Steve, London

I'd like to put in a word for the 1972 film Avanti, starring Jack Lemon and Juliet Mills. It's perhaps a bit long in the tooth these days, and its stage play origins sometimes get in the way of the action, but the witty script and Jack Lemon's incomparable performance as the American businessman totally out of his depth with Italian culture makes this film an absolute gem.
David Looser, Ipswich

There are so many more deeply touching movies and I would not agree with any of those suggested above as the most romantic comedies. How about Sleepless In Seattle, Edward Scissorhands, Before Sunset, The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, While You Were Sleeping and Brief Encounter.
Peter Willis, Bristol

For me the best and funniest romantic couple in the movies will always be William Powell and Myrna Loy as the cocktail- loving sleuths, Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man films. Sophisticated, witty and timeless.
Candy, UK

Can't believe Pretty Woman hasn't had a mention - an absolute classic! I could watch it again and again, and find something different in it depending on my mood. A good rom-com should make you laugh and cry in equal measures, but you've always got to leave with a smile on your face.
Alex Alexander, Huntingdon

I've never seen a romantic comedy that was anything other than bland, predictable rubbish. Why should I hand over my money to see a film that follows the same tired formula as everything else in the genre?
Owen Duffy, Glasgow

Isn't it funny that the oh-so-popular Bridget Jones' Diary is more or less a modern-day Pride & Prejudice - granted, with less daughters to be married off. Just goes to show that you can't beat a classic. And my favourite? Has to be a tie between Dirty Dancing and Sleepless In Seattle.
Victoria, London

What are the most important ingredients for a rom-com? Well, that's simple. Colin Firth. Need I say more?!
Emma, Sheffield

When Harry Met Sally is the greatest romantic comedy of all time. The chemistry, great improvisation - particularly from Billy Crystal - classic score and very clever script put it head and shoulders above everything else from the last 50 years. Rom-coms normally put me off but I'm proud to have this in my DVD collection and watch it at least once a month.
Phil, Scotland

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