Happy Curmudgeonly Valentine’s Day!

This blog entry isn’t intended to put down the holiday in general. But it did make me think about taking a different angle on Valentine-themed movies.

Every year at this time, bloggers and critics alike feel compelled to share their choices for favorite romantic movies. And most of the same titles show up over and over. Don’t get me wrong — movies such as It Happened One Night and their ilk remain deserving of praise. (Last week, Turner Classic Movies re-broadcast Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which I’ve seen several times. Despite all of the nastiness that has clouded above Allen’s career, I still find it a lovely movie on all counts.)

But what about the movies that don’t make the grade, at least in your own eyes? How many romantic movies have you gone to see because people were raving about them, only to leave the theater shaking your head as to the mystery of their appeal?

I’ve decided to list a few of my own movie-romances-gone-wrong. Feel free to hurl your invective at me in the “Comments” section below, but where the following movies are concerned, I just didn’t “get it.” (WARNING: Major spoilers follow!)

City Lights (1931) – I’m as big of a Charlie Chaplin fan as you could ask for, and I really like this movie, but I don’t revere it like most Chaplin fans do. And the main reason why is one of its key plot twists. (And I find it amazing that Chaplin, who thought out his plot points as meticulously as his gags, let this one slide by.) Chaplin’s Tramp has gotten a crush on a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and wants to get the money she needs for an operation that will restore her sight. At first, he thinks he has hit the mother lode when he makes friends with a convivial and rich old drunk (Harry Myers). The trouble is that invariably, as long as the drunk is soused, he treats the Tramp like a dear old friend, but as soon as the drunk is sober, he has no recollection of him. (The drunk’s butler has seen his boss’ drunk/sober transformation, but since the butler snottily looks down on the Tramp, he has no interest in intervening on behalf of the Tramp.)

I’ve had my share of benders, heaven knows. But to embrace the same person over and over as soon as you get smashed, only to have no memory whatsoever of that person once you’ve sobered up? That strikes me as more of a very convenient plot point than a character observation.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) – If you’re on Katharine Hepburn’s side for the duration of this movie, you probably regard her as a free spirit who breathes life into the dull routine of a buttoned-down paleontologist (Cary Grant, who lets his eyeglasses do the work for his characterization). For me, she was a pest who kept ingratiating herself into his life long after he should have ditched her. (She even admits nearly as much at one point.) This is not a match made in heaven.

Gone with the Wind (1939) – I’m bound to catch hell for this one, so I won’t even get into the movie’s take on acquiescent slaves happy to make a better life for their rich white owners. Let’s just concentrate on the romantic leads. The main appeal of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) to those refined Southern gentlemen is what a “tease” she is. The only man who eventually gets her is Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who, initially at least, sees right through her fiddle-dee-dee persona. (True or not, I read somewhere that author Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett was Groucho Marx. As incongruous as that seems, listen to some of Rhett’s dialogue, which reveals that he isn’t falling for Scarlett’s act, and imagine Groucho putting her down.) Even after Rhett “conquers” her (carrying her up that stairway to heaven), he still falls prey to her pushiness far too often, even when logic dictates he shouldn’t. Small wonder that he finally “doesn’t give a damn” and leaves her at the end. For how long can an intelligent man (even a rogue) give in to a manipulative woman’s mind games?

Manhattan (1979) – If you’re interested, I already dealt with this movie in a previous blog entry (click here to read it). But I still can’t help being bothered by it, since romance is such a prominent theme of the movie. 42-year-old Isaac (Woody Allen) falls in love with a cutesy 17-year-old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Isaac feels guilty about the age difference and keeps Tracy at arm’s length (although he’s quite happy to bask in her worship of him). When Isaac gets a shot at his married best friend’s paramour (Diane Keaton, who gets passed around like a rag doll here), he happily uses it as an excuse to break off with Tracy. Then when that affair goes kaplooie, he rushes across New York City to try and take back Tracy as soon as possible. Throughout the movie, Isaac makes big proclamations about the importance of maintaining one’s moral integrity, but he’ll ditch those ethics in a heartbeat in order to regain the love of his young admirer.

The term “romance” would imply that both parties are — at least, initially) on the same page, whereas all of this movie’s main characters (Isaac included) are out to protect their self-interests. Even Allen admitted that his fans latched onto this movie with a passion that he never understood.

Dirty Dancing (1988) – This movie has always driven me crazy, for a couple of reasons; I’ll list the minor reason first. (1) At the summer camp where her family is staying, Baby (Jennifer Grey) wants to ingratiate herself with the actual camp’s stage dancers. Eventually, she does so in a big way by deciding to ask her rich doctor father (Jerry Orbach) for $200 to help the girl get medical help from a botched abortion. Mind you, Baby never gives the reason for her wanting the money; and amazingly, after getting almost no info from Baby on why she wants the cash, he nonchalantly gives it to her. Really?

(2) The “dirty dancing” of the movie’s title is a metaphor for the movie having it both ways: Baby comes upon the eye-provoking gyrations that the older dancers are performing in private and learns them from her as a, shall we say, rite of passage. But by movie’s end, Baby and Johnny (Patrick Swayze) are performing said gyrations right in front of Dr. Daddy, and we’re meant to think, “Aw, they got to dirty-dance in front of the old folks and the old folks finally accepted it.” So the dancing is dirty until the plot’s denouement calls for it not to be. Really really? Somebody should put Baby in a corner already.

When Harry Met Sally… (1989) – I regard this as a “Woody Allen” movie for moviegoers who don’t otherwise like Woody Allen. To me, it’s an compendium of Allen’s “greatest hits” — the snarky one-liners, Sally’s Annie Hall-like ditziness, the ongoing commentary, and (as in Manhattan) the hero’s big chase to reach the woman he now knows he loves. (There’s even a nod to Warren Beatty’s Reds, with interspersed footage of real-live couples as a counterpoint to the movie’s protagonists.) And here’s my biggest pet peeve. The movie initially presents Sally as an unassuming milquetoast — and then, out of nowhere, she acts out a big, fake orgasm in the middle of a crowded deli. In the end, the movie tries too hard to be earnest about love.

While You Were Sleeping (1995) – Sandra Bullock gets a crush on a guy (Peter Gallagher), saves him from getting killed, and dotes over him while he’s in a coma. Through what the late critic Roger Ebert would call “The Idiot Plot,” the man’s family comes to believe that Bullock is his fiancĂ©e. Then Bullock falls in love with the comatose man’s brother (Bill Pullman), and then she has no idea what to do when the comatose guy comes to. So no matter how you slice it, Bullock has ingratiated herself into Gallagher’s family under false pretenses, and yet they never take her to task because she’s so “sincere.” How happy would you be if this happened to your family? (And I know this is just my personal hang-up, but would someone please tell Peter Gallagher to shave his unibrow already?)

Well, I guess I’ve trashed enough iconic movies for one day. If you disagree with any of my choices, feel free to post in the “Comments” section below. And Happy Valentine’s Day!