In a 1948 article called ‘The Argument of Comedy’, Northrop Frye made a playful aside suggesting that “the average movie of today is a rigidly conventionalized New Comedy proceeding towards and act which, like death in Greek tragedy, takes place offstage, and is symbolized by a final embrace.” It is certainly true that, thanks to the Hays Code, Hollywood movies made between approximately 1934 and 1967 were generally required to abstain from sex in order that “pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing”. Thus, since marriage in narrative so often comes at the end rather than the beginning or middle – if, that is, we’re talking about happy marriages (it’s so hard for actual depictions of wedlock not to become melodramas!) – a final couple happy ending did indeed very often serve the function Frye suggests. Film critic James Harvey has a blunter way of describing this narrative pattern: “the delayed fuck”.
Of course, this didn’t stop classical films from letting our imaginations wander, with ellipses between scenes sometimes offering tantalising hints of hank panky. In the excellently-titled article ‘A Brief Romantic Interlude: Dick and Jane go to 3 ½ Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema’, Richard Maltby spends a great deal of time explaining that a single shot of an airport tower in Casablanca (1942) intentionally left contemporary audiences the option of constructing two opposed interpretations of what exactly Rick and Ilsa get up to in Rick’s room.
However, regardless of the extent to which a studio-era movie might flirt with its possibility, the eschewing of sex was nevertheless for the most part necessarily maintained (at least as far as the final couple is concerned: heroes and heroines were frequently suggested to have had sexual relationships with ‘unsuitable’ partners). This meant that what a final kiss often symbolised was indeed, to a significant extent, activities proper to the marriage bed, which could only take place after the camera stopped rolling. I’ve always felt that Teresa Wright’s hat falling from her head in the final shot of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) gives a particularly nice indication of this.
More subtle at least than, say, North by Northwest’s infamous concluding images.
Of course, the absence of sex is particularly important for genres such as the romantic comedy, which are so much about sex. As well as knowingly nudging audiences in the ribs in the manner of North by Northwest (1959), classical rom coms could also make jokes about the narrative structures that the Code’s moral prescriptions so often led to. For instance: I Married a Male War Bride (1949) sees its couple wed about two-thirds of the way into the film, only to continually frustrate their attempts to consummate the marriage until the very last seconds. Meanwhile, Lover Come Back (1961) marries its couple in order to allow them to have sex, then divorces them, then has them remarry once again in the final scene whilst Carol (Doris Day) is in labour with their child; “Now that’s what I call cutting it close!” comments an onlooker.
But what of romantic comedies made after the fall of the Code in 1968? Some commentators predicted an explosion of sexual activity that would effectively put the genre out of business by ridding it of the sense of frustrated desire that so often served as its central motivation. And for a while during the 1970s the genre did indeed seem to be in bad health, with only a few movies by directors such as Woody Allen keeping the comic battle of the sexes waging. Of course, this changed in the 1980s when there began appearing a trickle, and then ultimately a flood, of comedies that have come to be called the ‘New Romances’; by the 1990s and 2000s the genre was back to the level of popularity it enjoyed during the height of the studio period.
Yet many critics have suggested that these new romantic comedies are peculiar precisely for the fact that – despite the lack of moral censorship, the centrality of sexual desire to the genre, and the rise of post-60s permissiveness – they feature barely any sex. Pat Kirkland for instance asserts that in modern films “sex is an activity indulged in only by non-central characters”, and Tamar Jeffers McDonald suggests that such rom coms “have to find ways to explain why sex is not happening”.
It is certainly true that there exist films like, say, Sleepless in Seattle (1993) or Serendipity (2001) which ensure the sexlessness of their central relationships by keeping their couple far apart for most of the film’s running time, and, in the process, imbue their endings once again with the kind of meanings Frye identified. This pattern has, however, been greatly overstated, as I have discovered whilst watching copious contemporary romantic comedies over the course of my research. Though it is true that we seldom actually see couples having sex (the ellipsis once again becoming handy in this respect), sexual relationships are nevertheless extremely common between modern (unmarried) romantic comedy heroes and heroines, meaning that sex is by no means something reserved until after a final fade-out.
Thus, for prurient posterity – and in the style of something a pre-internet 12-year-old might construct – I offer a brief list of the times at which some contemporary romantic comedy final couples have sex:
A Lot Like Love – 4 minutes in
Fools Rush In – 12 mins
Speechless – 13 mins
Housesitter – 15 mins
What Happens in Vegas – 17 mins
Pretty Woman – 29 mins
Down to You – 30 mins
Splash – 35 mins
Failure to Launch – 40 mins
The Back-Up Plan – 42 mins
Lucky You – 44 mins
Along Came Polly – 47 mins
Shakespeare in Love – 47 mins
Sliding Doors – 50 mins
Happy Together – 53 mins
I Could Never be Your Woman – 55 mins
Head Over Heels – 56 mins
Something’s Gotta Give – 1 hour
The American President – 1 hour
America’s Sweethearts – 1.05
Mannequin – 1.07
When Harry Met Sally – 1:07
Overboard – 1:16
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – 1:23
Chasing Liberty – 1:24
Needless to say, there are infinitely more examples than these – the above list consists merely of moments about which I happened to remember to make notes during viewings.
While it’s convenient for critics to speak of the perverse chastity of modern rom coms (it helps reinforce the sense of the genre as a whole as conservative), such assertions don’t actually stand up to scrutiny. Now severed from its earlier function of symbolising “an act which [...] occurs offstage”, this, then, is one unambiguous way in which the final couple has changed its ideological meaning over time.