Romance In Classic Film – Where Tragedy Speaks Greater Than Forever After

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Film is an incredible visual and aural expression, which an audience forms relationship with at a range of levels. Horror will draw out our fears, terrifying us and perhaps even haunting our dreams and nightmares. But we will not be terrorised by vampires and werewolves. Sci-fi astounds us with incredible worlds, strange beings and technology beyond our imagination. Yet the chances of travelling at light-speed or being trained by an old and elfish master on a distant planet are very slim indeed. Westerns still take us to a frontier, which is long gone and we ache to be the hero we see on screen. Yet the truth remains that we are not necessarily heroic nor will we face the bad guy with a six-shooter when the sun is high. We will not meet a pharaoh nor dine with a king.

But there is something that all of us will experience to varying degrees – no matter how old one is. Of all the stories that have been told on film, the love story is one that can reach everyone.

One of the great ironies of romance on film is that there is an incredible vastness to how it is portrayed. Often relegated as ‘chick flicks’ or ‘women’s pictures’, love stories have a habit of spanning a number of possibilities – beautifully produced and enduring, warm, fuzzy and perhaps a little too saccharine and even corny and then the absolutely nauseating. The love story on film is often in the eye of the beholder – one person may see romance on film as touching and sweet whereas another reaches for the bucket.

Romance on film needs to be looked at in context of the genre and an audience needs to remember that the love story can be dealt with in a variety of ways. For example, comedy can be light-hearted or even ruthless in its’ dealing with a love story. Screwball comedy is particularly adept at handling romance, with break-neck speed and examining the love story at a very different angle.

Of all the love stories ever told on film, the most beautiful, touching and enduring stories are those that are tragic. Words often become redundant when trying to encapsulate the incredible emotion when watching the film end – and two lovers part forever.

I will briefly look at five films which audiences will be more than familiar with that I believe prove my point.

Be prepared for spoilers!

Gone With The Wind (1939)

GWTW is perhaps one of the best examples of the classic Hollywood studio film – few films can boast neither such grandeur nor such an incredible cast. Yes, there is incredible controversy in how slavery, the South and the Civil War were portrayed. But that is not what we’re focusing on here, tempting as it may be.

GWTW is many stories but I would argue it is ultimately a love story – one of unrequited love. The story’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is surrounded by men who want her and declare their undying love for her. Yet her heart aches for a man she cannot have, one Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who is engaged to be married to Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Though Ashley will later admit during a mad moment of weakness that he does love Scarlett, he also states that it is Melanie whom he ultimately loves and understands. Scarlett seems to pine for something that she cannot ultimately understand, which Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) points out to her. However, this very truth will allude Scarlett to the very end and when she realises it will be late.

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On the flipside, Rhett Butler is ‘no gentleman’ but he is real and full of life and experience. He knows the world and understands it better than most. Despite everything, he cannot help but also fall for Scarlett, not in the foppish manner of her many other suitors but with a passion and aggression that is all consuming.

Scarlett will marry twice (not for love) but firstly for petty, immature reasons and secondly for survival. Her third marriage to Rhett will also fail, for a complexity of reasons. But ultimately it fails due to her blindness and failure to see happiness. Rhett final leaves, delivering what is probably the greatest line in cinema history. What makes it tragic is Scarlett’s epiphany that she does love Rhett. She declares she will find a way to get him back but we as audience will never know if she does. The camera pulls back, revealing a solitary Scarlett standing at Tara – and the audience cannot help but sense the tragedy of a love unrealised.

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca is perhaps one of cinema’s most loved and enduring films. It often lists higher on greatest film lists than films which are certainly much better. Some critics have declared it to be one of the best worst films ever made and Pauline Kael has even described it as ‘schlocky’. There are holes in the plot, which an ocean liner could comfortably sail through and by all reports there was daily confusion on the direction of the plot whilst filming. So why does this film endure?

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Well Bogart sure helps, as does the ethereal beauty of Bergman. And it has one of film’s most memorable and beautiful songs. But I would argue it endures because it is a tragic love story.

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) seems self-assured and blasé to the events going on that have set the world ablaze. Running his club and illegal casino in Vichy French controlled Morocco during World War Two, Rick makes his money and occasionally helps some of the continental refugees to escape (betraying his supposed neutrality and disinterest). However, his world is turned upside down when the lost love of his life Elsa (Ingrid Bergman) turns up at his club with her husband escaped Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried). Rick’s face contorts for a moment though he composes himself in time, saving his pain for later.

After the club has closed, Rick drinks in the dark alone, tortured by her arrival after trying hard to forget her. He utters one of the most famous lines in film history; adlibbed by Bogart himself:

We are brought up to speed when Rick relives their romance in Paris before the chaos of war will wedge between them. Experiencing their happiness, it is impossible not to recall our own moments of the joy and happiness of love. But the memories are bittersweet and the audience’s transference onto Rick and Elsa heightens that emotion. We see the reason for their parting, as Rick waiting at the train station in the pouring rain, receives a letter from Elsa stating they can never see each other again. Rick’s pain becomes ours and it is difficult not to be moved by the beautiful cinematic moment of the ink melting into the rain, as the train pulls out.

His pain is undeniable and flames when she comes to him alone. Trying to explain herself, Rick’s responds with bitter-soaked cynicism, insulting her. She turns away and leaves, realising that it is pointless to continue. As she walks out the door, Rick collapses at the table, torn with inner pain, knowing his responses achieved nothing and walking the line between love and hateful despair.

As the story progresses, Elsa’s desperation to get out of Casablanca with Victor becomes intertwined with her revived love for Rick – it even appears that Rick and Elsa will leave together. The ending is one of the greatest scenes in film and is also the reason why Casablanca endures as a great romance film. Bogart delivers a parting speech that cemented his place in cinema history.

The two are not parted by war, and only in part by the situation that war created for them. Rick and Elsa are parted by the strength of their love. Sacrifices are made but their moment together remains a testimony to the old adage that some can love more in a few days than most do in a lifetime. As both find out, they’ll always have Paris.

Which is why Rick and Elsa as a couple endure – whether they are together or not.

Now Voyager (1942)

At times a little drawn out and occasionally (and unfairly) dismissed as a ‘women’s picture’ or ‘tear-jerker’, Now Voyager is so much more. Bette Davis’ turn as Charlotte Vale, from lonely, mentally abused frump transforming into a stronger, more confident woman, is perhaps her best-known film role.

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Charlotte, suffering from a nervous breakdown after years of her mother’s mental abuse and cruel domination, goes to a sanatorium run by Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains). As part of her therapy, she later goes on a luxurious cruise where she meets Jerry (Paul Henreid), who is travelling with friends. She discovers that Jerry is in an unhappy marriage with two daughters to a woman who didn’t want children, echoing Charlotte’s own mother-daughter relationship.

Charlotte’s nervous caution, highlighted by her fragile self-consciousness, is slowly evaporated by Jerry’s patient kindness and the two form a friendship. However, it will blossom into love, one complicated by his marriage and sense of honour.

Both Charlotte and Jerry return to their respective lives, when they return. Charlotte has gained confidence and strength from Jerry’s love and she moves forward in her life. But the memory haunts her, best expressed when her inner thoughts reveal: ‘And I have only a dried corsage, an empty bottle of perfume and can’t even say his name’.

A chance meeting at a party again finds the two maintaining convention and on the surface acting cordial. Their love affair must be kept secret for propriety but as Sarah Kozloff points out in Overhearing Film Dialogue (2005) their sotto voce revelations underneath the casual banter burst through with deep passion. It is difficult to wave such passion away, particularly when it is aided and abetted by Max Steiner’s musical score.

Charlotte faces a setback with her mother’s death and when seeking solace at Dr Jaquith’s sanatorium meets Jerry’s youngest daughter, Trina who is fraught with problems. Charlotte becomes close to Trina and it also gives her the chance to be close to Jerry. But they cannot be together as they wish to be. Charlotte and Jerry must maintain distance for the sake of Trina and the film ends with one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and memorable scenes:

Whilst not truly parting, never to set eyes on each other again, Charlotte and Jerry must face just the opposite. Whilst the film ends on a ‘high’, the audience cannot help but feel for the love that the two cannot have completely.

Brief Encounter (1945)

David Lean is generally associated with what could be termed big films, offering a big cinematic experience with power and scope. Think Lawrence Of Arabia and The Bridge On The River Kwai. Yet earlier films such as Brief Encounter (1945) cannot be ignored when considering classic film. For the purposes of this article, it can also not be ignored as a perfect example of two lovers parting and a love never fully realised.

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Though Brief Encounter is Lean’s picture, the love story comes from the pen of Noel Coward. As David Thompson accurately pointed out in his 2010 Guardian article, the discretely gay Coward understood middle-class sensibilities at the time and showed great restraint, avoiding any suggestions of impropriety and shaping characters that were decent and ‘nice’. Lean, on the other hand, would have happily taken things a step or two further. However, the power of the film exists in the reality that the two never consummate their love.

Middle class housewife, Laura (Celia Johnson), is married to a fairly dull though respectable man named Fred. Their marriage is one of comfort, safety and fondness yet hardly inspiring of passion or fire. An innocent chance meeting with a doctor named Alec (Trevor Howard) sees a seemingly harmless friendship strike up, with regular meetings for lunch, going to the cinema, drives together and eventually the chance to take things further at a friend’s flat which ends awkwardly.

The story itself would barely hold up in an era of online encounters, Craigslist and cheap comedies depicting quite explicit casual sex. Yet therein lies the quality, depth and beauty of Brief Encounter. There is depth and power in the emotion of what could be. Far from being a melodramatic soap opera, the film’s depiction of a couple torn between loyalty to family and marriage and the possibility and hope of love and passion. One can see the desperation in their eyes as they look at each other and the agony that consumes them.

The final goodbye is perhaps where the tragedy reaches its’ zenith, as the moment is stolen from them by the banality of an acquaintance of Laura bumping into them at the station and prattling on to Laura as Alec’s train arrives. Laura and Alec’s haunting last look at each other betrays the terrible anguish of their final parting. No final goodbyes, no last kiss or last moment of passion. No words could possibly encompass the loss that each feels. Their dream of being in each other’s arms dissipates like the steam from the train engine taking Alec away. Laura returns to her husband and all ends ‘well’ in terms of a return to normality.

But there may not be one amongst us who cannot feel the anguish in their own hearts – of what could have been and what will never be. Laura and Alec are the patron saints of lost love.

Dr Zhivago (1962)

Another masterpiece courtesy of David Lean. Unlike Brief Encounter, the love affair between Yuri Zhivago (Omar Shariff) and Lara (Julie Christie) is realised and consummated, revealing a very different and interesting dynamic. A generation earlier revelled in the shy, cautious and ‘honourable’ couple in Laura and Alec – not so in the early 1960s. Changing values and attitudes in the audience saw acceptance of an extra-marital affair.

Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and civil war that followed, the poet/doctor Zhivago is married to a childhood sweetheart and also has a son. However, his war service during World War One sees him come into contact with Lara, also married to an idealistic yet ruthless revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtney). Entranced with Lara who also feels something for him, they maintain honour and part when their war service is over, having done nothing a la Brief Encounter.

Yet this time Lean goes further and takes the steps he would have taken had Coward not tempered Lean’s wishes in 1945. As the civil war worsens, Zhivago takes his family further east to safety in Varykino and incredibly discovers that Lara is living with her own daughter in a nearby town named Yuriatin, abandoned by her husband who is now a general calling himself Strelnikov.

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Meeting again, Lara and Zhivago finally fulfil their desires and begin a passionate love affair. However, Tonya falls pregnant, Zhivago ends the affair and is soon press-ganged into becoming a doctor for a partisan group in the civil war. Two years pass before they are reunited but Zhivago’s family are gone and the situation has worsened for both and he and Lara. As the tragedy unfolds, Zhivago stays behind so that Lara and her daughter can escape. As she leaves, Zhivago watches her and there are no words that could be written to match those within the hearts of the audience.

But perhaps the true tragedy is years later when Zhivago finds himself back in Moscow. Sick and weak and working as a doctor, he is travelling to work on the tram – a touching moment harkening to an earlier moment in the film when a younger Zhivago shares the same tram with Lara. As he sits, Zhivago sees Lara walking along the street and cannot believe his own eyes as he struggles to get off the tram. But his weak heart cannot take the excitement and a massive heart attack takes him on the street, as he reaches out to Lara, who continues on her way oblivious to him. It is a terribly tragic moment, with the chance for them to be finally reunited, stolen from them both.

Dr Zhivago highlights the tragedy of history and how it impacts on people and their lives. But it also reflects the tragedy and beauty of love, where the worst times in history throw people together, allows them to taste the joy of love and then cruelly rips it from them.

There are many films where we celebrate and cheer the couple living happily forever after, especially when overcoming incredible adversity to reach each other. The couple joining hands and walking into the sunset together leaves us warm and cosy, and perhaps even inspired. Yet it is an easy feeling and too simple a finish. We know that life is not so kind to us and certainly not as tidy as film. Perhaps what makes the tragic love story so touching and enduring is that it mirrors life a little more than the happy ending and may even reflect elements of our own lives.

Special Mentions

Wuthering Heights (1939) Directed by William Wyler. With Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.

Dark Victory (1939) Directed by Edmund Goulding. With Bette Davis and George Brent.

The Heiress (1949) Directed by William Wyler. With Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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