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21st-Century Mythologies - Omnibus, Part 2

When Harry met Sally at 20

Friday 28 August 2009, 19:02

Sarah Churchwell Sarah Churchwell

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When Harry met Sally

Editor's note - Sarah Churchwell is writer and presenter of yesterday's When Harry met Sally at 20. I asked her to tell us more about her subject - SB.

The only difficult thing about writing a script - or indeed a blog post - about When Harry Met Sally and its place in the genealogy of American romantic comedy was having to stop. Even harder was knowing it would have to be edited for time: my original script would have run over an hour, and we were only given 30 minutes, including clips. The response so far to the final programme has been what I hoped: people on email and twitter saying, "I didn't think romantic comedy would hold up to analysis, but it does." And several people have asked for more discussion of Harry and Sally's relation to the older romantic comedies of Hollywood's golden age. So I thought I'd use this opportunity to expand on a few of the ideas that didn't make the final cut.

Harry and Sally harkened back to the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s, the years before the Second World War changed the game, the films that invented the battle of the sexes as we know it. We mentioned the influence of Woody Allen, and the way that Harry and Sally fuse Woody Allen's late 1970s romantic comedies with an earlier classical Hollywood vision, but there wasn't time to say more. Unlike Allen's specifically Jewish-American comic take on romance, which focuses on Allen's psychodramas, the classical Hollywood comedies of the 1930s to the 1960s were generally WASPy in their characters and culture; in the 30s they were concerned with issues of class and social status; after the Second World War they started playing variations on the Difficult Woman theme: taming shrews, melting the frigid, educating the innocent, cutting career women down to size, and very occasionally teaching a straying man the error of his ways. Woody Allen, by contrast, made romantic comedies about Woody Allen.

Director Rob Reiner and writer Nora Ephron consciously and constantly make references to classic cinema and musical standards of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, visual and aural quotations that remind us of where we've come from and suggest where we're going. For example, the film ironically reproduces the famous split screen of the Day-Hudson comedy Pillow Talk, from 1959, thirty years earlier, in which the film wittily suggested that the lead couple, who could not be shown in bed together because of the Hays Code, were actually taking a bath together by juxtaposing pictures of them in their separate apartments while in the bath.

Reiner shows Harry and Sally in bed 'together' using the same split-screen technique, when they are in separate beds and separate apartments, watching the same film, Casablanca, a film they mention and argue about more than once - and by no coincidence it is the great American treatise on romantic loneliness and the consolations friends can offer: Casablanca finishes, after all, with the end of love and the beginning of a beautiful friendship. When Harry Met Sally finishes with the end of a beautiful friendship and the beginning of love.

As Harry and Sally watch Casablanca together late at night, the split-screen suggests not sublimated or displaced sexual tension, as the 1959 Pillow Talk did, but rather the easy companionship of post-coital 1989 'pillow talk,' of a couple in bed together watching a movie, rather than having passionate sex. Compatibility is key, and one of the things that defines Harry and Sally is their refusal to ever take grief from each other. They become friends at the precise moment when Sally finally hits back: "I just didn't like you," she says, "and you had to write it off as a character flaw, instead of accepting the fact that it might have had something to do with you." Suddenly, Sally is smarter, tougher, less of a straight man and comic butt of the joke than we might have thought. This is not a film that thinks women are stupid or passive - or mysterious, frigid, or threatening.

We noted that When Harry Met Sally marks the last time - to date - that Hollywood made a romantic comedy that was pitched equally at both sexes. Today, we dismiss romantic comedy, derisively as 'chick flicks.' Among other things, this reinforces the idea that only women are interested in relationships, as if only they want to see films about them, when of course love, sex, and comedy are, in real life, abiding interests of both sexes. But in films we assign romantic comedy to women: if it's a chick flick then only women care about love. The chick flicks we're getting today reinforce the stereotype that women are the custodians of relationships, and men are commitment-phobic.

But Harry isn't commitment-phobic: he's coming out of a marriage to a woman he loves. He just doesn't know that he loves Sally for a while. That's hardly a high-concept view of relationships. Harry is confused - but in contrast to the men in the so-called Bromance, he's also not a man-child refusing to grow up. He's a functioning, successful professional: both Harry and Sally are grown-ups. Ironically enough, this makes When Harry Met Sally a throwback - and one of the many reasons we still love it.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

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