American Film Comedies

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

27 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Film Semiotic Approaches and Theory on Romantic Comedies
2.1 Semantics
2.1.1 Typical Plots of Romantic Comedies
2.1.2 Stereotypical Characters in Romantic Comedies
2.2 Mise-en-scene

3 Analysis of Mating in Romantic Comedies
3.1 Cactus Flower
3.1.1 Characters
3.1.2 Plots
3.1.3 Mise-en-scene
3.2 Something’s Gotta Give
3.2.1 Characters
3.2.2 Plots
3.2.3 Mise-en-scene

4 Patriarchal Patterns of Mating in Romantic Comedies

5 Summary



Plot of “Cactus Flower”
Plot of “Something’s Gotta Give”

1 Introduction

This dialogue from “Cactus Flower” is very likely to catch the attention of a 21st century woman instantly because of its chauvinist, discriminating tone against women. It is very intriguing to find this conversation in a film which was shot in the so-called liberal sixties, and which raised the question to me whether patriarchal values are only detectable in older romantic comedies such as “Cactus Flower” (1969) or whether these values became obsolete in newer romantic comedies such as “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003).

In spite of the constant success of romantic comedies─ “There’s Something about Mary” (2001), for instance, passed the “gold record line” of $100 million with flying colours─ little attention has been paid to analyzing this film genre. The few critics who analyzed and interpreted film comedies tend to focus on masterpieces and on auteur films such as “The General” by Buster Keaton, but they are likely to neglect romantic comedies. Therefore, this paper focuses deliberately on romantic comedies which are neither in the canon of masterpieces nor directed by an auteur.

Interestingly, critics have not been able to agree on a final definition of romantic comedies, for which reason I chose to draw on Thomas Schatz’s definition: Romantic comedies are “fast-paced, witty comedies of manners exploiting the foibles of America’s leisure class” (Classical Hollywood Comedies 126). An additional characteristic of romantic comedies, is the fact that focus is put on the mating of the major characters, with the result that gender quarrels play a major role. Consequently, romantic comedies propose to the spectatorship how to find true love, and they communicate implicitly universal patterns of mating and morality.

Romantic comedies are obsessed with mating. Susanne Langer points out that romantic comedies are exhibiting the women’s battle with men, and that of men with women (123), and this is, indeed, the case in both films. Furthermore, Gerald Mast emphasizes the fact that “(t)he amorous conclusion grows directly and exclusively from amorous complications” (5). Consequently, these amorous complications must constitute the plot in romantic comedies, and therefore, it is obvious that the comparison of an older and a newer romantic comedies exhibits whether the patterns of mating and patriarchal values did alter or not.

To answer the research question whether romantic comedies are revealing patriarchal mating values and whether these values became outmoded in newer romantic comedies, the paper focuses on two relatively similar romantic comedies which were shot with a gap of almost 35 years. The romantic comedies being analyzed are “Cactus Flower” and “Something’s Gotta Give”. The former was shot in 1969 and directed by Gene Saks, whereas the latter was shot in 2003 and directed by Nancy Meyers. Both directors are recognized for their comedies, but nevertheless, neither their films belong to the film canon, nor do the directors belong to the auteur canon.

After introducing the filmsemiotic approaches on which the comparison of the two films is based, chapter three deals with the analysis of the two films. Based on the theoretical approach underlying the analysis, it is divided into two parts: Firstly, the semantics, consisting of characters and plots, and secondly, the syntax constituted by mise-en-scene. In these subchapters, special attention is paid to discovering how mating and patriarchy function in “Cactus Flower” and whether the findings are also evident in “Something’s Gotta Give”. After the analysis, the author answers in chapter four the question whether old gender roles and patriarchal values are reinforced only in older romantic comedies or whether they are also detectable in the more modern romantic comedy “Something’s Gotta Give”, consequently chapter four relates to the development of romantic comedies, to why romantic comedies tend to be depicted from a patriarchal male point of view, and to why romantic comedies are still a major genre despite the exhibiting of patriarchal values.

2 Film Semiotic Approaches and Theory on Romantic Comedies

Film semiotic theory indicates that films have a special system of signs, which implies that it approaches movies as if they have an own language (A Companion to Film Theory 11-12). As all critics agree on this view, film semiotic approaches attempt to locate the elements that make up the text of a movie. This paper makes use of the filmsemiotic approaches to analyze the romantic comedies structurally.

The film semiotic terminology used in this paper was coined by Rick Altman. He argues that most debates on film genre center on the classification of genre according to either broadly inclusive, iconographic definitions, or more interpretive definitions. Altman calls inclusive definitions “semantic”, because they describe the “building blocks” of a film genre. Interpretive definitions are labelled “syntactic” as they represent the story in which the “building blocks” are presented (53). An example for semantics is the fact that most westerns deal with the stock character of the lonesome hero. Syntax than deals with the fact that a western is a film about historical tensions between individualism and society. In sum, Altman indicates that film genre can only be properly defined and analyzed by combining these two approaches. Therefore, the author used the semantic and syntactic approach, which will be introduced in the next subchapters, for analyzing the romantic comedies.

2.1 Semantics

Various elements belong to the class of semantics: The setting, particular techniques of editing and framing, the title of a film, costume and make-up, and naturally, specific plots and stock characters. However, as the authors of “A Companion to Film Theory” point out (126), the semantics are much less in number in romantic comedies: According to Kristine Karnick, there is no distinctive setting or iconography of romantic comedies (126). Furthermore, romantic comedies also lack specific costume and make-up, as it would be found in the sci-fi genre. With regard to romantic comedies, it seems that plot and character are the two most important elements. However, they have been analyzed in depth by Gerald Mast and Mark D. Rubinfeld. Accordingly, I will focus on plot and character in my analysis of the semantic level of the two comedies.

2.1.1 Typical Plots of Romantic Comedies

Rubinfeld developed four major types of plots that are frequently used in romantic comedies. The first one is the “pursuit plot”: This plot involves the conquest of a female by the hero. The hero is fascinated by a heroine, courts her, encounters opposition from her, and being the hero of the story, he refuses to take no for an answer. Eventually, the hero woos her and they become a couple (4). In the “cold-hearted redemption plot”, Rubinfeld’s second plot type, the hero featured in this plot is heartbroken and incapable of love. To be re-socialized, the hero needs a redemptive female whose persistent caring turns him into a better human being (12-14). The last two plots depict the shaping and resolving of love triangles: The third plot is the “dweeb foil plot”, in which the heroine has to choose between two good natured men who love or profess to love her (45), whereas in the fourth plot this constellation is reversed, and the hero has to choose between two women who love him. In this “temptress foil plot”, the chaste, conservative heroine works against a woman who uses her sexuality to tempt the hero (56-58).

Gerald Mast suggests eight plots which are more basic than Rubinfeld’s, nevertheless, I only relate to the ones which are inevitable to the analysis of the two movies: Firstly, “Benson`s Law”- “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” (4). Secondly, the plot of the romance or the melodramatic: “The central character either chooses to perform or is forced to accept a difficult task […]”. The plot then traces his successful accomplishment of the task, often with him winning the battle, the girl…[sic]” (8). The third plot is the “commitment of an error”, in which the central figure of a film discovers an error he or she has been committing in the course of his life (8).

2.1.2 Stereotypical Characters in Romantic Comedies

Unfortunately, not one critic provides definitions of stock characters and analysis of the functions of characters in romantic comedies. I will focus mainly on Mast’s general findings on film comedy and on Rubinfeld’s findings about plot, because their findings relate implicitly to character. According to Mast, the characters in a film comedy show us instantly that the climate is comic, especially when a familiar comedian acts in the romantic comedy. Furthermore, the usually one-dimensional characters represent comic types, either physically or psychologically. These stereotypical, mechanical characters often act in minor roles, whereas perfectly supple, non-stereotypic characters act in major roles (14). Therefore, most laughs are delivered by the minor characters, because the major characters must be believable and too many laughs would corrupt their roundness.

Rubinfeld, on the other hand, does not explicitly elaborate on character, but the characters in his four plots can be interpreted and equated with certain stock characteristics. Accordingly, the hero in the “pursuit plot” must have enormous self-esteem and self-knowledge to be of the opinion that he is the right mate for the heroine. As Northrop Frye points out, “comedy is designed […] to ridicule a lack of self-knowledge” (76), and therefore, the heroine, in contrast to the hero, lacks confidence and self-knowledge because she changes her opinion in the end.

In the “cold-hearted redemption plot” the hero is heartbroken with the result that he is not able to love anymore. Being insensitive, he often mistreats women. He resembles the action movie stock character of the “lonely wolf”, who is indifferent to relationships and who is unaware of the fact that he needs love to be complete. The heroine, on the other hand, does not lack self-knowledge, is very sensitive, and she discovers early on that the hero can be, in fact, a loving person.

As mentioned earlier, the last two plots of Rubinfeld depict the shaping and resolving of love triangles. The heroine in a “dweeb foil plot” must be highly intelligent and attractive as she can choose between two lovers, and as I indicated before, almost every comedy ends happily with the ideal couple having found each other. In addition to this, Rubinfeld points out that the “dweeb foil” is too romantic and naïve, and for that reason the “dweeb” is dismissed (34). Therefore, I conclude that the “dweeb foil” represents the stock character of the young man in love, which is also mentioned by Werner Faulstich (47). This young man in love serves only one purpose: To enable the hero to succeed over him and to win the heroine’s heart (Rubinfeld 45). Consequently, this stock character carries no specific meaning in the sense of ideology. Nevertheless, his figure is necessary to add twists and turns to the plot which “complicates the structure which might otherwise be quite predictable” (A Companion to Film Theory 129). In addition to this, he delivers numerous laughs, and for this reason his comic remarks and funny acting support the comic climate of a romantic comedy.

In the temptress foil plot, the temptress character must be sexually attractive and active as she has to provoke the hero to secure his attention. The hero of this plot is a Casanova, and traditionally, I associate prosperity, a certain handsomeness and charisma with this. In contrast to the “temptress foil”, the heroine represents the stock character of the “good wife” (58) as she symbolizes chastity, conformity and faithfulness.

However, one more important character must be added to these plots: According to Karnick, in most romantic comedies one minor character acts as the “conscience figure” (46). Firstly, this character can be the conscience of the hero, but the character can also act as the conscience of the whole cast, especially if the figure uses metalanguage or sums up the ideology of the film (46-48). However, the “conscience figure” is also a minor character that is more or less marginal to the story and serves only the purpose to establish meaning in the comedy. In early comedy, the “conscience figure” is labelled the “wise fool”, which points to the fact that most conscience figures appear to be unreasonable and foolish.


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American Film Comedies
Dresden Technical University  (Amerikanische Kultur- und Literaturwissenschaften)
American Film Comedies
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ISBN (Book)
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"Something's Gotta Give" / "Cactus Flower"
American, Film, Comedies, American, Film, Comedies
Quote paper
Rebecca Rasche (Author), 2006, American Film Comedies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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