When I started dating my now-husband, I quickly found myself growing embarrassed over my lack of classic movie exposure—“classic” being a very loose term for old movies that have stood the test of time. As he was quick to tell me then, The Parent Trap was not exactly his definition of a classic (yes, I asked about both the Hayley Mills and Lindsay Lohan versions!). My husband wasn’t a movie snob; he simply grew up watching (mostly) old black-and-white films and TV shows with his family. And, thankfully for me, he quickly brought me up to speed on many of his favorites.
I could not believe that I’d somehow missed out on so many movie gems for years. And it seems I’m not alone: according to an article in the New York Post, the number of millennials who have seen classics like Casablanca and Rear Window is declining. However, I disagree with the article’s main claim that “millennials don’t really care about classic movies.” The problem isn’t that I don’t care about classic movies—I simply didn’t have much exposure to them growing up.
Now, having watched more than my fair share, I can confidently say that I not only enjoy decades-old movies, but I often seek them out over more contemporary films. I appreciate plot lines that are less sexualized than most of the movies I find on my Netflix home page (while keeping in mind that these old films may have unsavory characteristics typical of their own time periods, like outdated attitudes about a woman’s role in marriage or the glorification of alcohol consumption).
Of all the classics I’ve been introduced to, it is the romances that evoke all of the emotions for me. I have a true soft spot for Cary Grant (don’t worry, my husband knows!), and I don’t think I could ever grow tired of watching actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, or Grace Kelly grace the screen. If you’re searching for a romantic movie outside of the current recent-release pickings, I highly suggest going back a few decades (or more than a few) to watch one of the following enchanting films. (Note: all can be rented from a variety of streaming services.)
An Affair to Remember
An Affair to Remember is one of the best romantic movies I’ve ever seen. The 1957 drama/romance starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr is based on the 1939 movie, Love Affair, and it tells the story of a man and a woman, Nickie Ferrante and Terry McKay, who meet aboard a cruise from Europe to New York. They are both in serious relationships with sweethearts they have left back home, and although they certainly try to keep their distance (both for their own sake and for the sake of appearances, as they are both renowned figures), they just can’t seem to stay apart from each other.
The chemistry between Grant and Kerr’s characters is palpable, beginning with the teasing and playful banter of new love and ending with a beautiful, self-sacrificing, genuine love emerging from a tragic twist of fate. It is truly a beautiful love story, and I even adored all of the minor characters—the children Terry teaches to sing, her caring beau before Nickie (who sticks with her through hard times), and especially Nickie’s adorable grandmother. You’ll be touched by the scene in France with Nickie’s grandmother, one of those authentic, lovely women who have the gift of knowing and understanding people. When Nickie finds Terry crying upon leaving his grandmother in France, she exclaims that she’s crying because “that’s what beauty does to me.”
I found myself crying at the end of the move for the very same reason. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that that last scene is possibly my favorite final scene in any movie. Pure beauty.
The Lady Eve
They just don’t make romantic comedies like they used to! Barbara Stanwyck plays a beautiful but dangerously cunning con woman, Jean Harrington, in this hilarious 1941 classic. Jean and her father are card sharks aboard a luxury passenger ship, trying to make money off of the wealthy Charles Pike (played by Henry Fonda) whose famous father made his fortune brewing ale. Charles is returning home after a yearlong Amazon expedition, and it doesn’t take long for him to fall in love with Jean. Everything is going according to the con artists’ plan until Jean starts to fall for Charles, too.
She may be a girl with an agenda, but I found Stanwyck’s character charming, witty, and often relatable, as she struggles with her conscience, her budding love, and what to do once Charles discovers who she really is. The film reveals the destruction deception wreaks on a relationship, but in such a way that is amusingly eye-opening rather than somber. From the romantic moonlit boat deck scene to the final surprising plot twist, I adored the natural rapport between the two characters, as well as the absurdly funny twists of fate and Stanwyck’s spontaneous and hilarious bursts of dialogue. It’s the perfect combination of slapstick, romance, wit, and suspense.
I had the opportunity to watch Casablanca last summer on the “big screen” in one of the old, historic theaters in Cleveland—exactly the way that people would have watched the movie for the very first time when it was released in 1942. There were no fancy reclining seats, but it was the most breathtaking venue for a movie I’ve ever seen. Glancing down at my casual summer outfit, I even felt a little underdressed. Luckily, all eyes were on Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, not on me!
Rick Blaine (Bogart) is an American expatriate who now claims “neutrality” in the midst of World War II and owns an upscale nightclub in Casablanca. Although he’s a cynical businessman, he soon reveals his softer, romantic side when his former love, Ilsa Lund (Bergman), walks into “Rick’s Cafe” and sits at a table with her husband. As the story unfolds, Rick is faced with the decision of either helping Ilsa and her husband (a renowned fugitive) escape Casablanca, or finding a way to get her husband out of the picture to be together with his long-lost love once again.
I consider Casablanca to be a romance (who could deny the chemistry between the main characters?), although it could also be classified as a suspense or action movie or even a comedy. It truly does deserve all its high-rankings and undying praise, and it’s no wonder that people are still quoting memorable lines from its sharp, witty dialogue. (“Here’s looking at you, kid!”)
The Philadelphia Story
This 1940 classic, witty romance features a stellar cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart. It tells the story of the beautiful socialite Tracy (Hepburn) on the eve of her second wedding to a man not half as interesting or handsome as her first husband, Dexter (Grant). Due to her social status, a reporter (Stewart) and photographer are sent from a tabloid magazine to cover the wedding, and she decides to put on quite the show for them.
It is clear from the start that Tracy should never have divorced Dexter, and Cary Grant’s natural, teasing manner with Katharine Hepburn and their glittering screen chemistry made me cheer for them from the start. The acting is superb, the dialogue is brilliant, and the absurdity of the whole love entanglement only adds to the unique charm of The Philadelphia Story.
Roman Holiday was the first Audrey Hepburn movie I ever watched; coincidentally, it is also her first big-screen appearance, where she stars alongside the already famous Gregory Peck. In this 1953 romantic classic, Hepburn plays a princess on the brink of burnout. While visiting Rome, Princess Ann flees from her room and her responsibilities one night, and a reporter named Joe Bradley takes her in for the night when he finds her in an unfortunate situation due to the sedatives her doctor had given her.
While he does not recognize the princess at first, the opportunity to further his journalist career and make good money soon presents itself when he does make the advantageous connection. What actually plays out, however, is a hilarious, wonderfully charming string of events as Joe and his photographer friend take Princess Ann around Rome for a day. They help her to experience true freedom for the first time, and although they have their own secret agenda, an obvious attraction between Peck and Hepburn’s characters gets in the way of that.
I find Hepburn to be completely endearing in her role as the innocent, curious princess, and I love how she soaks in even the smallest experiences, like getting her hair cut, eating gelato, and sitting at a cafe. Without spoiling anything, I will simply say that the ending is as beautiful and satisfying as one could expect from this gem.
Recently, I’ve found myself turning to these classics more frequently as I crave a certain pure, simple beauty that I just cannot find in most recently released films. Nothing quite satisfies a romantic soul like these memorable characters and their absorbing stories.