Recommendations from the World’s No. 1 Romantic
By Wendell Abern
It is February. Valentines. Love. Gifts. Hugs. Kisses. The whole enchilada.
Sure, you may consider yourself a true romantic. But if you dare to challenge my self-proclaimed title, you must be willing to risk being called a buffoon.
We genuine romantics don’t merely cry in movies; we sob loud enough to disturb other patrons. We also believe the good guys win and the bad guys lose; that justice always triumphs over injustice; that the right thing always happens; And we continue to believe these things, all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
To us, “that glass” is three-fourths full. Always. We are, in truth, hopeless.
As the self-appointed president of HRA (Hopeless Romantics Association), I consider it my responsibility to share with you a few books and movies that we HRs treasure. You may never even have even heard of some of these.
True romantic literature has nothing to do with today’s romance novels, where the goal of every protagonist (male or female) is to get someone up to the altar or into the sack. Instead, early romanticists tapped into the inner world of emotions, emphasized individuality, and even explored the strange and the supernatural.
Romanticism, as a genre, evolved from the strappings of the Enlightment era, with its emphasis on exquisite craftsmanship and formal style (Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Daniel Defoe, et al).
To begin with, your reading bona fides must blanket all of the Nineteenth Century poets, beginning with Keats and Byron … and must include three novels by Jane Austen, “Mill on the Floss” or “Middlemarch” by George Eliot, and Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.”
But have you ever even heard of George duMaurier?
His granddaughter Daphne far exceeded his fame with “Rebecca,” “My Cousin Rachel,” and a host of other novels.
But what about the old man?
George duMaurier had been a cartoonist for the London Times. Somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century, at the age of 57, he penned “Peter Ibbetson.” I was required to read this book for a senior Lit course entitled “Romance to Realism;” my professor considered it to be the epitome of the romantic novel.
I have promised myself to not divulge entire plots in this piece, but I will titillate you with a few tidbits.
Short summary: Peter Ibbetson is born in France, gets hauled off to England when he’s twelve, and grows up British. Shortly after meeting the love of his life, he spends most of his adult life in jail. While imprisoned, he meets his true love at night … in shared dreams.
They meet each other in their dreams!
This singular hook should satisfy any romantic, except the lazy ones who concern themselves with believability. We hopeless romantics have no use for reality.
I will mention only one other book, a 20th Century effort by English novelist James Hilton, called “Random Harvest.” This touching tale also became a wonderful movie. You’ve probably never even heard of it. In “Random Harvest,” Hilton employs a great literary tool: amnesia. He wields it superbly.
And no, I will not give you even a glimpse of the plot.
Mountains of them.
Professional movie critics rate movies by assessing a number of stars to them: a fair movie fetches two stars, a great movie (rare) receives four.
I use the same rating system, but I assign handkerchiefs instead of stars.
“An Affair to Remember,” of course, makes every romantic’s list as a four-hanky job. But there are other movies that most people wouldn’t dub “romantic;” others that many people may not have seen.
“Starman,” for example, gets listed everywhere as science fiction. But we HRs see it as the best kind of love story: it creeps up on you.
You suspect something might happen between Jeff Bridges (alien from outer space) and Karen Allen (young widow from Wisconsin). But the science fiction veneer masks their growing mutual love so effectively you forget about it entirely until it blossoms gracefully and believably.
High up on all RA lists is a movie most people have never heard of, let alone seen. “Hanover Street,” with one of my favorite movie plots: an American serviceman, serving in London during World War II, meets a beautiful English woman.
This familiar set-up gets a sensitive, brittle treatment from a superb cast, featuring Harrison ford, Lesley-Anne Down and Christopher Plummer. I refuse to say anything about the plot if you watch. But get handkerchiefs ready. Or a whole box of Kleenex.
Note that I have not mentioned any musicals. A deliberate omission. Musicals are too easy to rate from an HR point of view: they all rate highly because they bring tears even when you’re laughing.
However, it would be derelict of me to not at least mention “My Fair Lady” and “A Star is Born” (Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand version). All HRs weep whenever they see these movies. In fact, if you haven’t watched them at least twice, you get demoted to RR: “Rookie Romantic.”
There is one romantic sort-of-a-musical movie, however, that has long been my personal favorite. “Young at Heart.”
Starring Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. It doesn’t qualify as a musical because there is no dancing, no big stage musical numbers and no rip-roaring finale.
What it does have is Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, both at the peak of their singing careers.
Day sings a song called, “I’m All Dressed Up To Go Dreaming,” one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Someone gave it words. And damned good ones, too. Sinatra gives a heart-wrenching rendition of “It Was Just One of Those Things” that wallops the soft spot inside you … the one you don’t want anyone to know about.
And those are just two of the eight or ten ballads sprinkled throughout “Young at Heart.”
I never saw a review of this movie, but I suspect no self-respecting critic would give it more than one star. For one thing, it may be the corniest movie ever made. For another, the characters are laughable caricatures. Doris Day gives new meaning to the phrase, “Goodie Two-Shoes.” Frank Sinatra is a cliché of an exploited musician. The dialog is so sophomoric you’ll swear it was written by some high school kid who flunked English. In fact, all things considered, “Young at Heart” is a ridiculous movie.
I’ve seen it eleven times.
Wendell Abern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.