A Walk Down Memory Lane: The History of the Rom-Com

A Walk Down Memory Lane: The History of the Rom-Com

A delightful meet cute. Loveable, quirky heroines. Stories that lead to that race-to-the-alter ending. Throughout history, romantic comedies have always been fan favorites. And while these films are lighthearted, they often carry more weight thematically. The types of stories we’ve chosen to tell has reflected on our society and how we view love. And while this storytelling has changed shape, one thing always remained true: We love to celebrate love. Let’s take a walk down memory lane and look at some of the genre’s most iconic films, explore fun facts about our cherished favorites and highlight our most anticipated rom-coms in 2024.    

Scroll down to see how it all came together. 

How It All Started: The OG Rom-Coms

Romantic comedies date back to the Greeks and Shakespeare himself, so it’s no surprise that rom-coms were some of the very first films. Girl Shy (1924) was one of the first silent movies and is one of the first romantic comedies. This timeless classic was also the first to end the movie with the beloved rush-to-the-alter climactic scene. Later, with the invention of “talkies,” It Happened One Night (1934) was another rom-com to take the world by storm. The film clearly made its mark, too, since it won multiple Oscars that year. iHisHIsHisHis Girl Friday (1940) was a screwball comedy that was way ahead of its time, plot wise. This charming film originated the storytelling trope of focusing on two reporters in a media world whose witty banter and chemistry light up the screen. Many are also familiar with The Shop Around the Corner (1940) because this holiday film is the inspiration for the much-loved ’90s rom-com You’ve Got Mail. And, of course, who could forget Roman Holiday (1953)? This Audrey Hepburn classic tells a now-familiar story: A princess escapes her stuffy life for a taste of adventure in the big city and, along the way, meets and falls in love with an undercover reporter.

Filmmaker Icons in the 1980s and ’90s

Later, in the 1980s and ’90s, a few iconic filmmakers hit the scene with some heavy-hitting classics. Writer/director John Hughes made his mark with Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986). Garry Marshall also found success with box office hits like Overboard (1987) and Pretty Woman (1990). Around the same time, the incomparable Nora Ephron took Hollywood by storm. When Harry Met Sally (1989) launched her career and cemented Meg Ryan as America’s sweetheart. Many of the film’s elements represent the romantic comedy as we know it today, and filmmakers have been trying to replicate its magic ever since. Then, in 1993, Ephron wrote and directed the iconic Sleepless in Seattle (1993); her storytelling here breaks the mold because the couple doesn’t meet until the end. And later, in 1998, Ephron’s blockbuster You’ve Got Mail premiered, which was one of the first movies to showcase a romance over the then-new Internet.

Rom-Coms as Social Commentary

Some have the tendency to write off romantic comedies as inconsequential, fun romps. But often times, rom-coms can carry more weight and reflect on how our society is changing or subtly suggest how it should change. Spike Lee’s debut film She’s Gotta Have It (1986) is considered the quintessential Black rom-com, and it helped change the representation of Black people in American cinema. Kissing Jessica Stein (2002) relies on many of the rom-com tropes we’ve come to love, but, for the first time, it focuses on a queer women couple. Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and It’s Complicated (2009) both pushed the envelope in that these stories focused on more “mature couples” who are in their 50s and 60s. Similarly, How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) is a fan-favorite that turned the May-December trope on its head. We’ve often seen stories that focus on an older man who’s dating a younger woman, but this blockbuster showcases an older woman who falls in love with a younger man. And Crazy Rich Asians (2018) was one of the first ever studio-backed romantic comedies to focus on an Asian couple and feature an all-Asian cast.

Anti-Heroines: Pushing the Envelope and Breaking Molds

As time has gone on, the heroines at the center of these stories have changed, too. While ingenues used to always be sweet, innocent girls-next-door, in recent years, writers have leaned into main characters who are rougher around the edges and, as a result, more relatable and authentic. My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) changed the game in a few ways. First, the main character was a jealous woman who was trying to sabotage her best friend’s relationship. It also was groundbreaking because the ending focused on the importance of friendship instead of romantic love. Later, in 2001, Bridget Jones’s Diary took the quirky heroine stereotype to another level. While Bridget’s character is overall endearing, her behavior often teeters on the edge of cringeworthy. Similarly, Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck (2015) showcases a promiscuous woman who is also afraid of commitment. While these heroines can, at times, be hard to get behind, they’re also refreshing because they can feel much more realistic and accessible.

Rom-Coms on the Horizon

Romantic comedies have always been popular, and it’s clear that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. There are several upcoming blockbusters that we’re excited for in 2024. Lisa Frankenstein promises to be filmmaker Diablo Cody’s next big hit. This quirky story is about a goth teen in the ’80s who brings a Victorian corpse back to life and makes him her boyfriend. Later this year, The Idea of You, starring Anne Hathaway, is also slated to premiere. It showcases a young single mom who falls in love with the lead singer of a boyband. It’s giving Harry Styles vibes, and it’s sure to be another big hit.

The History of the Rom-Com