Audrey Kupferberg: Classic Fantasy-Romance Films | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: Classic Fantasy-Romance Films

Jun 1, 2021

It’s springtime.  Alfred, Lord Tennyson was on the right track when he wrote, “In the spring a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love.”  But I don’t think that process is limited to young men.  No matter a person’s age, gender, inclinations, most of us think about romance in the most imaginative of ways during the springtime.

My own thoughts have manifested themselves in a great desire to resee the classic romantic fantasy films.  The first film to come to mind is Portrait of Jennie which opened, not in springtime, but on Christmas Day 1948.  It’s a mystical tale of Eben, a shy unsuccessful artist, played by Joseph Cotton, who encounters Jennie, a schoolgirl (played by Jennifer Jones) in Central Park in winter.  Dressed in old-fashioned clothing and very adolescent in manner, she captivates the artist.  Her visits to Eben become fairly frequent, and each time she appears oddly older.  Eben paints a portrait of Jennie and finds success.  The two fall deeply in love, but time continues to be out of whack, magical, bringing Jennie to an unnaturally quick adulthood.  The cast is extraordinary, including movie divas Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. The production is one of David O. Selznick’s greatest films.  Right down to its climactic storm sequence, Portrait of Jennie is a magical fantasy that captures the deep and varied emotions of romantic love and hope through grave danger.

For the Shakespeare lovers, there is the extraordinarily beautiful Warner Bros. production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1935.  With an all-star cast of Hollywood royalty, including James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown, and Mickey Rooney, and directed by two of the more prestigious European filmmakers of the period – William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt, this production is a visual knockout and a fine example of stylized acting.  Lovers disappear into a forest that is enchanted by fairies.  And a group of comically dim-witted workers occupy the same forest in order to rehearse a play they are going to perform for the upcoming marriage of local nobility.  Cinematographer Hal Mohr artfully sprinkles moonlight and magic throughout this film.  Try to see the 132-minute roadshow version, rather than the 117- minute standard release.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was released in 1947, and it ranks high among fantasy romances.  Mrs. Muir is an attractive widow with a young daughter who rents Gull Cottage, a seaside house that is believed to be haunted by Captain Daniel Gregg, a hard-drinking rogue who owned the place and was said to have committed suicide there.  Indeed, his spirit does appear, and the two platonically co-habit the house.  As the years go by, the pair grow close, even though one is living and the other has passed years beforehand. Stunning actress Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison star.  It was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s supreme filmmakers. 

The number one film of 1990 is another ghost story that combines romance with fantasy.  It is Ghost.  Starring Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae, Patrick Swayze as Sam, and Demi Moore as Molly, Ghost takes its viewers from the delirium of perfect love to the shock of tragic death. Within the first half hour, we are taken from euphoria to tears when the young man’s life is ended by a mugger with a gun.  Soon Sam’s spirit is back, walking through walls and trying to protect his beloved from the bastard who killed him.  He asks Oda Mae, a spiritual reader and adviser with a mischievous nature, to convey messages to Molly.  Combining comedy, fantasy, melodrama, and romance, Ghost has become a classic.  This movie may not have been the darling of critics when it first came out.  Still, it is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable, touching films I have ever seen and has a cult following, particularly among women.    

These movies all have received Oscar nominations and/or wins.  Each has a magical quality which possibly is best celebrated in the spring of the year… because each film carries a powerful theme.  They are not so much stories of life and death as they are accounts of regrowth of the human spirit.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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