When director Howard Hawks teamed Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not” (1944), he ended up filming what amounts to a steamy documentary about their real-life courtship — smoke-streaming cigarettes, pregnant pauses, wolfish whistles and all.
More often, however, off-screen romances don’t generate sparks that are easily captured on celluloid. Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw may have been indulging in a hot extramarital affair on the set of “The Getaway” (1972), but you couldn’t tell it by looking at the movie. More recently, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck failed to communicate their real-life passion in either “Gigli” (2003) or “Jersey Girl” (2004).
Most of the time, something called acting is involved. Debra Winger and Richard Gere may not have hit it off when they were making “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982), but romance-hungry audiences were swept away, just like Winger was in the movie’s shamelessly romantic finale. The actors’ carefully manufactured chemistry worked.
Silent but steamy
In the beginning, when silent films ran 10 minutes or less, personalities and relationships didn’t matter so much. But with the rise of increasingly recognizable stars like Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin, chemistry began to play an important role.
By the time D.W. Griffith was directing “Intolerance” (1916), he cared enough about his central characters (played by Mae Marsh and Robert Harron) to make their devotion as important as the gargantuan sets he was building for the movie’s epic scenes. Perhaps the key moment is their return from a sunny Coney Island date, when Harron’s lust and Marsh’s fear nearly cause them to split up. Their sudden vulnerability, which ends with his proposal of marriage, is as touchingly tentative as anything in silent films.
Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien tap into similarly primal emotions in “Sunrise” (1927), in which O’Brien’s character nearly murders Gaynor before deciding to renew their marriage vows. In “Son of the Sheik” (1926), Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky’s steamy makeout sessions are also compromised by his temptation to kill her. Greta Garbo and John Gilbert can’t stop nuzzling in “Flesh and the Devil” (1927), which may be the most openly sexual of her movies, but the consequences are death and betrayal.
Love and laughs
These intense love/hate relationships often dominated silent films, but talkies encouraged a lighter form of chemistry. Claudette Colbert seemed particularly good at establishing a jivey rapport with her co-stars, whether the leading man was Clark Gable (1934’s “It Happened One Night”), Don Ameche (1939’s “Midnight”) or Joel McCrea (1942’s “The Palm Beach Story”). Often starting out as the golddigger in a relationship, she gradually made it clear that she’d rather have fun than cash.
Cary Grant was equally adept at establishing his interest in a good time, whether he was sparring with Irene Dunne (1937’s “The Awful Truth”) or Rosalind Russell (1940’s “His Girl Friday”), trying to escape Katharine Hepburn (1938’s “Bringing Up Baby”) or win her back (1940’s “The Philadelphia Story”), or succumbing to a shipboard romance with Deborah Kerr (1957’s “An Affair to Remember”). Rarely did he not respond to the moods of his co-stars.
Hitchcock brought out Grant’s dark, secretive side, especially in “Notorious” (1946), in which Grant and Ingrid Bergman put their passions on hold so they can fight the Nazis. Bergman has a similar role in “Casablanca” (1942), though Humphrey Bogart is the one who has to give her up for a cause. It’s the element of danger that lends such an exciting, taboo quality to the lingering Grant/Bergman kisses and the emotional Bogart/Bergman embraces.
By any means necessary
“The Year of Living Dangerously” (1983), which takes place during a politically volatile period in Indonesia, taps into a similar feeling. Mel Gibson may be an opportunistic reporter, Sigourney Weaver may regret the secrets she tells him, but they can’t stop seeing each other. They’re openly thrilled about dodging bullets in their getaway car, and when she arrives at his office, dripping wet from the walk she’s just taken in a downpour, their hormones won’t be denied.
A very different kind of rapport makes its appearance in “Brief Encounter” (1945), in which Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard play would-be adulterers who are frustrated in their attempts to get together. The tradition continues in “The Whole Wide World” (1996), with Renee Zellweger and Vincent D’Onofrio as writers who retreat from their strongest feelings, and “The Remains of the Day” (1993), with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson as servants exquisitely sublimating their improper attraction to each other.
Where would actors be without forbidden love? In “East of Eden” (1955), James Dean and Julie Harris are drawn to each other even though she’s his brother’s girlfriend. When they’re stranded at the top of a ferris wheel, the tensions can’t be contained, and their confessions spill into a kiss. Cher and Nicolas Cage find themselves in an identical predicament in “Moonstruck” (1987), the title of which says it all.
In Otto Preminger’s treatment of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” (1959), Dorothy Dandridge knows better than to fall for hunky bad-boy Brock Peters, but she fails to put up much of a fight. Her ambiguous lament, “What You Want With Bess?,” is one of the most erotically charged moments in movie-musical history.
A masked ball sets off the verboten sparks between Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the 1968 version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which revels in the physical beauty of its teenage actors. In the musical update of the same tale, “West Side Story” (1961), the Romeo and Juliet characters (Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer) also lock eyes at a dance, though it’s the Oscar-winning supporting players, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, who do the most spectacular dancing and provide most of the sizzle.
On the seas or at weddings
Shipboard romances tend to complicate forbidden love. Oskar Werner plays a desperate doctor who falls for a drug addict (Simone Signoret) who may be using him in “Ship of Fools” (1965); their nuanced performances earned Oscar nominations for both actors. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, intrigued at first sight by their differences, defy class barriers to commit to each other in “Titanic” (1997). Barbara Stanwyck fleeces Henry Fonda, then breaks her own con-artist code by falling for him in “The Lady Eve” (1941).
Some passions are aroused simply by making an appearance at someone else’s wedding. That’s what helps to reunite the troubled couple in “Sunrise.” It happens again in “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), in which Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright so movingly abandon all reservations and commit to each other, and “Giant” (1956), with the estranged Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor turning up at her sister’s wedding and silently renewing their commitment. Hudson’s appearance is unannounced, and Taylor’s dawning realization of his presence tells us all we need to know about their bond.
“Giant” might have been a stronger film if it had ended there. Many romantic classics reach their peak at the end: Orane Demazis saying goodbye to the sea-obsessed Pierre Fresnay in both “Marius” (1931) and its sequel, “Fanny” (1932); Elizabeth Taylor wondering why she’s always saying goodbye to Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun” (1951); the rain-drenched George Peppard trying not to let Audrey Hepburn say goodbye in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961).
Last year’s most romantic movie, “Before Sunset,” is also best as it ends. All it takes is Ethan Hawke settling in at Julie Delpy’s Parisian apartment, feeling at home as she does an impromptu song and dance. Now that’s chemistry.