When Romance Met Comedy
With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
If you’re going to make a movie based on a theme park ride inspired by an old Hollywood classic, you could do a lot worse than The African Queen. The 1951 adventure romp that won Humphrey Bogart his sole Oscar and launched a new phase of Katharine Hepburn’s career also inspired Disneyland’s original 1955 Jungle Cruise river boat attraction. That ride, in turn, has now inspired a big summer blockbuster starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. And in a broader sense, The African Queen set the template for the genre that Jungle Cruise is very much trying to ape: the “adventure romance,” a.k.a. movies that look like Indiana Jones flicks but have the heart of Nora Ephron rom-coms.
Adventure romances are sort of like the American version of India’s “masala movies.” They blend action, comedy, romance, and melodrama in about equal measure against picturesque backgrounds in order to offer maximum bang for your buck, with something that appeals to everyone. It’s a pretty flexible genre, with everything from Errol Flynn’s The Adventures Of Robin Hood to the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie loosely fitting the bill, while The Princess Bride, Stardust, and any number of Disney animated films get there via fairy-tale trappings. The tone tends to sit between old-fashioned earnestness and winking self-awareness, and the influences range from Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson to Charlie Chaplin and Looney Tunes.
But in what I’m defining as their purest form, adventure romances are specifically adventure movies filtered through a female lens. While pretty much all conventional action-adventures have romantic subplots, adventure romances pull from the romantic comedy template by putting women’s stories front and center. Unlike in Raiders Of The Lost Ark or National Treasure, where the female love interests are smart and brave but very much along for the male hero’s journey, women drive the plot in an adventure romance. These films delightfully celebrate the inner strength of shy writers, bumblingly enthusiastic bookworms, and repressed “old maids.” Along with The African Queen, the other two gold standards for this particular template are 1984’s Romancing The Stone and 1999’s The Mummy.
Each of these films put their leading lady and her goals in the foreground. In The African Queen, Rose Sayer (Hepburn) is a British Methodist missionary in East Africa who wants to avenge her brother’s death while doing her country proud on the eve of the First World War. In Romancing The Stone, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) is a timid 1980s romance novelist who needs to travel to Colombia to rescue her kidnapped sister. And in The Mummy, Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) is a 1920s librarian and Egyptologist who wants to make an archeological find worthy of the Bembridge scholars. The men these women rope in to help them are reluctant allies or hired guns. And the main arc of an adventure romance isn’t about a woman falling for a dashing swashbuckler, but a swashbuckler falling for a woman’s moral certainty and inner confidence.
The inherent playfulness of the genre starts with the fact that even though the female lead may look like a prim-and-proper stick in the mud, she’s actually anything but. When we first meet Hepburn’s Rose, her buttoned-up Edwardian outfit calls to mind a fragile porcelain doll. But director John Huston realized that the way into C.S. Forester’s source novel was to have Hepburn play the role like Eleanor Roosevelt—all staunch convictions, warm enthusiasm, and hidden eccentricities. No sooner has Rose taken refuge with uncouth, gin-swilling mechanic Charlie Allnut (Bogart) than she’s come up with a plan to traverse an untraversable river and turn his tiny steamboat into a makeshift torpedo they can use to sink a German warship. Charlie agrees solely because he’s convinced that Rose will get cold feet at the first sign of danger. Instead, each thrilling brush with death just brings her one step closer to embracing the fullness of her capabilities.
Similarly, Romancing The Stone ends with Joan’s rugged jungle guide Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas) reaffirming that she doesn’t need his help to save the day. “You’re gonna be all right, Joan Wilder,” he tells her. “You always were.” The point of an adventure romance isn’t to transform the female lead into a tough-as-nails action heroine, but to highlight the unique set of skills she already has. In one tense Romancing The Stone sequence, Jack’s instinct is to take a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to a sticky situation involving some drug smugglers. Joan tries a gentler, more communicative method, and winds up finding an improbable ally in a chipper drug lord who just happens to be a massive fan of her novels.
Written by first-time screenwriter Diane Thomas and directed by a pre-Back To The Future Robert Zemeckis, Romancing The Stone starts as the most clichéd version of what this type of story can be, with Joan wearing heels as she traipses through the jungle and stomping her foot in frustration when Jack rudely throws her suitcase off a cliff. Yet the film gets over the oil-and-water dynamic quicker than you’d expect—certainly in comparison to the similar but much more annoying dynamics in Leap Year or Jurassic World. Joan proves herself the moment she decides to cross a dilapidated rope bridge that Jack is too scared to attempt. (While the film’s poster shows Joan desperately clinging to Jack as he confidently swings on a vine like Tarzan, in the movie she’s actually the one who pulls off that move first and he merely copies her.) From there on out, Joan and Jack are mostly equals, with a romance that’s consummated about halfway through the movie, rather than at the very end, which is the same smart structural choice that The African Queen makes as well.
That’s because the real appeal of an adventure romance comes from the eventual respectful cooperation, not the initial bickering. The genre lends itself to all kinds of different metaphorical readings—for courtship, sex, and most of all, marriage. Crucial to making that arc work is the fact that the male lead is softer than he appears at first glance. In Romancing The Stone, Jack quietly opens up about his failed dream of owning a sailboat before later impressing Joan with his salsa hips on the dance floor. In The African Queen, Charlie tries to make amends for some drunken rudeness by shaving off his stubble and cleaning up the shabby boat. The men in these movies are more respectful and less sexist than you’d usually expect for this type of dynamic. While they may look like Indiana Jones, they act more like Han Solo—a character who always had a healthy dose of goofy softness under his cool guy demeanor.
And no actor better carries on that Solo legacy than Brendan Fraser in The Mummy. Writer/director Stephen Sommers’ loose remake of the 1932 Universal monster movie is a slightly different beast than The African Queen or Romancing The Stone in that it’s more of an effects-driven ensemble film rather than a “two people on a mission” romp. But it earns its place in the adventure romance canon based almost entirely on the incredible chemistry between Fraser and Weisz. Much of their love story unfolds through the way Fraser’s Rick O’Connell stares at Evelyn in respectful awe as she monologues about some obscure bit of Egyptian lore crucial to their search for the lost city of Hamunaptra. While a rival team of archeologists scoff at the idea of an expedition being led by a woman, Rick is more than happy to let Evelyn be the brains of the operation. After their big climactic kiss at the end of the movie, he nuzzles her nose with his nose, which is exactly the sort of gentle gesture that marks The Mummy as a romance as much as an action-adventure.
Around The Mummy’s 20th anniversary, there were all sorts of glowing retrospectives about what the film does right, particularly with how perfectly Weisz and Fraser deepen their respective archetypes. (The film’s legacy is also helped by the fact that it arrived in that brief late-’90s sweet spot where filmmakers elegantly combined the burgeoning possibilities of CGI with classic practical effects.) While the cast members were absolutely baffled about what kind of film they were making at the time, Sommers knew just what masala mixture this story called for. Universal Pictures had spent about a decade trying to crack a Mummy reboot as a small-budget horror film with directors like George Romero and Joe Dante before Sommers came in with his game-changing vision for an old-fashioned, big-budget screwball romantic-comedy adventure.
Throughout The Mummy, Sommers understands that the key to making an adventure romance work is that its action scenes need to be both exciting and funny. He also films his male and female leads in an equally adoring way, not so much objectifying one or the other as just luxuriating in the beauty of the human form. And Sommers gets extra points for the fact that in The Mummy’s 2001 sequel he depicts Rick and Evelyn as a happy, sexy married couple, rather than splitting them apart in order to retread the beats of the original, which is the choice that most sequels lazily make (including Romancing The Stone’s lackluster one, The Jewel Of The Nile).
There’s a breezy camaraderie to these adventure romances that’s all the more remarkable when you consider the behind-the-scenes struggles it took to make them. The Mummy, Romancing The Stone, and The African Queen all have legendary horror stories of shooting on location, where heat, bugs, snakes, illness, and weather were regular enemies. Fraser was nearly strangled for real during a hanging scene. An alligator wrangler was mauled on the set of Romancing The Stone. Bogart and Huston were the only ones on The African Queen shoot who avoided dysentery because they drank whiskey instead of water. It’s pretty incredible that none of that production stress winds up onscreen.
The fact that these movies are more fun to watch than they are to make is perhaps one reason they tend to be released so few and far between. Disney’s Tangled is probably the purest adventure romance we’ve had in our current era of masculine, weirdly chaste superhero movies. But I also think Hollywood has a tendency to underestimate the appetite for these kind of romantic adventures, as evidenced by the fact that Romancing The Stone and The Mummy were both surprise sleeper hits. The lack of modern adventure romances is especially a shame because there’s definitely room for improvement in the genre. As with the Indiana Jones films, The African Queen, Romancing The Stone, and The Mummy all have their fair share of problems related to colonialism, racial othering, and stereotyping. If there’s one area in which Jungle Cruise immediately improves on its predecessors, it’s in casting an actor of color in an actual lead role, rather than as a one-note sidekick or baddie.
Still, the flexibility of the adventure romance genre seems tailor-made to evolve with the times while keeping the best of its sneakily subversive take on gendered power dynamics. The genre is about two very different people who must learn to work as a team, a timeless metaphor if there ever was one. And while adventure romances aren’t the deepest films, they take real finesse to pull off tonally, which is what makes it so satisfying when they do. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of The Mummy: “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it.”
As Hollywood scrambles to figure out what the hell audiences want after its pandemic pause, the broad appeal and sly savvy of the adventure romance genre could be the answer. Toward the end of Romancing The Stone, Joan clarifies that she’s not a hopeless romantic but a hopeful one, which feels like a lovely sentiment for our current era. But if filmmakers want the genre to thrive, they’ll need to remember to do more than just pull from action-adventure blockbusters. The heart of an adventure romance is a romantic comedy. So that’s the genre to study for anyone who wants to get this unique cinematic blend just right.
Next time: The underappreciated charms of Definitely, Maybe.