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5 Classic romantic movies that rival modern rom-coms

Dixie Laite

Just like wine, jeans and your taste in men, romantic movies just get better with age. Go vintage this Valentine’s Day with some sexy cinema classic movies from the 1940s. They aren’t laden with sappy soundtracks, TMI or Adam Sandler, and they often have great stars, stories and romantic truths as sigh-inducing today as they were decades ago.

Remember the Night (1940)

Starring Barbara Stanwyck as a jailed shoplifter and Fred MacMurray as the district attorney who put her there, you wouldn’t think this would be a plot that augurs well for romance — and you would be wrong. Rather than have the thief spend Christmas in the klink, the prosecutor lets her out just long enough to find them falling haltingly in love in that sweet way that makes rom-coms so rom. While I usually think MacMurray’s puss is a bit on the simian side, he is positively dashing in this movie, and Barbara is her usual wonderfully authentic self. (Be sure not to miss the great scene with Barbara’s defense attorney really working the jury near the film’s beginning.)

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The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Starring a young Jimmy Stewart and directed by master of romantic comedy Ernest Lubitsch — with a great supporting cast, including Margaret Sullavan and Frank “Wizard of Oz” Morgan — this movie hits that perfect sweet spot where comedy meets romance in a way that’s touching not retching. Remade in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail, the original is so much better as to make me want to hand out flyers on street corners, alerting people to the superiority of the 1940 version. In addition to a truly moving performance by Morgan and Stewart’s sweet, but palpable, sex appeal, the movie’s snowy cinematic setting often makes this — like Remember the Night — a Christmas favorite. But, its tenderness, billet-doux-driven plot and its insights into relationships make it a perfect classic for the Valentine’s holiday, too.

By the way, the movie’s leading lady, Margaret Sullavan, had been married to Henry Fonda, Stewart’s former roommate and friend. Though it doesn’t necessarily come flying off the silver screen, apparently Sullavan really had it going on in real life, guy-wise. They were dropping around her like flies — and Stewart was no exception. He had a secret crush on her for years, and I always wonder how “awkwar-cited” he must have been — I just made up that word — when he got to really lay that kiss on her at the end.

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Love Letters (1945)

Here’s another movie with a pen pal mix-up at its core. This time, rather than hilarity, mystery and murder ensue. Bloodshed, amnesia, an atmospheric British landscape, a lush score, a pining Joseph Cotten and a luminous — and Oscar-nominated — Jennifer Jones make this one helluva intensely romantic movie. Did I mention the screenplay is by none other than Ayn Rand? When you think of the author of The Fountainhead, “sweet romance” is probably not what springs to mind, but the film is really very romantic and not at all pedantic.

Plus, there’s the whole moral of the story: Girls, don’t marry someone based on his letters, emails or online profile — just saying.

Notorious (1946)

Alfred Hitchcock movies are usually about suspense and murder, but the main thing killing in this movie is Cary Grant’s apocalyptic sex appeal. Critics often talk about Grant’s love scenes in other Hitchcock movies like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief, but those cannot hold a candle to Grant’s unrelenting erotic firepower in this thriller. From the first time you see him, just the shadow of the back of his head, you are already on board. (You’ll see.) He stars with Ingrid Bergman, who’s playing a woman with lots of sensual experience as well as appeal, and their relationship has a mature, knowing sensuality not often found in movies of that era — or this one.

Then, there’s that kiss. Motion pictures’ Production Code at that time banned kisses longer than three seconds — actors had to stop after a few seconds, nuzzle or say a line or two, before going back for more. In other words: No snaking it in! But in Notorious, we get a two-and-a-half-minute kiss that is intimate and erotic even by today’s standards. (And may I say, it once gave 12-year-old me quite the unsettling nether region jolt.)

In addition to its two stars and four-star steaminess, the film is a bona fide classic of Hitchcockian suspense. With a great script by Ben Hecht and memorable performance by Oscar-nominated Claude Rains, the movie mixes intense romance, post-war espionage, hateful and hapless Nazis and a party girl’s redemption into one fantastic cinematic package. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, and for a major classic film buff like me, that’s really saying something.

Now I can literally think of dozens more… Pride and Prejudice, Laura, Rebecca, I Love You Again, but for now, let me leave you with just three more ’40s faves:

  • Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) 
  • A Guy Named Joe (1943)
  • The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) 

I don’t know about you, but I’m a total sucker for love stories involving ghosts — and time travel, alternative universes and any other device that makes everything all star-crossed and super romantic. In each of these films, you have a dead guy in love with an alive woman. And in all three, the alive woman loves him right back. You can see that there’s quite the obstacle to dating, marriage and well, you know — but, it is not at all an impediment to romance. In fact, it cranks the romance thing way up to 11! Nothing elevates sexual tension like one of lovers being a ghost. So, if you’re not all lovey dovied out by the first four picks, by all means add these three to the queue — and cue the Kleenex!

More: 5 Classic films that showcase strong female characters

Tell me about your favorite ’40s films here and at @DameStyle. For more on classic films and females, check out The Lost Art of Being a Dame.

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