“The Big Country” (1958). Set against a typical Western land-feud plot, this rich, beautifully photographed film is anything but typical in the character of Gregory Peck’s sea captain who heads west to marry a prideful, materialistic young woman (Carroll Baker) but finds himself attracted to a neighbor, down-to-earth Jean Simmons. A man of high moral character, Peck is content to keep his accomplishments close to the vest and settle conflicts peacefully, even as his fiancée takes it as cowardice. But, of course, these are the qualities admired by Simmons.
“Heartland” (1980, PG). A widow (Conchata Ferrell) with a young daughter becomes housekeeper to a taciturn Scotsman (Rip Torn) in 1910 Wyoming, and their tenuous relationship in this harsh wilderness leads to marriage. But love takes a little longer. Beautifully nuanced performances and sensitive direction by Richard Pearce drive this true story, based on the diaries of a pioneer woman. A low-budget effort that puts artificial Hollywood contrivances to shame.
“Holiday” (1938, b/w). Hard-working Johnny (Cary Grant) is engaged to Julia (Doris Nolan), unaware she is from a wealthy, snobbish high-society family. Then he meets her eccentric sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn) and an obvious attraction results. Of course, they fight it, even as the sisters’ domineering father attempts to bring Johnny into the family business. We know where it’s headed but getting there is all the fun. Witty, smart and frequently hilarious screwball comedy, with sparkling performances and chemistry to spare between the stars.
“Miss Potter” (2006, PG). The Victorian author, watercolorist and decidedly unconventional Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger), whose “Peter Rabbit” stories become a surprise sensation, is romanced in a reticent way by her gentlemanly publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor). This biographical comedy-drama is a touching true story artfully realized by filmmaker Chris Noonan (“Babe”).
“Notorious” (1946, b/w). In addition to Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant also had great chemistry with Ingrid Bergman in this Alfred Hitchcock classic. Both are spies in Brazil after World War II trying to infiltrate a gang of relocated Nazis headed by Claude Rains. A complicated romance develops but is interrupted by duty, and Grant’s conflicted loyalties drive him to distraction when Bergman is ordered to get close to Rains and winds up marrying him. Some find Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” his most romantic effort but one scene in this film clinches it for me: Grant and Bergman kiss in a stop-and-go manner while she’s on the phone, a ploy by Hitchcock to circumvent a Production Code rule about lengthy kisses. The result is, arguably, the most lushly romantic movie moment ever.
“Shadowlands” (1993, PG). Author C.S. Lewis, a confirmed bachelor in middle age, meets a sassy American woman and the seeds of an unlikely bond are planted. Anthony Hopkins gives one of his best performances as the repressed British writer who finds his life disrupted by an American woman who refuses to bow to custom, wonderfully played by Debra Winger. This is a real-life romance that is slow to build, at first with comic encounters, then with feelings that deepen as tragedy rears up and faith is shaken. Directed by Richard Attenborough but more like a Merchant-Ivory endeavor.
“The Shop Around the Corner”/“You’ve Got Mail” (1940, b/w; 1998, PG). “Shop” is set in Budapest, and James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are bickering co-workers unaware they are also anonymous love-letter correspondents. “Mail” has Meg Ryan as a small bookstore owner in Manhattan whose business is upended by a Barnes & Noble-type chain store owned by Tom Hanks, even as they unwittingly exchange anonymous emails. Both films are funny and ingratiating, and with the latter, writer-director Nora Ephron manages to update a classic while still hitting all the right notes.
“Tender Mercies” (1983, PG). Robert Duvall won an Oscar for his achingly real performance as a former country-singing star and recovering alcoholic who finds unexpected love with the widow (Tess Harper, also excellent), who runs a small Texas motel where he’s hit bottom. He becomes her handyman and a gradual, tentative romance develops. Refreshingly honest in its explorations of human emotions without so much as a false note under the sure hand of Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford. Screenwriter Horton Foote also won an Oscar.
“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972, G). Hysterical screwball comedy about a search for stolen jewels and government documents when four lookalike traveling bags are mixed up. But at its heart this is an offbeat romance as a quirky professional student (Barbra Streisand) attaches herself to a staid, professorial musicologist (Ryan O’Neal) during a grant competition in a San Francisco hotel. It’s love at first sight for her but he’s engaged (to rigid Madeline Kahn), distracted and so strait-laced that he doesn’t quite know what’s happening to him. The comedy will keep you laughing but the romance is buoyant and infectious.
So happy Valentine’s Day.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." Website: www.hicksflicks.com
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