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Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Matchmakers (originally published 8/99)

If you think you've fouled up your love life, try letting your friends and family take charge of it for a while. It won't be long before your own missteps begin to look insignificant by comparison. Few of us have avoided the trap of being "fixed up" with someone by a well-meaning relative or friend. If the results of such a pairing have occasionally reminded you of something you'd expect to see at the movies, you're not alone. Moviemakers have known for years that people meddling in each other's love lives makes for good drama.

A recent example is "Autumn Tale," the latest release from French writer/director Eric Rohmer, which is currently debuting on American screens. This is the last in a tetralogy of "Tales of the Four Seasons" by the 79-year-old Rohmer, one of the last remaining elder statesmen of the French New Wave of the fifties and sixties. The story is about a middle aged woman who is so intent on seeing a friend of hers paired off that she begins placing personal ads and dating the respondents for the purpose of auditioning them as potential blind dates for her friend. For a sampling of earlier treatments of matchmaking and other interventions in the realm of romance, look for these titles on home video.

"Three Smart Girls" (1936). When the three Craig sisters learn that their estranged father is about to remarry, they set out to scuttle the impending marriage by any means necessary. Knowing that their father's girlfriend is a golddigger, they concoct an elaborate plot to draw her attention to a wealthier man, hoping that she will break off her engagement to their father. Naturally, the plan goes awry, leading to all manner of comic complications, before all comes right in the end. The film was successful enough to spawn a sequel, "Three Smart Girls Grow Up" (1939), which also revolves around the three sisters tampering in the romantic affairs of others.

"The More the Merrier" (1943). During the World War II housing shortage in Washington, D.C., Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) does her part by subletting half of her small apartment to Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), a pleasant older gentleman who promptly appoints himself her designated matchmaker. When he meets Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), an enterprising and eligible young man, Dingle makes certain that Joe and Connie will meet by subletting half of his space in Connie's apartment to Joe. This film had everything going for it. The three lead actors play off one another with the timing and precision of a Swiss watch under the expert direction of George Stevens. If you haven't discovered this gem, do yourself a favor.

"The Matchmaker" (1958). Up to now, we've only been dealing with amateur matchmakers. In this adaptation of Thornton Wilder's play, Shirley Booth stars as the real thing - a professional matchmaker named Dolly Levi plying her trade in 19th Century Yonkers. Her mission is to make a match between a merchant named Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford) and a hatmaker named Irene Molloy (Shirley MacLaine). The only problem is that Dolly fancies Horace for herself. This story was the basis for the musical "Hello, Dolly!" (1969), in which Barbra Streisand took on the role of Dolly.

"The Buddy System" (1984). Richard Dreyfuss stars as a struggling writer who befriends a young boy (Wil Wheaton). As it happens, the boy's mother, played by Susan Sarandon, is a single parent. Seeing an opportunity, the boy begins campaigning for a romantic relationship between the two. As always, however, the road to romance proves a bit bumpy. There are actually quite a few films of this type, in which children scheme to bring romance into the lives of a parent. "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" (1963) and the recently remade "The Parent Trap" (1961) are examples, as is "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993).

Personally, I can't help sympathizing with these matchmakers, since I'm also a matchmaker of sorts. Each week I try to set you up with cinematic blind dates from the video store, hoping for a spark of attraction between you and the films I recommend. Fortunately, if my blind dates leave you cold, the remedy is as close as your remote control. On the other hand, when the chemistry works it can be, as Bogart said to Claude Rains, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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