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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Love Across the Years (originally published 4/02)

Throughout most of the history of the cinema, onscreen romance has been largely the province of the young. As the baby boomers age, however, we are likely to see more films like the recently released "Crush," in which a middle aged school headmistress becomes romantically involved with a former student who is half her age. This is not to suggest, however, that chronologically mismatched lovers have never appeared on the screen before. Quite the reverse, in fact. Stories involving May-December courtships have always been a popular subcategory of the romance genre. Here are a few of the more memorable examples available on home video.

"The Blue Angel" (1930). We begin with the dark side of May-December romance. Emil Jannings stars as a respected German schoolmaster who falls under the seductive spell of a cabaret singer played by Marlene Dietrich. She marries him for his money, and in short order he loses his teaching post and is reduced to selling risque pictures of his young wife to the cabaret customers. This classic tale of the erosion of human dignity was the beginning of a celebrated collaboration between Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich's throaty rendition of "Falling in Love Again" is one of the most famous scenes in all of world cinema.

"Cass Timberlane" (1947). As in "The Blue Angel," a respected older man falls for an attractive young woman, but there the similarity ends. In this adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel, Spencer Tracy plays Cass Timberlane, a judge who marries a young, sexy woman from the wrong side of the tracks. The young wife is played by Lana Turner at the height of her youthful allure. Although the Timberlanes are happy with each other, they soon learn that the judge's snobbish friends disapprove of his choice. The film's promotional trailer appears below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Limelight" (1952). Charlie Chaplin plays Calvero, a fading vaudeville star who befriends a young dancer named Terry (Claire Bloom). They meet when Calvero interrupts the despairing Terry's suicide attempt. Through his nurturing kindness, Terry regains her health and resumes her dancing. Inevitably, they fall in love. Calvero, however, worries that Terry's gratitude has blinded her to her true feelings for a younger man who also loves her. Chaplin, of course, knew a thing or two about May-December romance from personal experience, having married Oona O'Neill when she was 18 and he was 54.

"All That Heaven Allows" (1955). Jane Wyman stars as a middle aged widow living in material comfort in her small-town home, but also withering in emotional isolation. She meets a young man (Rock Hudson) some fifteen years her junior and falls in love with him. Her social peers and even her grown children are horrified, and urge her to end the relationship. Director Douglas Sirk specialized in melodramas of this kind. Although they tended to be dismissed as "mere soap operas" at the time, Sirk's films are now looked back on with considerable respect by students of the cinema.

"Daddy Long Legs" (1955). This sentimental tale has been filmed several times, most recently in this musical version. Fred Astaire plays a rich playboy who anonymously finances a college education for a young orphan girl, played by Leslie Caron. Naturally, when they meet she falls for him without knowing that he is her benefactor.

"Harold and Maude" (1971). On the perverse side, there is this intensely eccentric story of a young man named Harold (Bud Cort) who falls in love with a lively octogenarian named Maude (Ruth Gordon). They meet through their shared interest in funerals. He attends them because he's morbidly depressed; she goes because she sees them as part of the glorious cycle of life. It sounds bizarre, I know, and it is in many ways a deeply strange film. Even so, it ends up as a charming and strongly life-affirming story, one that I return to often.

As with most aspects of the human condition, it was Shakespeare who best summed up the appeal of these stories of chronological odd couples: "The course of true love never did run smooth; but either it was different in blood...or else misgraffed in respect of years." Small wonder that Cupid is typically portrayed as a mischievous child. Still, as movie producers know all too well, the trials and tribulations of Cupid's mismatched targets can be money in the bank to a clever dramatist.

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