Book goes behind scenes of romantic comedies

By Pamela H. Sack

After completing two books on entertainment corporations, Dan Kimmel was itching to return to his favorite subject – the movies.

But what would be fresh in a genre packed with interesting tomes? He and his editor tossed a few thoughts around, and then Mr. Kimmel, a freelance movie critic who writes reviews for the Telegram & Gazette, got a light-bulb idea. He would use an approach that had already proved popular with a certain group of movie buffs: assisted-living residents.

Mr. Kimmel has been delivering talks for 10 years on the behind-the-scenes high jinks of some of the best known movies ever made. “I have 70 lectures, and I speak at six or seven residences,” he said from his home in Brookline.

In chatting with film aficionados and fellow critics, Mr. Kimmel realized that few of them had heard some of the stories he had uncovered. He suggested that he adapt the formula to a selection of romantic comedies from the 1930s to the present, several of them legendary. The result is his latest book, “I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies” (Ivan R. Dee, $26.95).

Mr. Kimmel went to work selecting and then digging further into the back stories of films that comprise a hugely popular genre.

“I thought that most people would love to hear these stories,” he said.

“The information is out there, but it’s scattered. No one had pulled it all together.”

Along with the time-honored battle of the sexes theme, the successful romantic comedy has a specific formula – two characters who meet and both need to change. Mr. Kimmel pointed to “When Harry Met Sally.” Harry is morose and withdrawn; Sally is a control freak who would do well to loosen up.

“They both change as a result of the romantic relationship,” Mr. Kimmel said. “Most romantic comedies use that pattern.”

Mr. Kimmel’s favorite romantic comedy is “Annie Hall,” the 1977 Woody Allen classic.

“I saw that at just the right time,” he said. “I was just getting out of college. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen it.”

In his chapter on the making of “Annie Hall,” Mr. Kimmel wrote that at first the story was about Mr. Allen’s character, Alvy, and his neuroses. He wanted to title the movie “Anhedonia,” the word for an inability to experience pleasure. But the movie just didn’t work, and Mr. Allen’s film editor urged him to change the focus to the romance between Alvy and Annie. Mr. Allen agreed but still had his heart set on calling it “Anhedonia.”

Studio executives eventually laid down the law, saying they could not market the film with that title. “Alvy and Annie” was under consideration; finally, Mr. Allen chose “Annie Hall.”

The movie “It Happened One Night” set the pattern for the genre, Mr. Kimmel said.

The 1934 screwball comedy is the story of a socialite, played by Claudette Colbert, who wants to break free of her controlling father and falls in love with Clark Gable’s character, a knavish reporter.

Mr. Kimmel’s favorite from that era is “My Man Godfrey,” another wacky comedy, this one from 1936, about a rich girl who hires a derelict to be her father’s butler and then falls in love with him.

And what about Mr. Kimmel’s least favorites? There were two that he felt obliged to include in his book.

The 1959 comedy “Pillow Talk,” with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, is “terribly dated,” he said, and just doesn’t work anymore. Nor is he a big fan of “There’s Something About Mary,” the 1998 Farrelly Brothers comedy.

“It’s emblematic of how low-brow humor is mixed in with traditional romantic comedy,” Mr. Kimmel said. “It was followed by “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” I felt obliged to put it in.”