Like most distinct film genres, the rom-com has many tropes – from the meet-cute to the happily-ever-after.
One of the most popular iterations of the rom-com is the “second chance” narrative – the notion that someone who has gone through a divorce or breakup will still get a chance at a happy ending (which can sometimes mean reconnecting with the partner you never should have left in the first place).
The Reese Witherspoon-led Home Again, the latest romantic confection to hit theaters (written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of Nancy Meyers), appears to make good on this premise. Alice Kinney (Witherspoon) has separated from her husband, Austen (Michael Sheen) and finds her life as a single mom upended when she allows three young guys (one of whom she’s slept with) to move in with her.
It’s hard to resist the promise of a second chance. When failed relationships are such a widely relatable experience, we can’t hope but root for a leading lady (or man) to find happiness on the second go having learned from past mistakes. The notion is so appealing classic Hollywood practically made a sub-genre out of the premise (it was an easy way to get around the Production Code’s policy against depicting extra-marital affairs).
Home Again opens in theaters on Friday — but before you watch Reese get her second-chance at love in an exquisitely-designed home, here are seven classic second-chance romances worth your time.
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
This film marked the second pairing of iconic screen duo Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and their first film as a romantic leading pair with above-the-title billing. Based on a Broadway musical The Gay Divorce (which also starred Astaire), Hollywood censors insisted on changing the title with the somewhat hare-brained argument that divorces couldn’t be happy but divorcees could be. Rogers stars as Mimi, a woman attempting to stage an adulterous affair to convince her deadbeat husband to grant her a divorce. After a case of mistaken identity, she ends up falling for Astaire’s Guy Holden. With a Cole Porter score, the film features a beautiful dance number to “Night and Day.” It also won the first ever best song Oscar for another tune, the elaborate group dance number “The Continental.”
The Awful Truth (1937)
After Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Jerry (Cary Grant) Warriner mutually erroneously suspect each other of infidelity, they decide to get divorced. Following a series of hijinks which include going to court over a custody agreement for their wire-haired terrier, the pair eventually realize they’re still in love with each other – but first, they have to sabotage their burgeoning new relationships. The Awful Truth is considered one of the signature examples of classic screwball comedy, and it earned director Leo McCarey an Oscar for his efforts (despite his tendency to improvise the script on set). Irene Dunne had largely found success as a dramatic actress, but after her comedic turn in 1936’s Theodora Goes Wild, Columbia was looking for a comedic vehicle to feature her talents. The image of Cary Grant we think of today – a suave, debonair, fast-talking, wisecracking gentleman – was first created and perfected in this picture. Without Leo McCarey, there may never have been a “Cary Grant” as we think of him. From here on, he found himself in a string of career-making screwball comedies, including My Favorite Wife where he enacts a similar plot to The Awful Truth once again opposite Irene Dunne.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Based on a play of the same name, The Philadelphia Story tells the story of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), a socialite who finds her wedding weekend upended when an attractive tabloid reporter (Jimmy Stewart) and her ex-husband (Cary Grant) decide to crash the party. Tracy finds herself caught between the two men, as she learns to become less exacting and appreciate that everyone (including herself) has faults. Hepburn bought the rights to the play and brought them to MGM with the proposal that they make the film and allow her to select the writer, director, and cast. Jimmy Stewart had just come off a star-making role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and surprising even himself, won an Oscar for his portrayal of Mike Connor in this film. The American Film Institute lists the movie as one of the top 10 romantic comedies ever made.
Available On: Amazon, Fandango, Google Play, Vudu
Love Crazy (1941)
Never has divorce (and remorse) been zanier than it is in Love Crazy. William Powell and Myrna Loy were one of classic Hollywood’s most stalwart pairs, making 13 films together, including the beloved series of Thin Man films. As Susan Ireland, Loy believes her husband Steve (Powell) is cheating on her with an old girlfriend, and she files for divorce. Trying to buy himself time, Steve feigns insanity, but Susan calls his bluff and has him committed. All of this culminates in Steve posing as his sister in a mad dash to escape the mental institution and win back his wife. It’s a screwball comedy in the true sense of the word and a fitting end to the Loy and Powell partnership, who worked so well together onscreen many believed they were actually married in real life. Loy was going through her own divorce at the time of filming which lends her an extra sense of melancholy; in contrast, Powell married his third (and final) wife while shooting and has a particularly exuberant air about him.
Available on: Google Play
The Lady Eve (1941)
Preston Sturges, one of classic Hollywood’s most notable writer-directors, was well-known for his zippy, wise-cracking dialogue and his complicated plots. The Lady Eve, his third film, is an exemplar of his style. It follows Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), a con artist who sets out to fleece brewery heir Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) but finds herself falling in love with him. When he learns the truth about her, he throws her over, leading her to seek revenge against him masquerading as the wealthy Lady Eve. Stanwyck had made a career as tough, hard-nosed dames and dramatic self-sacrificing women prior to this point – The Lady Eve established her as a wonderful comedic actress, as well as marking her emergence as a glamorous star via Edith Head’s costuming. Writer Mary Orr loved Stanwyck’s role in the film so much she named a character in her next story after her, which would later become the source material for the Bette Davis hit All About Eve.
Available on: iTunes, Google Play, Vudu
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
The problem for the couple at the heart of The Palm Beach Story isn’t a spat or romantic misunderstanding, but a kooky, well-intentioned plan arising from too much love. When Gerry (Claudette Colbert) realizes her husband Jeff (Joel McCrea) needs more money to achieve his dreams as an architect and inventor, she resolves to divorce him and marry millionaire J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) to finance his projects. Naturally, hijinks ensue involving identical twins, Hackensacker’s ludicrous high-society sister (Mary Astor), and a disconnected train car. The film was another hit for writer-director Preston Sturges. Though it has a happy ending, the movie makes light of marital bonds and fidelity throughout – its original title was “Is Marriage Necessary?”
Available on: Amazon, Google Play, Vudu
Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon star as Nina and Robert Tracey, a couple who divorce but then can’t stop running into each other. Advised by Nina’s mother and Robert’s womanizing pal Charlie, the pair try to see other people with the eventual realization that they still have feelings for each other. Written by George Axelrod (The Seven Year Itch), the film dealt candidly with divorce and the challenges of marriage (the couple’s happiness is still not entirely assured by the film’s conclusion). Kim Novak had her first major role as Janis, a Marilyn Monroe-esque woman Robert has a disastrous date with. The title came from famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell – he used to describe the break-up of celebrity couples as a “phffft!”
All that Heaven Allows (1955)
While the rest of the films on this list are comedies, we couldn’t resist including one lush romantic melodrama. With its tale of an older wealthy widow falling for a young landscape designer, Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows was hugely ahead of its time. Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is a middle-aged widow who leads a country club-set lifestyle. Her friends and children expect her to date boring, perfectly respectable Harvey (Conrad Nagel). Instead, she falls for her gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), enchanted by his rugged individualism and ambitions. Societal pressures and her children’s condescension threaten to destroy their burgeoning romance, especially given their age gap and differing social classes. In a time defined by repression, Sirk dared to tell a story of female desire that bucks the system, exploring the female psyche and the stifling atmosphere of strict societal expectations. His work, known for its subversive female narratives and a lush use of Technicolor, came to inspire many other filmmakers. Todd Haynes draws directly from Sirk’s themes and palette in both Far From Heaven and Carol.
Available on: Amazon
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
For many this Nora Ephron-penned film is the golden standard of romantic comedies – and it’s also a fabulous second-chance comedy. When we first meet Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan), they hate each other. As their mutual dislike turns to friendship and eventually love, they find a second chance in each other (Harry is divorced; Sally’s ex-boyfriend doesn’t want to get married). From its witty banter to its climactic last dash (on New Year’s Eve of course), When Harry Met Sally is a near-perfect rom-com. What truly elevates it is its ability to probe both the male and female perspective in relationships and unpick the challenges of dancing across the line from friends to lovers. Harry and Sally get a second chance at love but more importantly, they learn that the best partner in life is your best friend. Ironically what lends the film some of its most touching moments of connection are exchanges based on real-life moments between friends Rob Reiner and Billy Crystal.