The Science of Romantic Comedy

Marian Davies is annoyed with Charles Chaplin (right). Image: asldkfj asdlkfj asdf
Marion Davies is annoyed with autograph-seeker Charles Chaplin (right). Image: Chaplin for the Ages

A cynic would tell you every Romantic Comedy plays out like this: Boy Meets Girl – Boy Loses Girl + Boy Wins Girl = Formulaic Pandering to the Masses

To which we reply: So?

Formulas are good! Don’t we use formulas in developing a non-toxic lawn fertilizer? Or a cheeky bordeaux? What’s wrong with using a formula, anyway?

A formula is necessary for a romantic comedy, and we shall prove it using Scientific Methods. Our control group in this analysis consists of elements from the 1928 comedy, Show People, a loving look at Hollywood and what it take to be a Star.

In order to construct the Romantic Comedy Formula, we must first apply the Shakespeare Axiom: The course of true love never did run smooth.

We must also examine the Isometric Structure. Romantic comedies, by definition, need to have a feel-good ending. They also need a good script with heaps of witty lines, actors with perfect timing and a director who builds the story at a measured pace.

The point of the Romantic Comedy is the Happy Outcome, as symbolized in our formula:



First, we need a protagonist. In this instance, our protagonist is the beautiful, rubber-faced Marion Davies (as identified by the symbol “p”). She has come to Hollywood to be a Big Movie Star.

The luminescent Marion Davies (“p”). Image: mardecorté

Next, we need a Love Interest (identified by the symbol “li”), as played by William Haines. Haines’ character is a B-movie comedian who will never be a matinee idol, but he’s a down-to-earth soul who is kind and and very amusing.

The witty and handsome William Haines. Images: Wikipedia
The witty and handsome love interest William Haines (“li”). Image: Wikipedia










Then we need an occasion for Davies and Haines to Meet, which is nicely summed up here:




…wherein the Protagonist (Davies) meets the Love Interest (Haines) – squared, because each has their own perception of the event.

Plus pi or, in this movie, pie:




…because sometimes you just need a slice of pie. Haines also needs pies, lots of them, because that’s the kind of actor he is. (He’s called a “custard pie comedian”.) In comedy, as in life, there are infinite occasions for pie.

Back to the story! The chemistry between Davies and Haines is obvious, as evidenced in an early scene: Haines tenderly reapplies Davies’ lipstick after she’s been unexpectedly sprayed with water on her first day of filming.

William Haines gives beauty tips to Marian Davies. Image: lkasdfj laksdjf
William Haines gives beauty tips to Ms. Davies. Image: Which Way LA?











Now! Into this formula we must add a flimsy, self-absorbed Distraction (Paul Ralli), as identified by the symbol “d”. His dialogue is filled with magnificent hogwash, such as: “Being a lady of quality, she chose the cinema as a medium of self-expression.”

The vain and sullen Ralli is Obviously Unsuitable for the winsome Davies, but she finds herself attracted to him for reasons of career advancement. As dull as he is, he knows all the Right People.

Paul Ralli considers himself to be a work of art. Image: djsf akldjs
Paul Ralli (“d”) considers himself to be a work of art. Image:














This growing attraction between Davies and Haines, and Davies and Ralli, is compounded by several obstacles as per the Shakespeare Axiom:





(Note: The many obstacles are symbolized by “O” to the power of 10,000 because the players are continually blindsided in romantic comedies. As one character says, “Remember, the one law of pictures is, don’t anticipate!”)

The trouble is, Ralli has wealth and connections (which are the same thing in Hollywood, no?) and he seems infinitely more capable than Haines. Haines doesn’t appear to have much of a future as a Big Movie Star…but really, does not being an A-List actor really matter? This can be illustrated as such:




…where Davies has to weigh Ralli’s wealth [w] against Haines’ foibles [1*1*1*1]. But wealth can only go so far against a charming, handsome man who makes you laugh.

Davies comes to this very Realization before it’s Too Late! Does she want an unhappy life with a well-connected fop, or does she want to have a vibrant relationship with the man she loves? She seizes upon the theory that there really is no future without Haines:



Which, of course, hastens the Davies/Haines end-of-movie embrace, as shown by a standard formula for Acceleration:




Et voilà! Here is our completed Romantic Comedy Formula:




See? Not so simple, right? This is formulaic pandering to the masses? We don’t think so.

Even if you do not agree with our scientific methods, we urge you to see the funny and delightful Show People. It is a well-crafted look at Hollywood filmmaking in the silent era – and at romantic comedy in any era.

Show People: starring Marion Davies, William Hanes, Dell Henderson. Directed by King Vidor. Treatment by Agnes Christine Johnston and Laurence Stallings. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1928, B&W, 65 mins.

This post is part of The Romantic Comedy Blogathon hosted by the lovely Backlots and Carole & Co. Be sure to read all the other contributions.




  1. This is a clever and delightful review-just like the movie. I adore Marion; she is too underrated. I hope that this post inspires people to see this movie! (I hate to be that person-and please don’t take this the wrong way-but Ms. Davies spelled her first name Marion, not Marian. I thought you’d want to know!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love it! Love it!! Love it!!! This is absolutely brilliant. I knew one day I would see the formula for a successful romantic comedy, and now here it is, waiting to be applied again and again. I can think of more than a few films that should have followed this formula.

    Oh yeah, the film sounds like a good one too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Paul! I can think of a few films that could stick a little closer to the formula, too…

      I hope you get a chance to see this one. The casting is inspired – especially Marion Davies. She alone is worth the price of admission.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, this was so funny, and so accurate. I am eager to apply the formula to other romantic comedies now, especially the acceleration. Great post. Now I just have to check out the film and see it in action:)


    • Thanks, Leah! I had a lot of fun with this, although I’m sure an actual scientist would be very disdainful.

      I’m loving this Romantic Comedy Blogathon! So many great movies have been chosen.


  4. If maths had been this interesting when I was at school maybe I’d have paid more attention 😉
    It would be interesting to use this formula with some classics and then some more recent rom-coms, I’m sure I can predict which ones will come out on top!
    I recently watched this and I adored Marion’s performance, everything about it is spot on.


    • I wish we had this kind of formula in school, too! I haven’t tested this formula with recent flicks, so it’ll be interesting to see if it holds up.

      I’m glad you had the chance to see this. Marion is SO cute and funny, isn’t she?


  5. Ruth, my friend, I must happily agree with the bloggers who feel your SHOW PEOPLE post wish your post THE SCIENCE OF ROMANTIC COMEDY was teaching at your school back in the day! This was sheer delight! I loved your clever post for the Romantic Comedy Blogathon — great post! 😀


  6. [applauds] this is so clever 🙂 I wonder what your lab looked like after you were through putting this together. Just looking at those photos makes me think how brilliant a talent Davies was, she can put across so much with one look, one expression. I love watching her, it’s like trying to figure out how a magician works. great stuff


  7. It is such a pleasure to come here, Ruth. Your reviews are always top-notch and make me want to see the film, whether I’ve seen it 20 times before. Today’s review, though, is a masterpiece. How good is it? I’ve got the same headache I experienced every day when leaving AP Trig class in high school — only now I want to watch “Show People”.


    • Oh no! Not the Post-Trig headache! (I know whereof you speak.)

      Thanks for your kind words. I had a blast doing this review – although I’m sure an actual scientist would be horrified at my methods.


  8. Hilarious post, Ruth! I think your formula proves without a doubt that those of us who like romantic comedies (and the Hallmark channel) are not airheads after all!: Thank you for that, and I will be sure to inform my husband. If he questions me, I will direct him to your mathematical equation!:)


    • Ha ha – thanks, Shari. You just show him that formula if he starts to chide you.

      I love romantic comedies because the lines are usually so witty. And they always have a happy ending – which I am a sucker for. 🙂


  9. I was just thinking I had to watch this movie, because of a gifset of Marion’s funny expressions on Tumblr. You did a great job with the review, as always.
    Althoug romantic comedies can have this formula, there is no doubt the old ones have an undeniable charm that is now lost.
    Thanks for the kinds comment!


    • Marion’s expressions are superb gif material, aren’t they? She was delightful.

      I agree with you about classic romantic comedies. They really do have a charm that you don’t encounter these days.

      Thanks for dropping by!


  10. Whoa…getting all scientific on us there, Ruth! Basically I agree with you – no harm in a formula movie; if well done, it’s often comforting and satisfying as it touches the expected bases. That said, as a guy, I have mixed feelings about the romantic comedy formula itself. I am very fond of said formula in old Hollywood films, but, with rare exceptions, don’t care for it in its modern form (headache-inducing stuff like CATS AND DOGS, SERENDIPITY, those thirty-eight Kate Hudson and Sarah Jessica Parker films, etc.)


    • Your comment made me laugh. I agree with you re: many modern romcoms, and the two you mentioned are not well done, in my opinion. (Which is a shame because both those films have a great premise.)

      Thanks for dropping by! 🙂


  11. Awesome post, although I will admit my math-loathing brain tried to shut down on me upon seeing symbols 🙂 Show People is such a wonderful film, and even if romantic comedies are slightly “formulaic,” I think you’ve demonstrated why the great ones have the science down to a tee!


  12. This is a very clever read! I honestly have no disagree with your formula whatsoever…it is completely correct! The problem these days is that folks get lazy and forgot to be witty or creative in an effort to pander to the young teenager girls who will be filling up the seats. Instead of comedy….they toss in two hot actors and hope that the formula still works!

    Great write-up!


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