For the last hour and a half we’ve all been sitting in the dark, gazing up at the couple on the screen, willing them to admit they’re crazy about each other. At last, the leading man leans in, the leading lady melts into his arms, finally their lips meet…and we in the audience collectively sigh…
Zac (Richard Gere) kissing Paula (Debra Winger) as he sweeps her up into his arms and carries her out of the factory in ‘Officer and a Gentleman,’ Sam (Patrick Swayze) kissing Molly (Demi Moore) for the last time before he vanishes into the light in ‘Ghost,’ Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) kissing Rose (Kate Winslett) on the prow of the ship in ‘Titanic,’ - these are the scenes we want to see when we watch a romantic film, and the scenes we remember. Who can forget the moment in ‘The Notebook,’ when Noah (Ryan Gosling) kisses Ali (Rachel MacAdams) in the rain?
The first screen kiss was shared by May Irwin and John Rice, in the appropriately named ‘The Kiss’ back in 1896. The film caused scandal, outrage, furious newspaper editorials – and was one of the most popular films produced that year. By the 1920’s, a kiss between screen lovers was nothing out of the ordinary (John Barrymore stills holds the record for most kisses in a movie by kissing Estelle Taylor and Mary Astor 127 times in ‘Don Juan’ in 1927) and very often erotically charged, as in the famous scene in ‘Flesh and the Devil,’ in which the Countess (Greta Gabo) and Leo (John Gilbert) share a single cigarette and then a kiss, beautifully lit by a single match. Fast-forward to 2005, and we have the longest kiss (so far) in movie history, in ‘Kids in America,’ when Holden Donovan (Gregory Smith) kisses Charlotte Pratt (Stephanie Sherrin) for more than six minutes.
So what make a great screen kiss? What makes us forget that the passion we are witnessing is ‘only acting,’ and believe (at least until we leave the cinema or switch off the DVD player), that the kiss is for real? It isn’t just the on-screen chemistry between the stars of the movie (although that does help!) but the lead up to this climactic moment throughout the film, the build up of emotion to the point when the girl and the guy just can’t keep apart. There are many such moments in movies of every era, but I would argue that for the greatest ever screen kisses, you have to go back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Unlike today, when a screen kiss is very often a prelude to more sexually explicit scenes, film-makers from the late 1920s to the 1960s were very restricted in what they could show on screen without falling foul of the censor.
The romantic ardour of the lead actors had to be conveyed by smouldering glances and sighs, aided and abetted by the cinematography and a soaring musical score, culminating in a passionate kiss - before the screen faded to black. The results were some of the most classic and memorable moments of cinema history, kisses that set the screen aflame. Think of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in ‘Casablanca’ – the flashback scene in Paris, when she says, ‘Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time,’ and he does.
Or the kiss between Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) and Maria (Ingrid Bergman) in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ after which, she asks him ‘Did I do it wrong?’ – and he kisses her again.
Hollywood’s classic movies have many memorable screen kisses, but a contender for the most memorable – and most passionate – of all surely has to be that between Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) and Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) in ‘From Here to Eternity’ lying entwined on the sand on a Hawaiian beach, while the surf surges towards them and waves break over them…
In ‘Casablanca,’ Sam sings,‘A kiss is just a kiss,’ but in vintage Hollywood movies, it was so much more.