Love is rarely tidy. It can provoke extreme behavior from the most unassuming of characters. Throughout history, people have performed both extraordinary and downright despicable acts in love’s name. The stories of their passion are great fodder for the big screen, as there is perhaps nothing more relatable in the human experience than our desire to love and be loved.
24/7 Tempo has assembled a list of the 50 greatest movie love stories of all time, spanning almost 70 years of cinematic history, using a ranking created by the American Film Institute for its report “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions.”
The list includes classics featuring such iconic romantic leads as Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lana Turner, Greta Garbo, and Cary Grant. Dramas, supernatural fantasies, mysteries, and screwball comedies are all represented. (These are the greatest love triangles in film history.)
Not all these stories conclude with fairy tale endings; many end in tragedy or heartbreak. As in life, lovers can be forced apart by accidents, misunderstandings, illness, incarceration, or forced marriages to others. These films cover every one of those scenarios and more. Unrequited love, affairs, murder, and suicide are not uncommon themes.
It should be noted that these cinematic love stories are overwhelmingly tailored to a heterosexual audience. As the strict Hays Code forbade explicit displays of homosexuality for three decades in early Hollywood, and prejudice has kept queer love stories off screen for even longer, this list of great romantic movies of the past represents only a fraction of the possibilities love offers. For films featuring LGBTQ characters, check out the 30 best LGBTQ movies of all time.
50. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
> Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson
As a married playwright with writer’s block attempts to find his muse, a woman in disguise takes a role in his next play. Despite her betrothal to a powerful nobleman, they begin a forbidden romance that inspires one of his greatest plays ever.
49. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
> Starring: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn
When a drifter begins an affair with a young woman whose husband owns a diner, they plot to murder her husband and take over his business. Multiple attempts are botched and eventually their fates catch up to them.
48. Last Tango in Paris (1972)
> Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi, Giovanna Galletti
An erotic drama that drew controversy for its depiction of sexual violence, “Last Tango in Paris” follows the affair between an American widower in mourning and a young Parisian woman he meets at an apartment viewing. He insists that their relationship remain anonymous and strictly sexual, and tensions lead to disastrous results.
47. Splendor in the Grass (1961)
> Starring: Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle, Audrey Christie
Set in Kansas just prior to the stock market crash of 1929, “Splendor in the Grass” details the sexual repression and heartache of two high school sweethearts, Deanie and Bud, who plan to marry one another, as Bud struggles with his family’s lofty expectations of him.
46. To Catch a Thief (1955)
> Starring: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams
When a jewel thief begins robbing rich tourists on the French Riviera, reformed burglar John Robie decides to prove his innocence by catching the thief himself. Suspicions abound as he mixes with his old crew and falls for a wealthy American whose mother may be the burglar’s next target.
45. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
> Starring: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Ross Malinger, Rita Wilson
A romantic comedy that considers the concept of destiny, “Sleepless in Seattle” features a widower grieving his late wife, his young son — who attempts to find a new partner for his father — and a news reporter in Baltimore who finds herself infatuated with a man she’s never met, despite already being engaged herself.
44. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
> Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey
“The Philadelphia Story” follows socialite Tracy Lord as she divorces her alcoholic husband, prepares to remarry, and ends up torn between her fiancÃ©, who barely knows her; a news reporter named Mike, who is attempting to write a story on her wedding; and her ever-faithful ex-husband.
43. A Star Is Born (1954)
> Starring: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford
When an alcoholic film star whose career is winding down helps a young singer make connections in the industry, her career skyrockets as his continues to spiral. Her love and dedication may not be able to save him from himself. This is the second of four film versions of the same story.
42. Anna Karenina (1935)
> Starring: Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Freddie Bartholomew, Maureen O’Sullivan
Based on the tragic Tolstoy novel of the same name, “Anna Karenina” concerns the personal and public repercussions when an unhappily married woman has an affair with a handsome military officer in 19th-century Russia.
41. Funny Girl (1968)
> Starring: Barbra Streisand, Omar Sharif, Kay Medford, Anne Francis
A biographical musical about the rise of comedian and Broadway star Fanny Brice, “Funny Girl” details her struggles with the industry’s beauty standards and her marriage to professional con artist and gambler Nicky Arnstein.
40. Ninotchka (1939)
> Starring: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi
Love gets in the way when a Russian envoy in Paris, attempting to complete the sale of jewelry appropriated during the Russian Revolution, falls for the man whose mission is to retrieve the jewelry and return it to its owner.
39. An American in Paris (1951)
> Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges GuÃ©tary
Set to the music of George Gershwin and brimming with song and dance routines, this film follows three friends in Paris — a painter, a pianist, and a singer — as they pursue their artistic endeavors and eventually find that two of them are in love with the same woman.
38. It Happened One Night (1934)
> Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas
This screwball comedy follows the adventures of a runaway heiress who has just eloped with an aviator who is only after her family’s fortune, and an out of work news reporter who is after a great story. Their cross-country trip gets the reporter his story, but what he truly wants is her.
37. Titanic (1997)
> Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates
Social classes collide on an ill-fated ocean liner when an artistic young drifter falls for a suicidal aristocrat who is being coerced into a loveless marriage. The story of their romance on the eve of a great tragedy became the most successful film of all time upon its release.
36. Random Harvest (1942)
> Starring: Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, Philip Dorn, Susan Peters
A happily married woman faces an impossible task when her husband, a former soldier with amnesia, is struck by a car and regains the memories of his previous life of wealth, but forgets his years of marriage. When she takes on a job as his secretary, her patience and perseverance may pay off.
35. Gigi (1958)
> Starring: Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan, Hermione Gingold
Set in upper-class Paris at the turn of the 20th century, this musical tells the story of Gigi, a precocious young tomboy who is being trained as a courtesan, and Gaston, an older family friend and womanizer who is bored with his superficial lifestyle. Their unlikely bond is threatened when Gigi’s family offers her up as Gaston’s new mistress.
34. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
> Starring: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Jesse Corti, Rex Everhart
In this animated musical, an arrogant prince who has been transformed into a beast imprisons a young townswoman in his castle. His cruelty eventually softens, but will the two come to love one another and break the prince’s curse?
33. Camille (1936)
> Starring: Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, Elizabeth Allan
This tragedy based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas follows a French courtesan with tuberculosis as she bounces between a wealthy baron and a charming young bachelor who lacks riches but makes up for it in devotion.
32. Dark Victory (1939)
> Starring: Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald
When a carefree socialite is diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor, she must decide whether to squander her last days carousing or be with the man she loves and face her fate with dignity.
31. The King and I (1956)
> Starring: Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, Rita Moreno, Martin Benson
Loosely based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a British woman who tutored the children of the King of Siam in the 1860s, this musical dramatizes the cultural differences between Anna and King Mongkut, and the respect and affection that develops between them.
30. Swing Time (1936)
> Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick
Featuring many of the best Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance routines, this musical comedy follows gambler Lucky Garnett as he misses his wedding, attempts to make $25,000 in order to win back his future bride, and falls in love with his dance instructor in the meantime.
29. An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
> Starring: Richard Gere, Debra Winger, David Keith, Robert Loggia
Despite warnings from his drill instructor that local girls are only looking to trap naval officers to escape their boring lives, naval aviation candidate Zack Mayo begins a relationship with a local factory worker named Paula, who sticks with him as he struggles through his training.
28. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
> Starring: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut
Based on the Hungarian play “Parfumerie” (which also inspired the modern film “You’ve Got Mail”), this romantic comedy follows two co-workers who can barely stand each other in person but fall in love with anonymous penpals — who, of course, turn out to be each other.
27. The Sound of Music (1965)
> Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker, Richard Haydn
Set in Austria before the Nazi occupation, this musical highlights the charms and bouyancy that a young governess brings to an austere family, and the love that develops between her and the widowed father of the children in her charge.
26. The Lady Eve (1941)
> Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette
This hilarious screwball comedy follows con artist Jean Harrington as she attempts to defraud naive herpetologist Charles Pike. The two fall in love, however, only for Charles to uncover her initial motive. After being scorned, Jean will stop at nothing to remain in Charles’s life.
25. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
> Starring: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby
This romantic comedy follows two friends with opposing personalities as they navigate sex, relationships, and their eventual romance, while addressing the quesiton “Can a man and a woman be friends without sex getting in the way?”
24. King Kong (1933)
> Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher
The original “King Kong” tells not only the tale of Jack Driscoll, who saves his new love, actress Ann Darrow, from the grip of a giant gorilla, but also the story of the unreciprocated love that the beast develops for Ann — a love that will lead to his demise.
23. Now, Voyager (1942)
> Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper
After a neurotic spinster with a domineering mother spends some time in a sanitarium, she finds a new lease on life and the self-confidence she’s been lacking. Aboard a cruise, she falls in love with a married man and eventually learns to appreciate what life has offered her.
22. On Golden Pond (1981)
> Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Doug McKeon
A story of love in the golden years, this heartwarming family drama depicts the marriage between a curmudgeon with memory problems and his optimistic wife as they navigate the healing of his relationship with their daughter by welcoming her new stepson to their summer abode.
21. Pretty Woman (1990)
> Starring: Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Jason Alexander, Laura San Giacomo
When a powerful businessman who has no time for romance hires a Hollywood prostitute as his escort for a week of business events, her transformation into a charming companion begins to win him over.
20. From Here to Eternity (1953)
> Starring: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed
Set in Hawaii in the days leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this story of love and war follows a sergeant who starts a tangled affair with the wife of his commanding officer, as well as a private who falls in love with a social club hostess and considers marrying her.
19. Ghost (1990)
> Starring: Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Goldwyn
This supernatural romance, famous for its alluring pottery scene, follows the ghost of a murdered banker as he persuades a reluctant psychic to warn his girlfriend that the men who killed him are now after her.
18. Vertigo (1958)
> Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore
A psychological Hitchcock thriller, “Vertigo” follows a retired detective with acrophobia who is hired to trail his friend’s hauntingly beautiful but mentally disturbed wife. He falls in love with her, only to witness her jump to her death from a church bell tower. The mystery deepens when he later runs into a woman who looks exactly like her.
17. Moonstruck (1987)
> Starring: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello
A romantic comedy about devout Italian-Americans in Brooklyn, “Moonstruck” explores temptation and redemption through the stories of Loretta, a widow who falls in love with her fiancÃ©’s estranged younger brother, and her parents, who encounter provocations of their own.
16. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
> Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen
Set in 1920s Hollywood during the transition from silent to talking films, this musical follows a silent film star as he attempts his first talking picture and falls in love with an ambitious chorus girl who provides the voice for his obnoxious screen partner.
15. Wuthering Heights (1939)
> Starring: Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven
Based loosely on the novel by Emily BrontÃ«, “Wuthering Heights” recounts the heartbreaking story of Cathy and Heathcliff, dear friends as children but eventually forced to live apart when her brother takes over the family estate. The two lovers, separated by class and power, may never find a way to be together.
14. The African Queen (1951)
> Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull
After her brother is injured by German troops at the beginning of WW I, a snobbish British missionary escapes her burnt mission in German-occupied East Africa on the riverboat of a crude Canadian alcoholic. The unlikely pair fall in love and team up to assist the British war effort.
13. Out of Africa (1985)
> Starring: Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen
Based on the life of Danish author Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen, “Out of Africa” recounts the time that Blixen spent in Kenya, married to a man she didn’t love, attempting to run a farm, and eventually falling for a freewheeling hunter whose plans for the future could never mesh with her own.
12. My Fair Lady (1964)
> Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White
In this charming musical, a phonetics professor makes a bet that he can transform the speech of a Cockney flower seller in order to fool high society into believing that she’s an aristocrat. Their work pays off but their tumultuous connection is threatened when another upper-class man falls for her.
11. Annie Hall (1977)
> Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane
Considered one of the best movies ever made, this bittersweet and comedic love story is narrated by a stand-up comedian on a bare stage, who reflects on the failure of his romance with a struggling nightclub singer.
10. City Lights (1931)
> Starring: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers
A silent romantic comedy, “City Lights” follows a derelict as he falls in love with a blind flower vender and attempts to improve her family’s condition by taking odd jobs and asking his friend, an alcoholic millionaire, for money.
9. Love Story (1970)
> Starring: Ali MacGraw, Ryan O’Neal, John Marley, Ray Milland
In this romantic drama, Oliver, an upper class pre-law student, falls in love with Jenny, a working class musician, and marries her despite his father’s opposition. Although the couple struggle financially without the support of Oliver’s parents, their love remains true until tragedy threatens the life they’ve built.
8. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
> Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell
In this Christmas fantasy film, a kind-hearted businessman who has given up his dreams in order to serve his community attempts suicide on Christmas Eve. Only the love and prayers of his wife and family can save him — in the form of a guardian angel.
7. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
> Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger
Although panned by critics upon its release, this epic love story set during the Russian Revolution won five Oscars and five Golden Globes. It follows the life of a young orphan as he becomes a doctor, marries his cousin, falls in love with another woman, and struggles to remain faithful to each of them as the world around them is torn by civil war.
6. The Way We Were (1973)
> Starring: Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Bradford Dillman, Lois Chiles
Spanning the decades that encompass the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Red Scare, “The Way We Were” follows an unlikely couple with radically different personalities — she a liberal, Jewish political activist and he a Waspy writer who couldn’t care less about politics — as their differences put immense strain on their relationship.
5. An Affair to Remember (1957)
> Starring: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Denning, Neva Patterson
A remake of the popular 1939 film “Love Affair,” this romance follows a notorious playboy and a nightclub singer, both engaged, as they fall in love on an ocean liner heading to New York City. They agree to end their other relationships and meet on top of the Empire State Building in exactly six months, but fate may have other plans.
4. Roman Holiday (1953)
> Starring: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power
When a chance encounter brings together an errant princess in disguise and a disillusioned reporter, he realizes who she is and decides to write a clandestine news story about her to save his career. As the two explore Rome, however, the affection they develop for each other may thwart the reporter’s plans.
3. West Side Story (1961)
> Starring: Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn
A modern adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” follows two feuding gangs in New York City and the lovers from opposite sides who defy their friends and family to be together and attempt to negotiate peace.
2. Gone with the Wind (1939)
> Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O’Neil
Following the trials of a willful and manipulative Southern socialite as she endures death, loss, and the threat of poverty during the Civil War and Reconstruction, this epic story of unrequited love is one of the highest grossing films of all time.
1. Casablanca (1942)
> Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains
Set and released during World War II, this iconic film portrays a love triangle involving a bar owner in Morocco who is reluctant to participate in the war until a woman he loves shows up with her husband — a wanted resistance leader — and requests his help escaping from the Nazis.
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