Claudine July 22, 2021
James Earl Jones
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
omantic comedies by design amplify a new relationship’s dreaminess. And if there are things in the plot that complicate its fun and reverie (and there almost always are), they tend to be a little silly: obstacles that feel overly contrived — included not to mimic the plausible vagaries of life, exactly, but engineered specifically to make the happy ending feel a bit like a sigh of relief, a balm that will fix everything. Claudine, from 1974,
is something of an antithesis to all this. It’s a romantic comedy in which its lead couple would be more than happy to dwell euphorically in the highs of their new love. But life — and in a way that is ordinary rather than movie-style affected — butts in so aggressively that there seem several points in the film where one person might put their hands up and go “forget it!” before instigating a breakup.
The romance in Claudine, written by married couple Lester and Tina Pine and directed by John Berry, is between the title character (Diahann Carroll, stunning in an Oscar-nominated performance), a housekeeper, and Rupert (James Earl Jones), a garbage man she often sees on her way to work. (Claudine has a long commute, by bus, from her Harlem apartment to the families she works for in the Riverdale portion of the Bronx; the film finds easy comedy in the dishy conversations she has with the friends with whom she usually rides over. “Girl, don’t you know a woman has to have her vitamin F?” one says with a laugh when Claudine’s perpetual singlehood comes up.) Rupert asks Claudine out one afternoon after having enough of simply admiring her from afar; she accepts, though reluctantly.
Claudine and Rupert know, almost instinctively, that they’re going to be, or at least want to be, in it for the long haul at the end of their first date. It’s a supremely laid-back get-together — one you can picture them reminiscing about years later with warm laughter — that involves them heading back to Rupert’s place, Claudine taking a bubble bath to unwind after the long day, and a fried-chicken dinner. (They do have some unwanted company late into the evening: a pesky rat, whom Rupert fake-affectionately calls Millhouse, whose getting stuck in a trap throws some cold water on a hot-and-heavy moment.) The date ends perfectly — with this new couple gazing serenely at the next morning’s sunrise together from the front seat of Rupert’s yellow convertible, parked on a street not yet busied by the day’s bustle.
But Claudine, 36, and Rupert, 40, are also as excited about a prospective life together as they are wary of the strains it could bring. Falling in love is almost a nuisance. Claudine, who has been divorced twice, has six kids she provides for with meager welfare checks and housekeeping pay (the latter of which she has to keep a secret from the government). And Rupert is paying child support for two kids living in different states — doable on his current pay but harder when there are six additional children to care for. If they were to wed, Claudine would at best have to judiciously mark down every gift Rupert gives her on her already woefully inadequate benefits, and at worst lose them entirely. Then, in the middle of the film, Claudine faces an additional financial dilemma when she discovers that her oldest daughter (Tamu Blackwell) has gotten pregnant.
Claudine was marketed in 1974 as something of a counteractive to then-echt and pulpy blaxploitation features in its depiction of modern Black life. It functions effectively threefold: as a rom-com, a family drama, and a sensitive explication of how insufficiently welfare provides for those who rely on it. Carroll and Jones have immediate chemistry — they make you think of the intuitive Claudine and the exuberant Rupert not getting together sooner as a loss. And the screenplay, by the Pines, establishes each one of Claudine’s kids’ personalities enough so that the household dynamic Rupert walks into doesn’t feel studiedly disorderly, studiedly loving in a way only a super-close family is, but organically so. (One of the funniest scenes in the movie is the one where Rupert picks up Claudine for their first date; the kids are so preoccupied with their own interpersonal spats and their mother simply coming home that he might as well not even be in the room.) Though the romance of Claudine is very touching (it even nicely weathers a bumpy last act that edges a little closely to melodrama), the family stuff is what’s most moving about it. It gets emotionally right the overprotection these kids perform, wanting both to preserve their mother’s well-being and their own. It will take a lot more than Rupert paying for everybody’s ice creams — one of his earliest bribing tactics — for this household to fully warm up to him.
Some of the inclusion of Claudine’s welfare woes can skew didactic and expositional. “If I don’t feed my kids, it’s child neglect. If I go out and get a job, and make a little money on the side, then that’s cheating. I stay at home and I’m lazy. I can’t win,” Claudine says after one particularly frustrating day. But it’s undoubtedly valuable, and still is, to watch a mainstream movie critique the deficiencies of a system that mostly imparts more stress than it does needed relief. And to have a romantic comedy that emphasizes not a sense of fantasy exclusively — which is of course welcome the majority of the time — but the realities that make rom-com scenarios difficult to graft onto real life. But it never overly leans into everyday disappointment — Claudine finds its own kind of magic whenever it can. B+