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Love stories pull in audiences eager for happily ever after

Lights, camera, brides and grooms. Over the past 50 years, wedding-centric movies and TV shows have become a staple of American culture — and often have reflected how people feel at the time about the whole happily-ever-after concept.

Back in the 1950s, the signature wedding film was "Father of the Bride" starring Spencer Tracy in the title role and Elizabeth Taylor as his pampered daughter. The gentle tone of the comedy was in tune with an era when marriage was an extravagant, treasured event worth any minor inconvenience to a put-upon dad.

But through the 1960s and 1970s, wedding vows were often something to avoid, as Katharine Ross did with Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate," or discard, as Charles Grodin wanted to during his honeymoon in "The Heartbreak Kid."

The further the nation got into the eras of social upheaval, the harder it was to stage a magical ceremony like the one between Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in 1965’s "The Sound of Music."

The 1980s took a break from wow vows at the movies to make room for action heroes and John Hughes teens. "When Harry Met Sally" had a classic scene where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal riffed on their coconut wedding cake with a rich chocolate sauce on the side — to satisfy Sally’s control-freak attitude. But the real action was taking place on television, where live coverage of Lady Diana and Prince Charles’ wedding drew supersized ratings and led to a sequel, Sarah Ferguson’s wedding to Prince Andrew.

Hollywood made peace with wedded bliss by the 1990s, when Steve Martin’s "Father of the Bride" remake again captivated audiences and 1994’s "Four Weddings and a Funeral" put a charming British spin on the quest for the right spouse.

This was the decade when box-office darling Julia Roberts tried to break up the nuptials in "My Best Friend’s Wedding," a frothy comedy that was ultimately on the side of ditzy deserving bride Cameron Diaz. Two years later, Roberts inspired marriage mayhem again in "Runaway Bride," another comedy that presented her as commitment-phobic .

T he 2000s brought an explosion of interest in altar-bound love stories like box-office behemoth "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and the Katherine Heigl vehicle "27 Dresses." Weddings were back in a big way, from raucous comedies like "Wedding Crashers" and "Bride Wars" to the musical "Mamma Mia!"

In recent years, weddings have become a staple of the reality T.V. format, leading to solid hits like TLC’s "Say Yes to the Dress," which goes behind the scenes at bridal salons to explore the quest for the perfect gown.

"A wedding is one of life’s biggest moments," says Amy Winter, general manager of TLC, via e-mail. "It’s something you dream about, and then it becomes a memory to last a lifetime."

According to Winter, the wedding genre does well with women across all demographics because viewers are fascinated by what other brides choose for their special day.

"Say Yes to the Dress" is the epitome of the genre because it focuses on the moment that sets the tone for the entire day — finding the perfect gown."

Imperfection also can be a draw. WE’s "Bridezillas," which returns with new episodes in June, milks laughs out of the meltdowns and tantrums of brides-to-be. "My Big Redneck Wedding" on CMT features Southern-fried eccentricities.

Next month, movies will continue the wedding theme love affair. "Jumping the Broom," which arrives May 6, stars Angela Bassett and Paula Patton in a story about two African-American families gathered at Martha’s Vineyard for a wedding. "Bridesmaids," opening May 13, is a wacky comedy featuring Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph of "Saturday Night Live" fame.

This week, the royal wedding is getting the movie treatment on Lifetime, the network known for its original movies aimed at women. "William & Kate" uses actors to follow the long courtship of Prince William and Kate Middleton and shows them maturing and falling in love as they move thoughtfully toward the decision to make it official.

Native New Zealander Nico Evers-Swindell plays William, the groom who isn’t naive about what it will mean to bring a wife into the family business. British actress Camilla Luddington is the level-headed Kate. Ben Cross of "Chariots of Fire" fame co-stars as Prince Charles.

"We wanted to capture what was universal about this couple and about this courtship," says Tanya Lopez, senior vice president of original movies for Lifetime. The film premiered Monday and will air Saturday and Sunday.

Whatever the medium, viewers like a front-row seat to a marriage in the making, as the royal wedding frenzy shows.

"This is weddings times a hundred, William and Kate," says Lopez. "This is what storybooks are made of."

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