It Happened One Night (Cert PG)
1 Disc (Distributor: Criterion Collection) Running Time: 105 minutes approx.
If you ask the trivia question “What was the first film to sweep the board at the Oscars?” some people might look to the mighty epics such as Gone With The Wind or Ben Hur for the answer. In fact neither would be correct – it was this seminal 1934 comedy from the legendary Frank Capra which holds that distinct honour.
Spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has recently married aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas) against the wishes of her father (Walter Connolly) and whisks her away on his private yacht. After a heated argument in which the father announces he has had the marriage annulled, Ellie jumps overboard to return to her new husband.
On the bus to New York she encounters recently sacked journalist Peter Warne (Clark Gable), not exactly getting along in the process. When Ellie’s bag is stolen Warne offers to help her get to New York in return for an exclusive story, setting off a chain of events that sees them in each other’s pockets for the foreseeable future.
The original screwball comedy that launched a new genre and a million of imitators in its wake, Capra’s multi Oscar winning film amazingly holds up today despite the quantum leap in social attitudes and relaxed film censorship. If it were made (or heaven forbid remade) today it would not doubt be vulgar, childish and lacking in class, all of things this film isn’t and all the better for it.
The plot is extremely simple and straightforward with the rich girl fish out of water and the savvy rough diamond being thrown together to embark on a road trip where they bond only to separated again through a series of misunderstandings until a final reunion for the big happy ending.
Okay, that may sound like a huge spoiler but since the plot is as old as the hills you’ve probably guessed how it works out already but don’t think I’ve saved you 105 minutes and its charm and appeal comes from the dynamic led performances and superbly written characters. Anyone keen on film history needs to see this film for the genesis of the road movie.
It comes with quite an interesting back story. Clark Gable was a rising star at MGM but was loaned to the smaller and underperforming Columbia as punishment for allegedly upsetting the MGM brass (read: Louis B. Meyer), making him an unwilling participant, made worse when he saw the script.
Claudette Colbert was the last choice for the role of Ellie, with such names as Miriam Hopkins, Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, Margaret Sullavan, Constance Bennett, Loretta Young and Carole Lombard all ahead of her on the list.
Having worked with Capra in her first film in 1927 which was a flop, Colbert refused to work with him again but finally acquiesced when her salary was doubled. She too hated the script and was reportedly a nuisance on set but soldiered along anyway. One would never guess that the two stars held such antipathy for the film as they both put in star making, and later Oscar winning, performances.
The humour may be tame by modern standards but the template for many road trip gags is right here, including the now seminal hitchhiking scene where Colbert flashes her leg to stop a car – a huge taboo breaker in the comparatively chaste days 1930’s Hollywood. Then there is the famous “Wall Of Jericho” sequence in which Warne puts up a blanket to act as a divide between him and Ellie when they share a tiny motel room.
What makes the film work so well is the dynamic of the two opposite leads being brought to life by the witty script by Robert Riskin, which is adapted from the Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Such pairings may have appeared on screen before but now, six years into the advent of talking pictures, they are given a new lease of life via their snappy verbal exchanges.
Colbert was arguably the original tsundere (cold at first but warms up later) female character, suffused with inherent snootiness and faux independence while Gable’s streetwise, wisecracking, resourceful loveable rogue was allegedly, in the scene where Warne is munching on a carrot while firing off one liners, was the inspiration for one Bugs Bunny!
Capra keeps the pace up throughout the whole film although the end feels a little rushed; the fact it happens off screen makes for quite a unique and effective denouement. There are a few technical slip-ups that some of us pedants might notice but they were rife in those days and too few to get upset about.
Making the recommendation for this title a lot easier is the brand new first time ever UK Blu-ray release courtesy of the famed Criterion Collection label. The film has been given a 4K digitally restored transfer that is best exploited during the external daytime scenes in which the picture is crisp and rich in depth.
To add to the appeal for hardcore film buffs to explore this title again, this release also boasts among the extra features, Capra’s first ever film, a restored silent short from 1921 entitled Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House, complete with a new musical score, and a feature length documentary on the director from 1997.
A classic will always be a classic and It Happened One Night is unquestionably a classic among classics. If you’re a fan of screwball road trip comedies, I urge you to see where it all began right here and this superb Blu-ray release will make the experience all the more pleasurable.
English Uncompressed Monaural Soundtrack
Frank Capra Jr. Remembers “It Happened One Night”
Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House (Restored 1921 Short)
Frank Capra’s American Dream
AFI’s Life Achievement Award: A Tribute To Frank Capra
Essay By Film Critic Farran Smith Nehme
Rating – *****
Man In Black