It Happened One Night: Review
The Oscar winning 1934 comedy directed by Frank Capra, It Happened One Night was the first film to win all five major Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. This exceptionally entertaining film stars Clark Gable as a pushy news-hungry reporter chasing runaway rich girl Claudette Colbert from Miami to New York. The story follows what is now the formulaic routine of a mismatched couple fighting and rubbing each other the wrong way as they make a road trip, eventually falling in love in between their snappy dialogue and caustic bickering. This is the original, the one all others of its type use as a golden example, and for good reason.
This film marked the beginning of Capra’s reign as the master craftsman of the light comedy, which in his hands would evolve into the comedy/drama with Mr. Deed’s Goes to Town and later, Meet John Doe. Capra would become so well known for popular filmmaking that even his short instructional films produced for the military during war time would draw crowds to theaters on the strength of his name alone regardless what feature may have been playing along with them. His influence would diminish in later years as the public grew tired of the director’s trademark “Capra-corn”, but during the depression and the years leading up to WWII no one was better at pleasing the people.
This production also cemented Gable as the “King” of Hollywood, a title he would hold for the duration of his career. Gable’s popularity with women and men was such that, when he removed his shirt in the famous motel scene and showed that he was not wearing an undershirt (something every man wore at the time) there was an immediate and lasting negative impact upon undershirt sales. Handled by a lesser personality, this stock reporter “Peter” would have floundered as a two dimensional character. But it’s a testament to Gable’s off screen popularity and bigger than life personae that he was able to give the hard-boiled news hound the cinematic weight needed to ensure the character an enduring place in film history.
Likewise, the lovely Colbert is in her prime here, creating the original mold for the obnoxious young woman of means who whines and complains about every little inconvenience. Colbert’s spoiled rich girl (think Paris Hilton of the 1930s) moans about life’s little everyday challenges we humble folk never think twice about (she refuses to eat raw carrots when starving). Colbert’s elegant and witty feminine foil precedes the more tomboyish Jean Arthur, the brassier Barbara Stanwyck, and the great “Kate”, Katharine Hepburn, all of whom would play similar rolls in later Capra films. Colbert was the first, and arguably the best at playing women of privilege who learn about life by falling in love with a down to earth man.
It’s been said that they just don’t make movies like this any more. And they really don’t, nor could they if they tried. One of the main reasons lies in the screenwriting. Capra relied heavily on five-time Academy Award nominee Robert Riskin for reliable material. In addition to the win for It Happened One Night, Riskin received nominations for Lady for a Day, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Here Comes the Groom, all of which were Capra films. That’s some collaboration.
So do yourself a favor, if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this exceptional “screwball” comedy then I highly recommend that you place it at the front of your rental list and see it as soon as possible. I envy you the treat of seeing this truly classic film for the first time. Its charm and appeal make it quiet possibly the best “date movie” ever. Just make sure you have the right person in mind, because if your date doesn’t like this film then in my book that qualifies as a deal breaker.