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Review: “It Happened One Night”

Directed by: Frank Capra
Produced by: Frank Capra, Harry Cohn
Written by: Robert Riskin (screenplay); Samuel Hopkins Adams (story)
Cinematography by: Joseph Walker
Editing by: Gene Havlick
Music by: Howard Jackson, Louis Silvers
Starring: Clark Cable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jamesson Thomas, Alan Hale, Arthur Hoyt, Blanche Friderici, Charles C. Wilson
Based on the short story Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Year: 1934

 

The romantic comedy genre has a bad reputation these days, primarily because most modern romantic comedies are insipid, grating experiences that rely primarily (often solely) on star power and easy jokes to fill 90+ minutes. Yet so many of them make such big money, it’s easy to see why studios continue to make them — a sad fact that infuriates those with, in my humble opinion, objectively better taste than those who pretty much throw their money away.

I may sound smug, but admit it: it’s hard to imagine any modern, mainstream romcom ever being nominated for any Academy Award, let alone win five. But back in the 1930s, that’s just what a film called It Happened One Night did, becoming the first film to ever win the “Big Five” awards at the 7th annual Oscar ceremony, and it would remain the only film to do so until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest matched that record 41 years later. And yet, even back then, romantic comedies relied heavily on the novelty factor of seeing big stars play quirky characters who fall in love through crazy circumstances.

See if you can’t picture this film being made even today: Ellen Andrews is a young, rich socialite who runs off and marries a man her father does not approve of. Hoping to escape the overbearing patriarch, she runs away to meet with her new husband in Albany, only to run into hotshot news reporter Peter Warne, who recognizes the young socialite and promptly blackmails her: either she gives him an exclusive first hand account of her recent exploits or he goes to her father and collects the reward for her safe return.

The naive girl, determined to make her own way in the world, reluctantly agrees to give him an exclusive. The two become tied together as they travel to New York City, antagonizing each other along the way, but it isn’t long before feelings begin to form between them, though neither one is at first willing to admit it. Needless to say, the big question surrounding their various exploits is whether Ellen and Peter will finally confess their love to one another and be joined together in love and holy matrimony.

I really can’t say whether the premise at the time was anything fresh, though I’d imagine that such storytelling has been in vogue for quite some time, as plenty of films have since been made using similar premises, and I can’t imagine that even this 78-year-old film was the originator of the story device. What sets the film apart, though, is the relationship between the two actors playing their characters, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, who, despite neither one of them being nearly as young as their characters are supposed to be, work well together in creating that eventual buildup of affection that they develop over the course of the film.

Gable in particular is great as the confident, swaggering Peter, exuding indifference toward their situation while conveying a private affection for the girl he’s whisked away on this adventure, to the point where you can’t help but feel for him when they reach their destination and is faced with the possibility of Ellen moving on with her original plans.

That isn’t to say that Colbert isn’t great, either — she makes Ellen out to be an unreasonably privileged person when it comes to getting her way, but there’s enough vulnerability in her performance that Ellen never becomes grating or feels as though she’s ever mean-spirited in her spoiled attitude. Ellen’s just a girl who’s rebelling despite not knowing what she really wants from her life (Or is that maybe the reason for the rebellion?). It’s just a shame that her girlish crush on Peter doesn’t translate so well these days, knowing that Colbert’s Ellen is supposed to be in her early twenties, at most, and yet the actress was in her thirties by the time the film was released, making it feel as though she was maybe a bit too old to play a young girl, despite her admittedly accurate and girlish performance.

As I watched this movie, I was surprised more by how racy the film was. Despite being from the Depression-era 1930s, It Happened One Night may seem tame today but has several sexual innuendos running through it that will surprise you if you think that all movies from that era were all sanitized family affairs. The title alone is fairly suggestive, especially once you finish the film, but there are many jokes about the two leads spending their nights together in the same room, too. Keep in mind that neither one is married to the other, but, since they’ve only just met, they’re also practically strangers. Scandalous! And then there’s also that infamous scene where Ellen, in attempt to one-up Peter’s attempts to hitchhike a ride, sticks her leg out, hikes her skirt up, and instantly catches a ride — a scene that almost anyone could recognize from numerous cartoon parodies — primarily Looney Tunes, which apparently took various inspirations from the film in the creation of Bugs Bunny.

It seems as though the filmmakers really took advantage of the timing, as they just barely managed to be released prior to the MPAA’s crackdown on films who weren’t following the 1930 Hays Code later in the year. The content in the film is very PG by today’s standards, but I’m sure all the tawdry jokes back then seemed pretty hardcore and induced plenty of naughty giggles as a result. Perhaps that was a large part of the film’s success, as initial viewings were not as profitable as anticipated, only for secondary viewings to begin raking in the money. It wouldn’t surprise me if this as in large part due to first time viewers’ whispers of the two popular leads sharing a few scandalous scenes together in an otherwise pleasant and amusing romantic comedy.

Do I think that the film is Oscar-worthy? Not really — especilaly not if you compare it to modern films, which have had the advantage of the film medium having matured some, despite the several turds that continue to come out. Then again, maybe the scandalous nature of the film helped its chances that year by making some sort of calculated effort to make a statement about the Hays Code and the profitability of movies. I have no idea. But It Happened One Night remains a pleasant and enjoyable old romantic comedy all the same, even when you consider all the romcoms that have been released since, both good and awful. Standards of quality and decency may change over the years, but a truly great film will continue to hold some appeal for a good chunk of its future audiences, despite its age. Even though it’s well on its way to turning 80, It Happened One Night still remains a largely entertaining romantic comedy today, one that’s likely a better choice than 90% of all the other romcoms that have been released since we entered into the 21st century.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5

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  1. January 30, 2013 at 5:36 am

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