The first of three films that Frank Capra directed that won him the Best Director Oscar (Mr. Deeds Went to Town lost Best Picture to The Great Ziegfield in 1936), It Happened One Night is credited as at least one of the first, if not the first, screwball comedies. A genre born of the Hays Code Office’s requirements around the portrayal of sex in movies, it partially substituted violence for sex in watching the interplay of man and woman develop over ninety minutes or so. This is a much milder version of what came to dominate the comedy scene for another decade compared to something like Howard Hawks‘ Bringing Up Baby, and it never loses its Capra touch of gentle humanism. That Capraesque approach to humanity is one of the keys to this film lasting as long as it has.
Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is the daughter of a rich magnate, Alexander (Walter Connolly), who was caught at the marriage license window as she tried to marry the gold-digging playboy King Westley (Jameson Thomas) by Alexander’s agents who stole her away from New York to Miami where he’s keeping her on his yacht until he can talk some sense into her. In a fit of anger, she jumps ship and manages to get to shore where she evades her father’s men and gets onto a bus alongside Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a New York newspaperman who gets unceremoniously fired by his editor, Joe (Charles C. Wilson), over the phone. Not know who Ellie is, Peter, thinking she’s pretty, pays her some attention, chasing after the guy who steals her bag and leaving her with four dollars to get her to New York.
The joys of the film are all about the interplay between Ellie and Peter, anchored by the winning performances of both Colbert and Gable. However, my only real problem with the film comes with its comedy. There’s an early scene where Ellie and Peter share a two-bedroom cabin, separated by the “Walls of Jericho”, a string with a quilt hanging over it, and the interplay between the two is so slowly cut. If Columbia operated at all like how Irving Thalberg ran MGM at the time, then Capra and Harry Cohn screened the film for audiences as they fine-tuned it, and the pauses in the dialogue feel like room for laughter from the audience. There’s a funny line, then the film goes quiet for 3 seconds or so before picking up the conversation. This works well if the audience is actively busting a gut every few seconds, but while I was happily bemused by the snappy dialogue between the two, the scene surprisingly dragged a fair amount. The comedy is nice, but the presentation of it was designed for it to be hilarious.
Ellie and Peter steadily grow their relationship as they become reliant on each other. Ellie is out of money, and Peter has the story of the year tracking the movements of this rich heiress that her father is desperately looking for with agents up and down the eastern coast of America. It’s also a sort of marriage that develops, especially in the film’s later sections where Peter becomes increasingly tied to the idea of providing for her himself, getting mad at her when she talks about convincing their ride to give them a meal (he’d picked up some carrots from a farm, anyway). There’s also the moment where Peter fails to get a ride while hitchhiking by using his system with the thumb while Ellie gets a ride with the first car by just showing her leg. He’s mad at her because she did it instead of him, but he also couches it in terms of her getting naked for other men. He feels possessive of her like a husband does a wife, and all of this is done rather subtly, letting it develop over the course of the film without anyone ever talking about it directly.
The emotional weight of the film is just that: the subtle development of a husband/wife relationship between the two characters as they grow to rely on each other for several different reasons. They have obstacles to overcome (the most amusing being the overbearing fellow passenger on the bus, Mr. Shapeley played by Roscoe Karns who picks up on Ellie’s real identity that Peter has to scare off), and getting over those obstacles is what draws them closer. There’s a bit of screwball type violence, mostly Peter smacking Ellie on the butt as he’s carrying her across a river because she doesn’t know what a piggyback ride is, but most of the film really relies on character first and foremost.
Of course, the film ends with what has become something of a cliché with a misunderstanding bred of an innocent disappearance, convincing both that the emotions they both felt were born of lies, creating the final obstacle that they need to overcome (the resolution is something that Mel Brooks aped decades late in Spaceballs), and because the characters are so clearly created, their relationship so clearly drawn, and their emotions so clearly felt, that resolution, while built on some contrivance, ends up ringing just the right way.
There’s so much to enjoy in It Happened One Night, especially as it moves into its second half. There is such a warmth of humanity on display, especially in scenes like the whole population of the bus singing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”, that it’s hard not to get caught up in it. Warm, amusing (though not hilarious), and touching with an ending to make the heart glow, Frank Capra’s first major film is Classic Hollywood distilled.
6 thoughts on “It Happened One Night”
So it’s a rom-com…that’s actually also character-based and heartwarming. Huh.
It’s weird. You build fun characters, put them into amusing situations, and have a denouement that fulfills them both.
It probably won’t catch on.
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One of my top 100 films, possibly the oldest in my personal list.
Clark Gable is just…dead charming. The ‘King’ was just effortlessly masculine without being a dudebro. Amused mastery instead. The carrot eating scene also gave birth to Bugs Bunny and his carrot munching, indeed Bugs is largely modeled on Gable’s character from It Happened One Night.
Claudette Colbert has a chameleon quality, going from dowdy to sexy in nothing flat. It’s something in her voice and in her mannerisms. She’s one hell of an actress.
The famous scene of her flashing her leg in this movie has a fun backstory too: They were going to use a body double, because Claudette was already a big start, but the double’s legs weren’t great. So Claudette said ‘My legs are better than that. I’ll do it myself’, she did and it worked. Boy did it…
I suspect the ‘walls of Jericho’ scene had pauses because the tension of having them both in the same bedroom probably had the audience ramped up pretty high. I can see a lot of laughter, due to that tension, even though the scene is more charming than funny to me. Different time back then.
Anyway, I love this film.
I’ve never really given Gable much thought before, though I’ve seen this and Gone with the Wind more than once, but his appeal is obvious. He’s easily charismatic, funny, and even plays the more dramatic moments with surprising alacrity.
I’ve been considering a Frank Capra run for a while, and the couple I’ve seen of his in this run (I hadn’t seen You Can’t Take It With You before) has really increased my interest overall. It’s gonna be a while before I can, though. It will happen one day. One day…
I’m all in for a Capra retrospective. Way more hits and misses…though I feel there are misses there.
‘You Can’t Take it With You’ was one of the first plays I was in, I might still have my playbook.
As for Gable, I don’t think he was capable of a boring performance. Even in crappy films, he’s the most interesting person in them. He was the real deal.
This is the problem with getting too into “the plan”. My plan extends out to November now. Bakshi, Lubitsch, Boorman, Wyler, Weir, Huston, and then Paul Leni, with Best Pictures dotted throughout and some Friday the 13th towards the end.
I don’t want to mess with my spreadsheet!