It Happened One Night, 1934.
Directed by Frank Capra.
Starring Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Kerns and Jameson Thomas.
Ellen ‘Ellie’ Andrews, a spoiled heiress, runs away to elope with her handsome pilot fiancee. Along the way, she meets down on his luck reporter Peter Warne, and realises maybe her future isn’t what she expected at all…
A picture perhaps these days lost underneath the more famed ‘screwball comedies’ of the Golden Age of Hollywood, It Happened One Night nonetheless may be the very first example of that formative genre within early Hollywood. It sits among cinematic legend for more than one reason – its position on the cusp of enforcement of the infamous ‘Hays Code’ which imposed a moral stricture on Hollywood for decades, akin to photographic prohibition almost; and it’s place as the very first movie to win in all five major categories at the Academy Awards – Best Actor for Clark Gable, Best Actress for Claudette Colbert, Best Screenplay for Robert Riskin, Best Picture and finally Best Director for the indomitable Frank Capra. It’s a trick only repeated twice thus far over the last eighty years, and the power of such a triumph cannot be underestimated. This Blu-ray re-release from Criterion manages to deliver Capra’s of its time but sparkling romantic comedy drama in fine remastered style, with a copious amount of in-depth extra bonus features which not only illuminate the picture itself, but provide greater context to the life and work of Capra and what he created.
If you’ve never seen It Happened One Night, it’ll be a treat when you get to experience it first time around. Colbert, cast after a number of starlets of the day rejected Riskin’s screenplay based on the Samuel Hopkins Adams short story ‘Night Bus’, plays spoiled, pampered socialite heiress Ellie Andrews, who experiences an emotional awakening after fleeing her wealthy, concerned father (Walter Connolly) in order to elope with ‘King’ Westley (Jameson Thomas), a rakish pilot and fortune-hunter who her father believes is only marrying her to inherit her fortune. Following some quietly brutish fatherly behaviour indicative of the age, Ellie flees and ends up crossing paths with Gable’s out of luck, occasionally drunken journalist Peter Warne. Cue a spiky relationship which begins on the aforementioned night bus and ends in an off the beaten track adventure where both begin to discover they may be kindred spirits. This may all sound ‘screwball’ in the Howard Hawks sense of the word but Capra doesn’t play it quite that way – Gable & Colbert’s dynamic is more edged with desperation, psychological need and a hint of danger than machine gun dialogue interplay, and it’s often surprisingly tinged with toughness in a way many won’t associate with the Capra they know from It’s a Wonderful Life or You Can’t Take It With You.
A lot of this is thanks to not just Riskin’s tight, pared back screenplay, but in particular Gable’s performance. He was loaned out to Columbia Pictures from MGM for the picture, where he traditionally portrayed the handsome, matinee idol heroes of which Peter certainly was not; in some respects he’s a bum, getting drunk and lying to his peers, quarrelling with bus drivers, and disowned by the newspaper he works for. In Ellie he once again finds a sense of purpose and while you may expect his morals to be questioned, his actions are often to protect her – such as the electric moment he scares off the odious Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) – and Gable manages skilfully to make who could have been a harsh, ill-tempered man likeable, and by degrees thaws Ellie to us. It’s hard not to be seduced by Colbert’s big, soulful eyes, even when she’s being thoroughly annoying, and her chemistry with Gable leaps off the screen. Capra often focuses square on them both, which is when his picture works the best, and it’s only toward the climax as he races to connect the narrative dots that Riskin’s stagey script threatens to run off the rails. It clings on in there mind, even if it perhaps isn’t brave enough to prevent a happy ending.
Beyond the interplay of the two leads, It Happened One Night should be remembered for a myriad of factors. It’s placement as one of the last pictures produced before the Hays Code, as mentioned earlier, makes observing the occasionally racy (for its age) sexual politics and moments such as an oft-shirtless Gable or Colbert hitching up her skirt as a hitchhiking technique, an example of the loose morality stamped out in such cinema for years afterward, and in much of Frank Capra’s later, more well known pictures. Gable too would eclipse this with fame such as Gone With the Wind in a few years and it almost feels as if this, by no means his first movie but definitely the first picture to put him on the map given it’s accolades, is in danger of being forgotten. Releases such as this will hopefully not make this so.
Much of these elements are discussed in the range of extras Criterion supply for this re-release that can in many respects be seen as almost comprehensive, presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer. A sleek, easy to access menu screen complimented by sounds and dialogue from the movie, allow chapters to be saved as you move through the movie. The supplemental material is where the product stands out; admittedly, it’s lacking a commentary but given Capra died in 1991, outliving by decades other major sources such as Riskin or Gable, it’s hard to be frustrated by what would have been the most insightful element. The release contains the following extras:
- ‘Frank Capra. Jr remembers… It Happened One Night’ – (a brief but illuminating 1999 interview to set the scene with the basic backstory elements fans may already know – Colbert’s reticence etc…)
- ‘Screwball Comedy?’ – (an insightful forty-minute Criterion Collection conversation recorded in 2014 between film critics Molly Haskell and Philip Lopate discuss the film’s relation to screwball comedy in greater detail;
- ‘Frank Capra’s American Dream’ – (an entire feature-length documentary from 1997, hosted by filmmaker Ron Howard, which traces the life and career of Capra in great and insightful depth)
- ‘AFI’s Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Frank Capra’ – (an edited televised version of the AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award presentation to Capra in 1982 which lasts almost an hour)
- The standard cinematic trailer.
- ‘Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House’ – (most excitingly, a 12-minute silent film from 1921, based on a story by Rudyard Kipling, which was the first ever film Capra directed – presented with an all-new score composed and performed by Robert Sosin.)
Though perhaps tipped slightly more in favour of examining Frank Capra in general than specifically It Happened One Night, this is a stuffed re-release from Criterion, who deliver beautifully remastered one of Hollywood’s most legendary romantic comedies, boasting a brace of fascinating, insightful supplements.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.