DVD Review Of It Happened One Night

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/10/07


  It is a very rare thing when a light-hearted comedy, something that is quintessentially the stuff of a ‘good movie,’ breaches into that territory where the term ‘good film’ can also be applied, but Frank Capra’s 1934 film It Happened One Night may be an exception. Today, most people know Capra solely for his rediscovered classic It’s A Wonderful Life, made a dozen years later, but this film was his first stab at what most critics would label greatness. This is all the more interesting because the 1930s, with their still newly developed sound technology, were still a transition period, of sorts, with the over the top hammy expressionistic acting of the silent films still dominating more than the more subtle naturalism of later film eras.

  As a comedy, this is all the more striking, since there was not the manifest symbolism of some of the great silent film comedians, nor was there the social satire of the 1960s madcap comedies, nor those of Woody Allen’s intellectualized Golden Era. Yet, Capra’s film, aside from its fame as having lifted Columbia Pictures from the bottom of the film studio heap, and being the first film to win the Big Five Oscars in a single year- Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Lead Actor, and Best Lead Actress, is credited with being the first ‘screwball comedy,’ a subgenre of the romantic comedy, that flourished during the Great Depression and World War Two years. The films that this film kicked off all were romantic comedies, but the main focus of the films was on the frustrations the protagonists went through before inevitably ending up together in the end, rather than the stuff of pulp novels. Another aspect of this film, which makes it relevant today, is the brisk pace at which it was filmed, acted, and even edited. It is not as noticeable today, in Hollywood’s caffeinated era, but compare it to any of a few dozen other films from that era and the difference is startling.

  The film clocks in at a fairly hefty 105 minutes, whereas most comedies, especially romantic comedies, cannot sustain themselves for even shorter lengths. Yet It Happened One Night is one of those films that, even were it an hour longer, would still ‘feel’ right. It was filmed in less than four weeks, to suit the demanding Colbert’s schedule. This fact also meant that few sets were able to be built, so far more than other contemporary films, this one was filmed in the real world, with Capra using moving cameras and crane shots to an extent rarely used before. He also did one other thing that was innovative: he had the actors speak slightly faster than normal, so that their dialogue would match the pace of the picture, so the audience would not get bored. All these tidbits are gleaned from the DVD audio commentary by Frank Capra, Jr., and some of the other extras on The Premiere Frank Capra Collection from Sony films, a six DVD set that also includes American Madness, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, along with the bonus disk featuring the documentary Frank Capra’s American Dream, hosted by Ron Howard.

  The film was directed by Capra, the crown jewel of Columbia Pictures, and was adapted from a short story called Night Bus, by Samuel Hopkins Adams, by Capra’s longtime collaborator and screenwriter Robert Riskin. Its two stars, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, show why they were stars, even though neither initially wanted to make the film, according to the DVD’s extras. Colbert is another in a long line of early sound era strong heroines, in the mold of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford characters, yet her slow attraction to Gable’s character is believable, as her small, cute, winsome mien transmogrifies from icy to inviting over the course of the film, and her exposure to Gable. This is to be expected though. After all, he is Clark Gable, and instead of the fey aristocrat of Gone With The Wind, this film allows Gable to display his great range as an actor, as well as his masculine physique. In the witty banter between his character and Colbert’s, and others, he shows that he was as adept at comedy as he was drama- something latterday ‘hunks,’ from Cary Grant to John Wayne to Marlon Brando to Paul Newman Clint Eastwood to Robert Redford to Tom Cruise to Brad Pitt, could never do.

  The story is rather simple, and has been so influential that it serves as a template for almost all other comedies, in one way or another- from its stringing together of wacky vignettes, to many of the individual moments within the scenes. The film opens with heiress Ellie Andrews (Colbert) leaping off her father’s (Walter Connolly) yacht, after he vows to undo her elopement to a gold digging aviator, King Westley (Jameson Thomas). In a nice use of ellipses- a technique that seems to have disappeared from today’s bloated Hollywood films, Capra then shows her sneaking on to a bus, under the noses of detectives her father has hired. There she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a roué and newspaper reporter who recognizes her and plans to cash in on the reward offered by her father. But, after some initial discomfort, the two become a pair, and he helps her fend off a leering little salesman named Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns, in a great humorous supporting role), who wants to also turn Ellie in. Peter fends him off, first pretending to be her husband, then a mobster who’s kidnapped her, but for safely taking her to New York City he wants an exclusive on the heiress’s tale. She agrees to it, but soon is drawn to him, as her marriage was just a sham to get her out from under her father’s thumb. A number of great scenes follow, such as the busload of passengers singing The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze, Gable’s neutering of the bus driver who can only say, ‘Oh yeah,’ and then, when the two hit the road, the most famous scene in the film, where they hitchhike. Peter claims expertise as he chews on a carrot- a scene said to have inspired the character of Bugs Bunny, but cars roar by his outstretched thumb. Ellie takes over, then lifts up her skirt and shows off her left leg. A car screeches to a halt. The Driver (Alan Hale, Sr.) turns out to be a song-happy thief, and the two sink even lower and lower as they get closer to New York City, where Ellie hopes to reunite with her husband and Peter hopes to sell his account of her tale.

  On their last night together, Peter drives to New York, after Ellie confesses her love. He hits up his editor for a thousand dollars for his story, so he can propose to her in style. But, before he can get back, she’s kicked out of the bed, believes he’s left her, and has her father come and get her. He has now accepted her marriage, but agrees to his wanting a real wedding ceremony. Peter feels Ellie’s bailed out on her, and played him for a fool. Before Ellie re-marries King, Peter goes to her father to be repaid for the $39.he spent on her. He does not want the reward. Her father gets him to admit that he loves Ellie- although Peter feels that fact’s a sign of his nuttiness, too, then tells her of Peter’s love as he walks Ellie down the aisle, at an outdoor ceremony where King has dropped in on an old-fashioned helicopter. She runs out of the ceremony, and the film ends with her father paying off King, and getting a telegram from the happy couple on honeymoon, wanting to know if it’s alright to consummate the marriage. It is, and The Walls Of Jericho tumble down.

  The Walls Of Jericho reference refers to the scene where Peter placed a blanket across a rope to divide the room they are staying in, has been used many times, in film and television, but was used here as a way to heighten the sexual provocations of the characters. In the Luke & Laura General Hospital daytime soap opera wave of the early 1980s, those two characters redid many of the exact same scenes from It Happened One Night; one of dozens of outright steals and homages to that scene, but none had the wit nor repartee Gable unleashed, to Colbert:  Well, I like privacy when I retire. Yes, I’m very delicate in that respect. Prying eyes annoy me. Behold The Walls Of Jericho! Maybe not as thick as the ones that Joshua blew down with his trumpet, but a lot safer. You see, I have no trumpet.’ This may not be as risqué as it was in the 1930s, but it’s still damned great dialogue.

  Yet, this film is also very lighthearted, in comparison to many of Capra’s other social commentary classics, where the American Dream is realized. Even in its depiction of Depression era hoboes, or freeloaders, there is a genial sense that things could be worse, so be happy they’re not. And, along with the famed hitchhiking scene, there are other great scenes, such as where Peter informs Ellie on dunking donut etiquette, or where they argue over what constitutes a piggyback ride when a barefooted Peter carries Ellie across a stream. The film itself, looks Sterling. One would hardly believe that the film is nearly 75 years old. Sony gets major kudos for the restoration done for this set. The commentary, by Capra’s son, is hit and miss, with many dull spots, as well times where nothing is said for a good three to four minutes, and most of what he says is already said in the disk’s featurettes. What was really needed was the sort of film historian or critical commentary that many older foreign films come with, such as in The Criterion Collection, for Sony truly does equal the best Criterion has done in every other respect but this one. The disk also offers advertising materials, a radio broadcast of an adaptation of the film, the original theatrical trailer, and an eleven minute documentary called Frank Capra Jr. Remembers…’It Happened One Night.’

  But, even with no features nor computer restoration, It Happened One Night would be worth watching, for its great screenplay, which was leagues above other 1930s films in sophistication and realism, and still better than almost all romantic comedies since. Yes, there are a few cringe-inducing moments when the era is shown at its worst- with a portrayal of a Stepin Fetchit like black railroad character, but that’s a minor cavil in an otherwise great comedy, and possibly great film. After all, greatness includes- it does not preclude, humanity, and Capra was as infected by the worst of his times as anyone. But what makes a man great, especially an artist, is the degree to which those times claw at him, and the percentage of times a man of his time becomes a man for all times. The same is true for his art, and this artist and his film pass both of those bars. It Happened One Night is still as funny as it ever was, and the fact that you will get a bit more is the type of bonus feature DVDs alone cannot provide.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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