Blog Directory CineVerse: Universal thumbs up for It Happened One Night

Universal thumbs up for It Happened One Night

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

They don’t come much more timeless or beloved than It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra, produced by Harry Cohn for Columbia Pictures, and released in 1934—90 years ago this week. The film follows the escapades of Ellie Andrews, a wealthy socialite portrayed by Claudette Colbert, who flees from her domineering father to elope with a fortune-seeking playboy. Along her journey, she encounters Peter Warne, a recently fired newspaper journalist played by Clark Gable. Recognizing Ellie, Peter offers assistance in exchange for an exclusive story, leading to a mismatched duo embarking on a cross-country adventure filled with comedic mishaps and burgeoning affection.

Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the film was crafted during a challenging era for Columbia Pictures, a minor studio competing with Hollywood giants like MGM and Paramount. Despite initial reluctance from Capra, who ultimately secured creative control, the production encountered obstacles including budget constraints and artistic disagreements. Nevertheless, It Happened One Night triumphed as both a critical and commercial success. The memorable performances of Colbert and Gable, coupled with their on-screen chemistry and impeccable comedic timing, solidified the film's enduring popularity.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, click here. For the latest Cineversary podcast episode celebrating It Happened One Night’s 90th anniversary, click here.

This picture remains evergreen for delving into topics such as class privilege, socioeconomic disparities, and the universal quest for happiness—messages that particularly struck a chord with audiences of this hardscrabble era. Its examination of these themes, presented with both levity and depth, imbued the film with substance and raised it above the rank of frivolous entertainment expected from a romantic comedy for 1934.

Ponder that this is likely the best comedy that Gable and Colbert, individually, have ever starred in and quite possibly their finest performances, as evidenced by the fact that It Happened One Night is the only film each ever won an acting Oscar for. Although it was already his 13th directed film in the sound era, It Happened One Night is also the feature that made the world take notice of Capra, his first in a successful run of crowd-pleasing movies that the filmmaker crafted in the 1930s for Columbia.

Moreover, the film is an important early benchmark in the screwball comedy subgenre. Three-Cornered Moon (1933), also starring Colbert, and Bombshell (1933) with Jean Harlow are often credited as the first screwball comedies, but this is the work that likely helped put screwballs on the map thanks to its superior quality compared to those earlier pictures, its immense popularity at the box-office in 1934, and its enduring legacy. It helped introduce several key characteristics of the screwball comedy, a subgenre known for:
  • Farcical stories and situations—where the film pokes fun at stereotypical characters, such as filthy rich fathers and spoiled rotten daughters (case in point: My Man Godfrey)
  • Themes highlighting the differences between upper and lower socioeconomic classes, with many of the settings taking place among the high society but involving a likable male love interest from the other side of the tracks (see Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)
  • A plot centered on courtship and marriage (The Philadelphia Story) or remarriage (The Awful Truth)
  • Often a strong-willed, determined, and sometimes tomboyish female lead, commonly depicted as stronger and even smarter than her male counterpart (Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve)
  • Fast pacing in the humor and repartee, direction, editing, and dialogue delivery (His Girl Friday)
  • Physical humor, including slapstick (Bringing Up Baby), pratfalls (The Lady Eve), and sight gags (To Be Or Not To Be), are often used to elicit major laughs and make dignified characters look ridiculous.
  • Quirky and colorful side characters also populate these stories, as evidenced by Shapely, Danker the singing thief, and the various motel owners in this film.
  • A story involving mistaken identity, misunderstanding, keeping of an important secret, occasionally involving cross-dressing or masquerading (Some Like it Hot and Bringing Up Baby)
  • A classic battle of the sexes between a man and a woman, with the male lead’s masculinity often challenged by a strong female love interest (The Awful Truth)
  • Colorful supporting characters with quirky personalities.
It Happened One Night helped advance several of these elements in the subgenre, such as silly characters, eccentric scenarios, and a comedic battle of the sexes theme. Its seamless fusion of humor and romance, as well as its contrast between the haves and the have-nots, established a blueprint that numerous films would emulate in subsequent years, including My Man Godfrey, Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, and many others. Film scholar Molly Haskell remarked: “Films before (It Happened One Night), the romantic comedies, they really hadn’t been silly…here, (the leads) could be silly and also be incredibly romantic.”

This isn’t a wall-to-wall screwball, but certain scenes and situations employ the zaniness and physical chaos endemic of classic screwballs, such as when Peter and Ellie pretend they're married in front of the detectives, when he gives her the “piggyback” ride, and the hitchhiking sequence.

Aside from being a screwball influence, It Happened One Night made history by becoming the inaugural film to secure victories in all five primary categories at the Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Riskin). This marked a significant milestone in Oscar history, establishing the film as a trailblazer in the annals of cinema. Consider that after It Happened One Night, only two other films have won all five of these major awards: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Furthermore, it’s been recognized as among the first Hollywood films to portray a wealthy character undergoing a dramatic reversal of fortune and being romantically involved with an individual from a lower socioeconomic background. This narrative decision allowed the movie to delve into themes of class and privilege in a manner that was innovative for a film set in and released during the Great Depression.

Additionally, It Happened One Night set new standards and expectations for on-screen romantic relationships. The palpable chemistry between Gable and  Colbert elevated the film beyond conventional romantic comedies. Their natural banter and flirtatious exchanges set a precedent for on-screen chemistry that would influence numerous romantic films to come. “It Happened One Night has had an immeasurable effect on the romantic comedy genre, which has paid homage to and spoofed Capra’s picture countless times,” Deep Focus Review essayist Brian Eggert wrote. “Whenever a character uses their sex appeal to stop a passing car, whenever a sheet separates a room, whenever life on the road provides a life-altering experience, whenever a bride changes her mind at the last minute, and whenever two bickering adults fall in love, It Happened One Night is among the influences.”

Capra’s work was groundbreaking for its realistic portrayal of downtrodden settings, which was rare for Hollywood films of that time. Scenes depicting dirty country roads, bus stations, outdoor shows, and a run-down countryside, along with characters eating raw carrots and meager breakfasts, offered a stark contrast to the glamorous escapism typically associated with Hollywood productions.

The movie left a lasting cultural imprint, shaping not just future romcoms and screwballs but also popular characters and trends. Recall that Gable eats a carrot and is called “Doc” by Shapely, the rider on the bus, who is later frightened by the mention of a personality named “Bugs Dooley”: This movie is credited with inspiring animator Friz Freling in the creation of cartoon character Bugs Bunny. Additionally, rumor has it that sales of men’s undershirts tanked after Gable was shown taking off his shirt to reveal a bare chest; the film may have also popularized hitchhiking.

As proof of how beloved this film and its narrative was and is, consider the numerous remakes in its wake: Even Knew Her Apples (1945); You Can’t Run Away From It (1956); and several adaptations made in India between 1956 and 2007. It’s been spoofed and referenced, as well, in movies like Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937), Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987), and Bandits (2001).

This pre-code film was provocative in its time, too. For instance, the "Walls of Jericho" scenes were considered risqué in 1934 for their suggestion of an unmarried man and woman sleeping in the same room together, for Gable taking off his shirt, and for Cobert wearing a revealing undergarment. In her Criterion Collection essay, Farran Smith Nehme wrote: “What takes this setup from the cute to the ravishing is what happens when the lights are shut off and the full beauty of Joseph Walker’s cinematography takes hold. The rain outside makes the windows sparkle, and the light from them outlines Colbert’s form as she stands there in her slip, trying to calm her nerves. It’s a shot that, at the time, could have revealed more of Colbert’s state of undress, and indeed that’s how Capra had planned it. But Colbert objected, and Capra later said the scene was sexier in the near dark. It Happened One Night made the sexual longing unmistakable, but did it in a way that showed future filmmakers how to stay on the right side of the censors.”

Also, the film includes numerous instances of sexual suggestiveness, such as Colbert showing off her legs and fellow bus rider Shapely’s lines like “When a cold mama gets hot, boy, she sizzles,” and “Shapley’s the name and that’s how I like ’em.” Eggert continued: “Ellie…has a voracious appetite. Literary and early Hollywood symbolism often treated hunger as a shorthand analogy for sexual appetite, and It Happened One Night features no end of references to food and hunger…Coming from the vacuous high society, she finds herself drawn to Peter in all his earthiness—epitomized by his fondness for that most phallic of vegetable roots, the raw carrot. When, out of desperate hunger, Ellie resolves to try a bite, she realizes that raw carrots aren’t so bad, after all.”

Amazingly, we never even see Peter and Ellie kiss, nor does Capra give us a payoff romantic embrace at the conclusion—merely a clever shot of the Wall of Jericho blanket tumbling down, a cinematically potent suggestive image.

Capra's films often explore populist values and depict the struggle of the everyday common man against the machinery of politics, commerce, and corruption. They frequently portray rugged individualism as a myth or fairy tale created to maintain the illusion of democracy, as seen in works like Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra's characters are often conflicted by alternating realities, exemplified by George Bailey's internal struggle in It's a Wonderful Life as he grapples with his desires for personal fulfillment and societal responsibilities. Strong and charismatic female leads are also a hallmark of Capra's films, with actresses like Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, and Claudette Colbert taking on memorable roles in movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, and It Happened One Night.

Several of Capra’s scenes in the film serve as poignant reminders of the Great Depression setting. For instance, the scene where bus passengers engage in a spontaneous singalong symbolizes a moment of hope and unity amidst adversity, allowing them to momentarily forget their personal struggles and come together as a community. Additionally, the sequence where characters selflessly give their last dollars to a hungry woman and child highlights the widespread economic hardship faced by many during this era. Furthermore, the scene where Ellie impulsively dumps a perfectly good meal on the floor reflects a sense of hubris and extravagance that contrasts starkly with the prevailing economic conditions of the Great Depression. We also observe Peter gesturing friendly waves to drifters riding the rails.

Indeed, class disparities are front and center in It Happened One Night. At the heart of the film lies the juxtaposition between Ellie, an affluent, sheltered heiress, and Peter, a rugged reporter. Their interactions serve as a lens through which the movie delves into societal class distinctions, challenging preconceived notions linked to affluence and privilege. This is also a narrative about the battle between two Kings: King Wesley and Peter, who is nicknamed “King” by his fellow inebriated reporters in the scene when he is introduced. The former is a King whose class, fame, wealth, and privilege make him a fitting suitor to an heiress, while the latter is a king with a lowercase "k" who, despite his lower socioeconomic status, rules Ellie’s heart.

Other themes explored include self-reliance, autonomy, self-discovery, and the importance of thinking for oneself and pursuing one's true passions. Ellie and Peter each pursue independence and freedom in distinct manners. Ellie flees from her domineering father to pursue her marital desires, while Peter, a tenacious and self-reliant journalist, seeks autonomy through his career. Their joint odyssey facilitates a deeper understanding of their individual aspirations and desires. Ellie and Peter both undergo significant personal growth and exploration throughout the narrative. Ellie learns to assert her independence and agency, while Peter cultivates empathy and compassion. Their collaborative journey serves as a catalyst for uncovering pivotal truths about themselves and their intrinsic values.

Recall how Peter lectures Ellie on how to properly dunk a donut, ride piggyback, and hitchhike. This becomes a running gag in which Peter asserts his assumed authority on these subjects until the student becomes the teacher in the hitchhiking sequence, which demonstrates that, like her, he’s learning important lessons in this journey—including the lesson that Ellie isn’t the dizzy dame or helpless brat that he imagines her to be.

This is certainly a “money can’t buy you love” tale. The film espouses that wealth and material possessions are insufficient for securing love or happiness, highlighting the significance of true affection and mutual respect. The movie conveys a message that love can serve as a great equalizer among different classes, suggesting that interpersonal relationships have the potential to transcend socioeconomic barriers. 

However, this message may be diluted when tracing the trajectory of Ellie's character arc, which ultimately challenges the notion of female empowerment and independence. While initially depicted as a strong-willed and intelligent woman resistant to patriarchal control, Ellie's reliance on Peter for protection and eventual acceptance of her father's wishes arguably undermine her agency and autonomy. Moreover, her ignorance regarding financial matters and her inability to fend for herself highlight the constraints imposed on her by societal expectations and gender norms. Thus, while the film may celebrate the spirit of the common man in certain respects, it reinforces traditional gender roles and power dynamics for the time.

Per Slant Magazine critic Chris Cabin: “If the film ultimately idealizes the morals of the middle class in terms of usable intellect and responsibility, the narrative builds off the friction between entitlement and self-reliance, both between the two leads and within Ellie. The filmmakers all but underline this early on when Warne’s colleagues christen him “King,” just like Ellie’s other suitor—one given as a sign of a family’s wealth and heritage, the other gifted by the common man for an act of careless, bemused defiance.”

It Happened One Night has a few greatest gifts it continues to bestow with every rewatch. First is its ability to make us believe in the spontaneity of love and how it can happen unexpectedly. Gift #2 is its reinforcement of the often implausible notion that opposites can attract. And gift #3 is its remarkable power to increasingly care about and root for two characters who often aren’t very likable or relatable—especially 90 years later when the dated gender politics and patriarchal values of this film can uncomfortably stand out.

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