"It Happened One Night" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert make it happen in Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" (1934).
Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" may very well be one of the most quintessential romantic comedies of all time engaging in a battles of the sexes, class and populism.
The movie helped re-enforce the formula of two opposites falling in love with one another after going on an adventure together, leaving the audience with a "love triumphs" message. Examples of its influence on today's romantic comedies would include "How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days" (2003), "Two Weeks Notice" (2002) and "The Proposal" (2009).
For its efforts "It Happened One Night" went on to earn five Academy Award nominations and won in every category it was nominated including best picture, director, best writing and awards for both of its lead performers. The first time such a feat was ever accomplished during the award ceremony.
Claudette Colbert stars as Ellie Andrews, the spoiled, self-absorbed daughter of millionaire Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly). Ellie, against her father's wishes, has married King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Ellie says the two are in love but her father believes King is a gold-digger and has vowed to keep the two separated until he is able to have the marriage annulled. Alexander "kidnaps" Ellie and takes her on their ship. After days of going on a hunger strike Ellie jumps ship leading her father to start a desperate man-hunt for her.
Ellie hopes to reunite with King in New York. She buys a bus ticket and meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable) a newspaper report with a drinking problem. Peter was recently fired by his editor (Charles C. Wilson) due to his drinking interfering with his writing. Peter, wanting to keep face, pretends he quit instead.
Although Peter initially does not recognize Ellie, when he learns of her identity he agrees to help her reunite with her husband if he has exclusive rights to her story. Reluctantly Ellie agrees.
Here the immediate clash of personalities occurs. Peter is meant to be the "every man", the character the audience can relate to. He is the working class. Unlike Ellie and her father Peter has to work. Peter has street smarts. He knows how to stretch the value of a dollar. And, like most people audience members may know, Peter is an "expert" on everything, consistently saying his knowledge about this or that subject should lead him to write a book on the topic. He represents the "populist".
Ellie, while young, headstrong and attractive, doesn't know about the "real world". Ellie has been sheltered and protected by her father due to their wealth. She doesn't have street smarts. On her own she would not be able to embark on this adventure from Miami to New York by herself? And so the tone is set. The working class slob will face off against the wealthy lady of privilege.
Of course there is also the element of gender and stereotypes associated with gender roles. Who really has more cunning? Which one of them, a man or woman, would be able to get by on their own? At its heart though "It Happened One Night" does re-enforce the stereotype what a woman needs is a strong man. A man to put her in her place. Nothing wrong with yelling and shouting at a woman and every now and then threatening to hit her once in a while. This kind of relationship between the strong man and the more submissive woman has found its way in film after film from Federico Fellini's "La Strada" (1954), Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" (1999) and Tony Gatlif's "Transylvania" (2006).
At this point in his career Clark Gable was known for his roles mostly playing gangsters. Mr. Gable brings the same brute force associated with those characters to his role here. This time however he is required to balance it with a softer side to help make the romance work and gain the audience's sympathy. One could also make the argument "It Happened One Night" helped cement Mr. Gable's position as a leading man. Look at the movies he appeared in after this movie. He would routinely play in romantic comedies, essentially playing the same type of character portrayed here. Watch him in "Love on the Run" (1936) with Joan Crawford. Once again Mr. Gable plays a reporter paired with a woman on the run.
Ms. Colbert had gained attention appearing in Ernst Lubitsch's musical - comedy "The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Cecil B. DeMille's "Sign of the Cross" (1933) but I would also make the argument one could easily say "It Happened One Night" cemented Ms. Colbert as a leading lady. Here Ms. Colbert goes through more of a transition than Mr. Gable's character. Ms. Colbert demonstrates an ability for comedy, a screen presence which makes her relatable to audiences and a feminine delicacy for romance.
How strange then to consider neither actor was the original choice for their respected role. The joke around Hollywood was no one wanted the role. Prior to Ms. Colbert accepting the part it was offered to Miriam Hopkins, Bette Davis, Loretta Young, Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard. Ms. Loy and Ms. Lombard would have been excellent choices for the part, especially Ms. Lombard.
For the male lead Robert Montgomery was suggested but turned down the offer. He too would have been perfect for the part. Although I've never read it anywhere I believe another good choice would have been Melvyn Douglas. Younger audiences may not be familiar with any of these names but both Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Douglas often played semi-comical lead roles. Men who were well versed but also know-it-alls.
The director, Frank Capra, got his early start in cinema writing and sometimes directing comedies starring the "forgotten clown" Harry Langdon. Mr. Capra directed what is often considered the finest silent comedy Mr. Langdon appeared in "The Strong Man" (1926). Mr. Capra, born in Italy, was identified with making American movies which dealt with patriotism and American values. "It Happened One Night" does have a populist appeal but this is not "Meet John Doe" (1941) or "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" (1939). It is not as overtly political as either of those movies.
"It Happened One Night" has secured a reputation as one of Mr. Capra's best known movies however upon its theatrical release the movie was not a box-office success initially. The movie received some positive reviews from the sheep (movie critics) but it was strong word of mouth from the public which helped it find commercial success.
The cultural impact of "It Happened One Night" can be seen when the American Film Institute (AFI) created its list of the 100 greatest American movies in 1998, "It Happened One Night" made the list in the number 35 spot. Ten years later, when a revised list was created, once again it made the list. AFI even included it in its 10 best romantic comedies list, in the number three spot.
You can also see how a movie like "It Happened One Night" may have influenced "Roman Holiday", also about a reporter on an adventure with a woman of privilege.
"It Happened One Night" is unquestionably a classic which deserves to be seen by today's movie audience. They may not know it but "It Happened One Night" has been an influence on how American romantic comedies are made. I wouldn't refer to it as Mr. Capra's best movie, how do you not love "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946)?, but it is surely among his finest achievements.