Monday, November 1, 2010


IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (Dir: Frank Capra) (Scr:Robert Riskin, based on the short story NIGHT BUS by Samual Hopkins Adams)

In 1935, the Academy did something they rarely do: they gave the best picture award to a comedy.  They also gave the film awards for best actor, actress, director and screenplay, a clean sweep and another rarity.  Amazingly, no one saw it coming, least of all its soon to be legendary director Frank Capra.
At the time he was toiling away for the then low rent Columbia studios, having broken into the business years earlier by making silent comedy shorts for Hal Roach. While shooting LADY FOR A DAY he happened to read the story NIGHT BUS, by Samuel Hopkins Adams in an issue of Cosmopolitan, and he thought there was a movie in it.  He showed it to his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskin, who agreed, and they convinced Columbia studio head Harry Cohn to buy it.  As luck would have it, Columbia had a deal with Metro Goldwyn Mayer to loan out one of their stars to Columbia for one film. MGM sent over an actor who was having trouble breaking into the big time, and who was complaining about the roles he was getting; he was sent to Columbia as punishment.  That was Clark Gable.  Claudette Colbert came over on a similar deal with Paramount, and the movie was set.
Nobody involved expected much from it, but it slowly built into an enormous hit, making Columbia studios a major player and Gable a star, establishing the "he-man" persona that he used for the rest of his career.  It is considered the first of the "screwball" romantic comedies, a genre in which the romantic leads often banter, and bicker for the whole movie before finally falling for each other in the end.  (Although as any Shakespeare fan will tell you, this was not a formula invented by movies!).  It is a genre returned to time and time again today, but the results often lack the charm and wit that seemed so effortless in many of these older films.  While this film's influence is undeniable, I must admit that I'm not a huge fan; I find the chemistry between the two leads uneven, with Gable being a lot more convincing in his scenes where he can't stand Colbert than when he falls for her.  Also, the comedy is only intermittently funny.  Whenever the film is remembered on TV specials, the famous hitchhiking scene (in which Colbert shows up  Gable's attempts to hitchhike by getting a car to stop by lifting up her dress and showing her leg)is shown, and understandably so; personally I think it's the only really big laugh in the film.
The famous hitchhiking scene

The film's opening is bold in that the two main characters are unsympathetic at first: Colbert is Ellie Andrews, a spoiled heiress who has eloped with an aviator named King Westley(Jameson Thomas).  Her father, Alexander (Walter Connolly), can't stand King, and has trapped her on a yacht in Miami until she agrees to have the marriage annulled.  Ellie throws a tantrum and eventually dives off the boat and swims to shore.  Her father has the airport and train stations watched and Ellie, knowing this, heads for a bus station to ride to New York City, where King awaits.  At the station, we get our first glimpse of  Peter Warne (Gable); and he is drunkenly yelling "in a pig's eye you will!" into a phone at a phone booth.  He is reporter, and he's being fired by his editor.  Angrily he hangs up the phone and staggers onto the same bus that Ellie is riding, almost getting into a fight with the driver on the way.   When he thinks she has stolen his seat, he sarcastically growls at her "that which you sit upon is mine." Yes, here is a romance in which our two leads are a spoiled brat and a surly drunk! 
Eventually, Peter sees a paper with the story of Ellie's disappearance and figures out who she is; realizing he has a great scoop, he resolves to help her get to New York in exchange for the exclusive story of her trip.  With this premise set, most of the film is their journey by bus, car and foot, with them arguing all the way and then falling for each other.  The film will inevitably humanize them as they travel together and find out more about each other, although Peter will still often be disagreeable for the rest of the film.  Colbert, on the other hand, does becomes more likable: an important moment for her character comes when she claims that her father has dominated her all her life, and that she would gladly trade places with a plumber's daughter if given the chance.  (Alright, she's likable here, but I'm not sure she's entirely believable!).  I think Colbert is better here than Gable, more funny, more endearing, and she finds the right way to play her big declaration of love for him towards the end of the film, which is sweet, hopeful and vulnerable, because she has no idea whether he feels the same way about her.
On the other hand, Gable is not only sour towards Colbert throughout most of the film, he is also self righteous and condescending; he continually  refers to as a brat, tells her to shut up more than once, and lectures her about how she's doing everything wrong.  He even criticizes the way she dunks a doughnut in her coffee! While depression era audiences may have enjoyed watching a rich girl get her comeuppance and have to live on a strict budget (she forgot to bring much money with her when she ran off), today Gable's character just often seems like a sexist jerk.  Part of the reason the hitchiking scene works so well is because it's the only time that Colbert's character really shows up Gable; other than that, Capra appears to be on Gable's side in their arguements.
Gable's character (and the movie itself) hits a real low point in one scene where he has to carry her across a river piggyback style; this leads to a silly, childish disagreement about piggyback rides that ends with Gable giving her a swift spank on the rear while still carrying her.  When I saw this film at a revival house recently, many people in the audience hissed and booed at this, and I can't say I blamed them.

A much better scene occurs earlier when the two have to stay at a hotel, and, hard up for cash, have to pose as husband and wife and share a room.  Peter hangs a string between their separate beds and hangs a blanket on it, calling it "the walls of Jericho"; Gable's relaxed charm is at its best here, as for once he doesn't lecture Ellie, and instead he plays up to her obvious discomfort at being next to a man who's undressing.
 The walls of Jericho

One of the tricky problems that many romantic comedies often have is finding a way to keep the two leads apart until the final scene, and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT can't quite conquer this problem; late in the film, while staying at another hotel, Ellie finally confesses her love for Peter to him.  At first he seems to reject her, but then he dashes off  to borrow money from his newspaper editor, saying that he plans to propose to her, but can't do it without money in his pocket; before he gets back she has awoken and, thinking he has abandoned her, calls her father to have him take her home(he has publicly agreed to let her marry King).  For the life of me, I can't understand why Peter doesn't just tell Ellie that he loves her and wants to marry her earlier instead of running off; why does it matter whether he has money on him or not when he proposes!  But he does run off, setting off a chain of events that ends with Ellie literally dashing away from King at the alter seconds before saying "I do"; the last twenty minutes of the film seem forced, with needless obstacles being put up between our two lovebirds,  and I think it would have been better if the film had ended with the two of them united much earlier.


I think Capra would get much better in his later films like MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, in which he effectively injected social commentary in with the romantic comedy plots.  That said, I seem to be dumping on this film a lot, so I should mention that overall I enjoy this film, uneven as it is, because when it works it is charming and romantic.  But the best film of the year?  Nope, other movies like THE SCARLET EMPRESS, IT'S A GIFT, THE GAY DIVORCEE', and even THE THIN MAN(a romantic comedy with better chemistry between the leads) work better for me.