Tuesday, December 30, 2014

It Happened One Night (1934)

Director: Frank Capra                                         Writer: Robert Riskin
Film Score: Howard Jackson                              Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly and Alan Hale

The original screwball comedy, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is a fast-paced frolic that not only defined a genre, but earned Capra his first Academy Award as director and cemented his reputation as one of the great American directors. But the film did more than just win an award for its director. It was the first film to sweep all of the top five awards at the Oscars, winning not only for best director but best actor for Clark Gable, best actress for Claudette Colbert, best screenplay by Robert Riskin as well as best picture of the year. It was sweep that would not be repeated again for forty years. The screenplay by Robert Riskin is based on the short story “Night Bus,” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, first published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1933. As is the case in many Hollywood films of that era, Capra had offered the leads to many other actors before finally being able to acquire the services of Colbert and Gable. While its initial release to first-run houses only garnered mixed reviews, once the film went out across the country to the masses, Capra’s true audience made the film a box office smash.

The film begins onboard ship, with Claudette Colbert as a spoiled socialite who has married against her father’s wishes and is being held against her will. Eventually she escapes from her room and jumps overboard. She eludes her father’s investigators and boards a bus for New York, while Clark Gable, a drunken newspaper reporter, gets fired from his job and gets onboard the same bus. The more he gets to know her, the more curious he becomes about her since she seems to be a bit scattered, losing her suitcase and almost losing her ticket. When she’s stranded in Jacksonville Gable decides to stay as well, especially after he discovers Colbert’s identity from the front page of the newspaper, and he isn’t any more impressed with her new husband than her father is. With the next bus not due for twelve hours, Gable decides to help her by knocking some of the arrogance out of her behavior, since she doesn’t have any money and is dependent upon him. When the road is washed out and the bus has to stop, he buys them a room at a motel where he reveals his identity. Then he promises to get her to New York before her father can find her as long as he gets the exclusive rights to her getaway story for his newspaper so he can get hired back. Despite their rocky beginning, the two begin to bond with each other along the way, with inevitable results.

Like so many of the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, much of the plot goes all the way back to Shakespeare comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Taming of the Shrew, in this case the later, where Gable abuses Colbert rather than being impressed by her wealth in order to tame her snobbish behavior and get her to act in a more sympathetic way. The centerpiece of the film is the night they spend together in the motel, with Gable erecting a “wall of Jericho” between the two beds. But Capra’s humanism also comes through with a scene on the bus where a woman faints, or with the all of the regular people at the motel. Of course the bus breaks down again, and Roscoe Karnes figures out who she. But when he tries to strong-arm Gable the reporter comes up with a wonderful way to shut him up, and later takes on Alan Hale when he tries to steal his suitcase. As they get closer to New York, Colbert becomes more reluctant to return to her husband, and Gable becomes more disappointed that she isn’t single and he can’t pursue her.

Capra has some nice directorial touches, one of which is the long tracking shot at the motel when Colbert is walking to the showers. The bus scenes are also well done with a simulation of movement that adds much needed realism. There are some dead spots in the script as well, one of which is the singing aboard the bus, but they are few and don’t diminish the overall effect. Many of the devices in the film have become standard for romantic comedies through the years, the cordoning off of a single room the couple is forced to stay in, the misunderstanding when one of them leaves to fix things and makes the other believe they’ve been abandoned, and the angry reunion at the end. While there have been several acknowledged remakes, the king of unacknowledged rip-offs, Lawrence Kasdan, remade the film as French Kiss, with the male character helping to get the female to her husband being the unique characteristic of the film that has been otherwise rarely used as a romcom device. Though he had made some impressive films in the early thirties, It Happened One Night is the first film in what is typically thought of as Frank Capra’s classic period, and for many viewers is still considered his very best.

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