Movie Review – It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night (1934)
Written by Robert Riskin
Directed by Frank Capra

No genre in the arts is more subjective than comedy. Initially, comedy was considered performance pieces with a light-hearted tone. So essentially, anything with a happy ending. That has been the case if you look at most theatrical comedies from ancient Greece into our modern era. For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy is named that because it delivers an upbeat ending despite some absolutely horrific Inferno sections. Because these stories often had more relatable moments than the more heightened & sadder tragedies, laughter was commonly heard from the audience. Thus, the connection between comedy & funny became a thing. 

As the comedy developed, writers focused on surprise as an element to elicit laughs from audiences. This might come in violent slapstick comedy, turns of phrase, or screwball scenarios. Sometimes comedy was done as a social critique resulting in satire which can sometimes go broader & obvious into parody. Satire would grow into other offshoots like comedy of manners. Dark comedy would combine elements of tragedy & comedy into a very particular niche. Shakespeare’s comedies often ended in weddings, so romantic comedy became its subgenre over the ages. In the same way that the form of theater we now call drama can encompass many different categories, so too does comedy. This is why reactions to comedy vary far more than to dramatic pieces. Laughing, in many ways, is a very personal thing.

In this Comedy Masterworks series, I certainly am not going to laugh at every film; I even found some of them to not be funny at all. But what I plan to focus on is why these movies make sense being called Masterworks; they pushed the form of the comedy in bold new directions, often creating whole new subgenres or reviving elements that had been forgotten. 

In 1934, there was no shortage of comedic films. Hollywood was in full swing, headed towards its glory days. Frank Capra had been directing movies for eleven years by this time, and while he’d been successful, nothing had really caught the majority of the public’s interest yet. Adapted from the short story “The Night Bus,” It Happened One Night didn’t seem extraordinary on paper. Multiple actors were offered the leads but turned them down, not thinking the film would be worth their time. Claudette Cobert’s name was suggested, but she’d hated her time working on a previous Capra picture. She would eventually agree if her salary doubled and all her scenes were shot in a breakneck four-week schedule. Clark Gable, who was under contract at the then minor studio of MGM, was offered to Columbia allegedly as punishment for refusing a role he was contractually obligated to play. Both actors reportedly hated the script, so not what you would imagine were the ingredients for a hit.

It Happened One Night begins with Ellie Andrews (Cobert), a spoiled heiress who eloped with the playboy King Westley despite her father disapproving. Ellie runs away and boards a Greyhound bus to New York City, where she will be reunited with her husband. However, there are many complications in the tradition of road trip comedies. One of those complications is Peter Warne (Gable), a newspaper reporter who just lost his job. Ellie’s family is famous, and once Peter realizes who she is, he offers a deal: He’ll help her get to NYC as she lacks cash if Ellie gives him an exclusive on the story. 

Wouldn’t you know it, these two cannot stand each other for the film’s first half. They each like to do things a certain way, and tension rises. As they get closer to the city, Ellie & Peter separately realize they are falling for each other but try to hide their feelings. Peter leaves their motel room one morning and, after Ellie sees their car is gone, assumes he’s abandoned her. She contacts her father, who says she can stay married to Westley if she just comes home. Ellie agrees, and Peter mistakenly thinks she was playing him by confessing her feelings. The movie won’t end on a down note, though. After a few more misunderstandings, the truth comes out, and the couple is together for good. 

It Happened One Night was a “pre-Code” comedy released before the restrictive & conservative Hays Code was implemented six months later to control the content of motion pictures. Tame by today’s standards, you can see what they got away with in the scenes at the motel between Ellie & Peter. There is implied nudity; we even see Gable bare-chested, which would have been pretty steamy for the period. The trope of putting up a clothesline with a sheet between two members of the opposite sex seems to have originated here. You’d often see this in 1980s American sitcoms. If I remember correctly. Who’s The Boss? had this element in one episode. The clothesline is referred to as The Walls of Jericho, and at the end, when Ellie & Peter are on their honeymoon, we hear a trumpet playing to signify “the walls of Jericho tumbling down,” i.e., they are consummating the marriage. 

Despite much strife behind the scenes between Capra and Cobert, the movie was an immediate hit with the American public. Six years later, the character of Bugs Bunny would be introduced into popular culture, and his creators cite Gable’s character in It Happened One Night as a significant influence. Peter is nicknamed “Doc” by a supporting player, which made its way into the rabbit’s vocabulary. Peter even munches on a carrot while being his smarmy, confident self. The influence of the picture has been vast, adapted for the radio in 1939 with two direct American remakes in the 40s and 50s. The film was a massive hit in India, leading to three Hindi remakes, one Bengali, two Tamil, and one Kannada starting in the late 1950s and as recently as 2007.

It makes sense because it’s such a simple premise. The framework gives any adaptation room to put its flavor on it, whether genre or culture. You’d never guess the main actors’ problems with the script when you watch the movie. They can come across as genuine and play off each other well. They have chemistry together, which is the one thing you must have for the story work. If you couldn’t feel the sparks between Cobert and Gable, the movie surely would have been a dud. The picture went on to win the Big Five at the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing), the first to do so and only One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs have ever achieved the same thing. 

I’m not typically a fan of Capra’s movies. His incoherent politics often leaked into the work, but this is early enough that I don’t think he’s leaned into the nonsense yet. I didn’t laugh too hard but certainly chuckled several times. It Happened One Night is a charming movie, so I can see why it attracted a mass audience. It’s a little cheeky but never goes too far, a balance of what would have been modern for the time mixed with old-fashioned wholesomeness in the end. It was Columbia’s most notable success for the next seventy years, so it’s no wonder there was a deluge of romantic comedies to follow from every studio. 

While the romantic comedy genre is one of my least favorite under this particular umbrella of films, I never disliked watching this one. Movie stars in this period had to be more than pretty faces, as the advent of sound wasn’t that far back. Today, I find actors of the caliber of someone like Clark Gable can get away with not doing much other than mugging for the camera. I had to check, but this is only the second Gable movie I’ve ever seen, the other being John Huston’s The Misfits. These are the polar ends of his career, and seeing that he never really lost it along the way has made me interested in exploring more of his filmography. 

This won’t be the last romantic comedy in our Masterworks series; our next film happens to be one too. But folks, it is like the polar opposite of this one!


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