Witney Seibold has been watching and reviewing every film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In week seven, he talks about the indelible classic It Happened One Night.
Trivia: This was the first year the Academy began judging films by the exact calendar year, a system still in place today. It Happened One Night is one of only three films to have won the “big five” Oscars: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay.
Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is perhaps the first Best Picture winner with which you may be intimately familiar. In previous weeks, I have talked about relatively obscure films like Cavalcade and Cimarron, which hold no particularly strong spot in cinematic history, other than the fact that they won Best Picture. Indeed, those two examples aren’t even necessarily good films. It Happened One Night, however, is a legitimate and well-known classic. It’s so well-known, in fact, that I almost feel a bit churlish writing about it, and I’ll have to struggle to find an original take. I imagine I’ll encounter similar problems when it comes to time write about Gone with the Wind or Casablanca.
It Happened One Night is the first auteur film of the Best Picture winners; that is to say, the film’s director, Frank Capra, was a known quantity beforehand, and went on to declare a definite artistic voice in future films such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and future Best Picture winner You Can’t Take it With You. The Italian-born Capra has been called – by certain critics – the Great American Filmmaker, as he is known for his wide-eyed patriotism, boldly optimistic views of national pride, and generally upbeat take on the world. In Capra’s world, love will out, forgiveness is all, gentleness is better than cynicism, and the ideals of patriotism will outstrip corruption. Watching a Frank Capra movie will just make you feel good. Capra’s films are so good, you can look past some of their cornier elements (which are legion) and get lost in the halcyon happiness.
It’s fitting, then, that Capra should be the man who is ultimately responsible for that most optimistic of genres: the romantic comedy. Romantic comedies, despite often being called fluff, tend to be cheery affairs, assured as they are by their own belief in romantic love and the inevitable relationship to form between their two leads. 1934’s It Happened One Night is the template on which all other romantic comedies are built. Clark Gable plays an often drunken but endlessly charming newspaper reporter named Peter Warne who stumbles upon the bus-bound heiress Ellie (Claudette Colbert). Ellie has just slipped the bounds of a potentially unhappy marriage to a rich man she hardly knows, and intends to run away to Anywhere But Here. Ellie is naïve in her wealth, however, and doesn’t really know how to traverse the world. Peter steps in to follow her, make sure she’s not hurt, and get a corker of a story in the meantime.
The bulk of It Happened One Night takes place on the road in dingy-looking Depression-era motels and crowded buses. Peter and Ellie seem to be constantly uncomfortable, having to fend off con artists and the advances of men respectively. Of course Peter’s charms and Ellie’s sweetness spell romance for the audience long before it does for the characters, and it’s not long before they find themselves falling in love. The blanket they hang between their beds (nicknamed The Walls of Jericho) and a sense of decency are the only things fending off actual physical consummation.
Here’s why It Happened One Night works: We like both Ellie and Peter. They have differences, but they get along well, and would perhaps be friends even if they weren’t potential lovers. Claudette Colbert is a believably green sweetheart, who manages to crack off toughness and sarcasm with the best of them. And while some male sex symbols of the past I don’t quite understand (Charlton Heston? Really?), I totally get it with Gable. He has a sparkle to his eye that still reads 80 years later. He was the mold out of which George Clooney was formed. And yes, it is true that sales of undershirts sharply declined after the release of this film. If Gable doesn’t wear one, I won’t either.
And while there is a now-clichéd mad dash to freedom at the film’s end, it’s tempered with a warmth and knowledge – mostly in the form of Walter Connolly, Colbert’s father – forcing It Happened One Night into our hearts forever. It’s sweet, cheerful, funny, and very, very good.
Join me next week for Mutiny on the Bounty.