It is a very rare thing when a light-hearted comedy, something that is quintessentially the stuff of a “good movie,” breaches into that territory where the term “good film” can also be applied, but Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), adapted by Capra's longtime collaborator Robert Riskin from Samuel Hopkins Adams' short story “Night Bus,” may be such an exception.
Today, most people know Capra solely for his rediscovered classic It's a Wonderful Life, made a dozen years later, but It Happened One Night was his first stab at what most critics would label greatness. The fact that the film is a comedy is all the more striking for It Happened One Night lacks the symbolism of some of the great silent comedians, the social satire of the 1960s madcap comedies, or those of Woody Allen's intellectualized Golden Era.
Yet, It Happened One Night, aside from its fame for having helped to lift Columbia Pictures from the bottom of the film studio heap, and for being the first film to win the Big Five Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress – it is also credited with being one of the first “screwball comedies,” a sub-genre of the romantic comedy that flourished during the mid-to-late 1930s. The main focus of such films was on the frustrations the protagonists went through before inevitably ending up together.
Another aspect of It Happened One Night is the brisk pace at which it was filmed, acted, and edited. Additionally, Capra had his actors speak slightly faster than normal, so their dialogue would match the pace of the picture. Ultimately, the film clocks in at a fairly hefty 105 minutes, whereas most comedies, especially romantic comedies, cannot sustain themselves for even shorter lengths. Even so, It Happened One Night is one of those films that, even if it lasted an hour longer, it would still “feel” right.
Capra had to shoot it in less than four weeks, to suit the demanding schedule of star Claudette Colbert, on loan from Paramount. This fact meant that few sets were built, so that more than many other contemporary films, It Happened One Night was filmed in the real world, with Capra using moving cameras and crane shots.
All these tidbits are gleaned from Frank Capra Jr's DVD audio commentary and some of the other extras on Sony's The Premiere Frank Capra Collection, a six-DVD set that also includes American Madness (1932), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), along with the bonus disc featuring the documentary Frank Capra's American Dream, hosted by Ron Howard.
Also worth noting is that It Happened One Night's two stars, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, show why they were stars, even though neither initially wanted to make the film.
Colbert is another in a long line of determined heroines of the 1930s. Her slow attraction to Gable's character is fully believable, as her small, cute, winsome mien transmogrifies from icy to inviting over the course of the film. This is to be expected, though. After all, he is Clark Gable, and unlike Gone with the Wind, It Happened One Night allows Gable to display both his great range as an actor and his masculine physique. In the witty banter between his character and Colbert's, Gable proves that he was as adept at comedy as he was at drama – something latter-day hunks, from Marlon Brando and Paul Newman to Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, and Brad Pitt, could never do.
The plot itself is rather simple: It Happened One Night opens with heiress Ellie Andrews (Colbert) leaping off her father's (Walter Connolly) yacht, after he vows to undo her elopement to a gold-digging aviator, King Westley (Jameson Thomas). In a nice use of ellipses – a technique that seems to have disappeared from today's bloated Hollywood films – Capra then shows her sneaking on to a bus, under the noses of detectives her father has hired. There she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a roué and newspaper reporter who recognizes her and plans to cash in on the reward offered by her father.
After some initial discomfort, the two become a pair. The reporter even helps her fend off a leering little salesman named Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns, in a great humorous supporting role), who wants to turn Ellie in.
A number of great scenes follow, such as the busload of passengers singing “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”; Gable's neutering of the bus driver who can only say, “Oh yeah”; and after the couple hit the road, the hitchhiking bit, when Ellie lifts up her skirt and shows off her left leg in order to get a ride.
Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night
It Happened One Night's well-known “Walls of Jericho” reference comes from a scene where Peter places a blanket across a rope to divide the room in which he and Ellie are staying. Frank Capra and Robert Riskin use it as a way to heighten the sexual provocations of the characters. In the Luke & Laura General Hospital wave of the early 1980s, those two characters copied numerous scenes from It Happened One Night; one of dozens of outright thefts and homages, though none had the wit found in Clark Gable's and Claudette Colbert's characters:
“Well, I like privacy when I retire,” Peter tells Ellie in their motel room. “Yes, I'm very delicate in that respect. Prying eyes annoy me. Behold the Walls of Jericho! Maybe not as thick as the ones that Joshua blew down with his trumpet, but a lot safer. You see, I have no trumpet.” This may not be as risqué as it was in the 1930s, but it's still damned great dialogue.
It Happened One Night is quite lighthearted when compared to many of Capra's social commentary classics, in which the American Dream is realized. Even in its depiction of Depression era hoboes, or freeloaders, there is a genial sense that things could be worse – so be happy they're not.
The film itself looks sterling. One would hardly believe that It Happened One Night was released in 1934. Sony gets major kudos for the restoration done for this set. Capra Jr's commentary is hit-and-miss, with many dull spots as well times where nothing is said for a good three to four minutes; also, most of what he says can already be found in the disc's featurettes. What was really needed here was the sort of film historian or critical commentary that many older foreign films come with, such as those in The Criterion Collection, for Sony truly equals the best Criterion has to offer in every other respect.
The It Happened One Night disc also features advertising materials, a radio broadcast of an adaptation of the film, the original theatrical trailer, and an eleven-minute documentary called Frank Capra Jr. Remembers … It Happened One Night.
But even with no features or computer restoration, It Happened One Night would be worth watching for Robert Riskin's great screenplay, which was leagues above many other 1930s films in sophistication and realism, in addition to being superior to almost every romantic comedy ever since. True, there are a few cringe-inducing moments when the era is shown at its worst – with a portrayal of a Stepin Fetchit-like black railroad character – but that's a minor cavil in an otherwise great comedy.
After all, greatness includes humanity, and Capra was as infected by the worst of his times as anyone. But what makes a man great, especially an artist, is the degree to which those times claw at him, and the percentage of times a man of his time becomes a man for all times. The same is true for his art, and this artist and his film pass both of those bars. It Happened One Night is still as funny as it ever was, and the fact that you will get a bit more out of it is the type of bonus feature DVDs alone cannot provide.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide. A version of this It Happened One Night review was initially posted in May 2007.
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934). Dir.: Frank Capra. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns. Scr.: Robert Riskin; from Samuel Hopkins Adams' short story “Night Bus.”
5 Academy Award Wins
Best Dir.: Frank Capra
Best Actor: Clark Gable
Best Actress: Claudette Colbert
Best Adapted Screenplay Robert Riskin