Sunday, July 31, 2011

It Happened One Night (1934)

This film swept all four of the major Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director)  in 1934, a still-unprecedented feat, and skyrocketed the careers of Clark Gable and director Frank Capra in the process. This, incidentally, was the first black-and-white movie I saw as a child, and I still enjoy it as much in my mid-twenties as I did the first time I saw it at the age of eight. The reason for its enduring charm has to do with the humor, which entertains on enough levels to satisfy both the puerile and sophisticated intellects. It also fulfills all the functions of a successful romantic comedy, and does it with enough flair to keep our interest regardless of the fact that we know the inevitable conclusion.

Of course the real story of It Happened One Night is that everyone apart from Capra thought it was a horrible idea. Gable was "condemned" to the role as a disciplinary action by his parent studio MGM, loaning him out to Columbia to combat his insubordination. Colbert also did not relish her part, but complied only because they paid her a hefty sum and promised to complete filming in less than four weeks, which they did. Indeed, both stars issued apologies to Capra when they won their Oscars, but you could never tell they were unhappy from the fine performances they gave. In fact their frustration might have helped to hone the sardonic humor and sexual tension of both their characters.

The plot revolves around runaway heiress Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) trying to get from Miami to New York in order to be reunited with her husband from whom she was torn away at the altar. Her father, however, is hot on her trail with an army of detectives and offering a huge reward for her whereabouts. Ellie is a resourceful girl, but spoiled and sheltered to the point where she needs the help of the wisecracking reporter Peter Warne in order to remain incognito. Despite their mutual disdain for each other, they agree to a deal: Peter helps Ellie back to her husband, and in return he gets an exclusive story about her epic journey - in which the unlikely couple travel by Greyhound, foot, hitchhiking, and whatever else will get the back to the Big Apple.  Of course they fall in love along the way, and sort through the usual cliche misunderstandings before they finally live happily ever after.

Probably the most iconic scene in the movie is the hitchhiking scene, in which Ellie proves the power of sex appeal by showing her legs in order to get a car to stop for them. Apparently Colbert initially refused to do the scene because she considered it vulgar, but she relented when she heard they were going to use a body double, saying her legs were plenty good enough to show on camera. My favorite parts are undoubtedly the "Walls of Jericho" scene and all the times that Peter becomes didactic about things like hitchhiking, dunking donuts, and piggyback rides. I don't want to spoil too much for people who have yet to see the film, but the ending is pretty memorable and has been parodied countless of time. I also can't overstate the influence of this film on the romantic comedy genre, an influence that has been transmitted down to this day.

I give this film an 8.5 out of ten, highly influential and highly entertaining.

Buy it from Amazon:
It Happened One Night (Remastered Black & White)

No comments:

Post a Comment