Film #36 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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Directed by Frank Capra
Starring: Clark Gable & Claudette Colbert
I’ve always had a fondness for films directed by the great Frank Capra. He had an ability to bring joy and meaning through the telling of simple yet endearing stories. Ordinary, everyday people were heroes and American life was lovingly portrayed though never to the point of being overly wholesome. The result of this is that each of Capra’s films is a time capsule. You see, hear, and feel what life was like in certain times and how people from back then reacted to situations that were very much like those that we could encounter in today’s world. These are a few reasons why his films remain so special and why, sometimes years after they were originally released, they could earn the hearts of moviegoers and film critics alike.
It Happened One Night started out as a no-frills production at Columbia Pictures, which at the time was struggling financially and was considered to be a part of Poverty Row. Since it was not a major studio, Columbia’s films did not attract a lot of free attention and they generally did not have much to shell out on advertising. However, Capra had a good reputation with both critics and Columbia president Harry Cohn, due to his direction of the well-received 1933 film Lady for a Day. Also, public opinion was highly favourable towards Clark Gable, who was a budding star at the time. His home studio, MGM, and Columbia worked together to make the premiere of It Happened One Night a huge event and planned a large celebration of his 33rd birthday to coincide with the release at Radio City Music Hall. Crowds were ecstatic and “Gable Fever” spread like wildfire, in the end more for his public appearances than the movie itself. While the film received huge attention during its first two days, ticket sales promptly slumped which eventually led Columbia to neglect the film, which they slated to play only in secondary theatres after the standard two-week run in major outlets. Then something magical occurred: the film’s audiences grew and it became a runaway hit. How did this happen? It did through word-of-mouth, believe it or not. People were enchanted by a story that made them laugh, made them hope and, perhaps most importantly, forget about their hard knock lives. Here is what Claudette Colbert had to say when honouring Frank Capra during the ceremony for his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award:
I must remind you that this was shot in 1933, right in the midst of the Big (Great) Depression. The theatre was dying but talking pictures were making money. People needed fantasy. They needed a dream of splendour and glamour, and Hollywood gave it to them.”
Ellen “Ellie” Andrews (Colbert) comes from a family of wealth and is used to living a privileged life. When she elopes with a man of questionable intentions at the Justice of the Peace in Miami, her father forcibly takes her with him back to their boat. He refuses to let her leave or to see her technically legal husband, King Westley, in any way. So Ellie does what any sensible girl in love would do – she jumps overboard and escapes. Since she knows her father will try to find her, she decides to throw him off his tracks and travel to New York by bus, a means of transportation used by working and lower class people. It is there that she comes to know Peter Warne (Gable), a recently out-of-work newspaper reporter who is also down on his luck. Their exchanges with one another are initially frosty especially coming from Ellie, who is sceptical of her surroundings. She is forced, however, to stick with him after her bag is stolen and her bus leaves without her during a stopover. Soon, Peter becomes her saving grace.
Though he did not peg her right away, Peter eventually figures out Ellie’s true identity. He hatches a plan where he does not spill the beans on her location and in return, she gives him exclusive access to her side of the story. This way, he has a hot story in the hopes of getting his job back. Ellie greatly dislikes their agreement but goes along with it so that she can eventually reach New York. They spend several days together in good, bad, and near impossible situations. As a result, they get to know each other well and end up falling in love with one another. The trouble is that Ellie’s father has decided to reconcile with King Westley for the benefit of having his daughter come out of hiding. Things are further complicated when Peter leaves Ellie one night and she is booted out of their cabin due to a lack of funds. He comes back a short time later but is too late, as she has already contacted her father is being escorted by the police back to New York. Ellie’s father ultimately gives his blessing to her union with King Westley but insists that he will only recognise their union after they are married in the Church. The question is will she stay with Westley or will she take the plunge with Peter?
Though the scenario may sound familiar to other love triangle romantic comedies, there are several factors that make it original and attractive. Primarily, there was a great deal of humour in the film. In fact, many critics regard this as the first real screwball comedy, a style made popular throughout the 1930s and 40s. Both Colbert and Gable play off each other hilariously in certain scenes, even resorting to doing improvisation sketches to get themselves out of trouble. There are also instances of subtle humour that is revealed through dialogue and body language, which is a stark change from the more exaggerated, physical slapstick comedy of the Vaudeville and silent film days. (The slapstick style would remain though it became a method associated with specific players more than as a general/overall style.)
Additionally, the characters are very charismatic in the way that they reveal themselves and evolve over time. Colbert’s Ellie shows an amazing range of emotions, starting out as fierce and full of spit-fire as a cornered lioness and ending up as an amicable damsel. She keeps her guard up for so long because she knows no different. Having been relatively cut off from the normal, everyday world, her only initial tool of survival is unrefined instinct. Getting closer to Peter, she opens up and reveals her past upbringing while also exposing a real capacity for change. If she had not, her adventure with Peter would have been quite miserable because they had to go without even the most basic of necessities at times. Gable’s Peter also surprises you because he is much more than a newspaper man who is out for the story. He does not help Ellie simply out of obligation or to protect his investment. His true nature reveals a kind-hearted man who is sensitive, sensible and thoughtful. As Ellie recognises these qualities, she not only softens her demeanour but also becomes intrigued with finding happiness in simple ways.
The furthermost point has to do with the actors themselves and what a cast it was! Gable was loaned out by MGM not for bad behaviour or an affair with Joan Crawford as some sources would note but because they did not want to loan out a bigger star like Robert Montgomery. Despite his popularity, Gable was not yet a reigning star at his home studio. Initially, he was none too pleased about his new assignment and had a poor attitude towards working at Columbia, which he referred to as “being in Siberia”. His first meeting with Capra was no better, as he arrived ranting and drunk. He lightened up a bit as production went on but he spent most of the filming duration hating the script and feeling like the movie would turn out to be a real stinker. Colbert was no better off in her attitude and caused much difficulty to Capra as she too thought the film was nothing to write home about. She signed to do the movie after getting nice compensation and after a slew of other actresses turned down the script, including Myrna Loy who would become a queen of screwball comedy later on. A bonus for her was to work with Gable, whom she greatly admired and the two reportedly got on quite well on the set. In the end, they both came to peace with their roles but they remained baffled as to its eventual success as well as its lasting legacy. Perhaps what makes this film even more remarkable is to witness the stunning performances that Colbert and Gable delivered considering the back story. They never give less than perfection. I have seen many a Clark Gable film and it was a sheer pleasure to see him portray a character that had a softer side to him. Often times, he played characters with short tempers who were very tough to penetrate emotionally. He was just wonderful as Peter. I had not seen much of Colbert’s early work before this film, so I did not really know what to expect. She was a delightful surprise to say the least and had the most charming pure American accent when many of the leading ladies of the day were sporting mid-Atlantic ones. The most notable things about her were her intriguing looks and made-up appearance that resembled a flapper from the 1920s. I had the chance to view some videos from later in her life and she remained as sweet and as charming in her older age as she had been in her younger years. The most noteworthy supporting cast member is Walter Donnelly, who played Colbert’s father. He was very funny and witty in all of his scenes. Having seen him in several films after this one, I can say that he was indeed a formidable man.
It was a pleasure to watch this film for the first time and I look forward to watching it over and over again as the years go by. The fact that it was recognised on the AFI 100 Greatest Films list makes me happy because such distinction ensures that a film is given a sort of preservation status. I know that down the road, it risks leaving the list entirely because that is the fate that most of the films currently on the list will eventually face. I was reminded of this when noting that Ben-Hur’s current ranking is n°100 having fallen more than two dozen spots from the last poll 10 years ago. Alas, time goes on and with it goes memories. So, for now, I’ll enjoy the present while some of these greats are still ahead in the pack. 🙂
- Last official pre-Code film released before the Hays Code took full effect
- First film to sweep the Oscars in 1935 winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, Best Actor & Best Actress
- Premiered on 22 February 1934, George Washington’s birthday and a then-public holiday, at Radio City Musical Hall