It Happened One Night (1934)
Starring: Clark Cable, Claudette Colbert, and Walter Connolly
Directed By: Frank Capra
Written By: Robert Riskin
Not to be completely redundant with a previous review I’ve written, but the romantic comedy genre tends to be one of three things:
1. An homerun of a film.
2. Something that’s cute, but ultimately forgettable.
3. Completely abysmal.
This usually has nothing to do with the plot, as it’s almost always the same in each movie. You know, an unlikely pair somehow come together, something comes between them, but they make up right before the credits roll. No, this all has to do with the actors and the characters they play. If the actors are solid at least and the characters are memorable, you’re on to something. Luckily, It Happened One Night features two leads who are just outstanding in Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, even if the two thought it would turn out terribly as they were working on the film.
The film opens on the yacht of Mr. Andrews (Connolly), who’s having a little spat with his daughter Ellie (Colbert). She’s tired of living at home and living by her father’s rules. She even went as far as to marry the aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas) without Andrews’ permission! After he tells her that he wants the marriage promptly annulled, Ellie makes a dash for it, jumping off the boat and swimming to the shore. On the run from her father’s cronies, Ellie makes it to the bus station to head to New York to join Westley as soon as possible. That’s the plan at least, and we all know in films like this, nothing ever goes as planned.
The initial monkey wrench comes in the form of Peter Warne (Gable), a newspaper reporter who ends up sitting next to Ellie on the bus. Peter is a bit down on his luck. He hasn’t written anything worth while and his boss pretty much downright despises him (mostly because Peter is a bit of a drunk). He’s immediately taken with Ellie, but she can’t stand him (obviously). However, when another passenger tries to get fresh (the very funny Roscoe Karns’ Shapeley), she sees Peter is the lesser of two evils. Once Peter recognizes who Ellie really is, he makes an agreement to make sure she gets to New York without hassle as long as he gets the story. Of course, during their series of adventures, the stubborn pair fall in love, but a misunderstanding puts that love at jeopardy. Will he go chase after her? Will she leave Westley for Peter? Well, watch to find out!
Again, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. The odd couple go through a series of pitfalls and fall in love during the journey. What makes It Happened One Night truly special are the characters. We only really get to meet Peter and Ellie along the way, but that’s all who we need to know. Peter is a street-wise smart aleck whereas Ellie is a spoiled brat who has no real understanding of the world beyond the walls of her father’s house. She throws various (and adorable) fits as Peter tries to teach her how things really are: including simple things like hot to dunk a doughnut into coffee.
While Gable and Colbert thought the script was terrible, it truly is terrific. The things that they say to one another are just hilarious. The plot moves along very quickly, going from one crazy situation to the next. You won’t be bored watching this. That’s largely due to Gable and Colbert themselves. They have just sparkling chemistry with one another. Their verbal jabs back and forth are just a joy to watch. The leads to very thick tension between them, that’s just waiting to blowup. Best scene for this is when she very provocatively lifts her skirt to show some leg while hitchhiking (after his own failed attempts). An interesting bit of trivia is that Colbert was very bashful about the scene and wouldn’t do it until she was offended by the stuntwoman’s leg not looking like her’s at all.
Again, Gable and Colbert thought the movie was going to be a complete disaster. They didn’t like the script, so it was a shock to them that it became so popular as it did. Even more so, with the amount of Oscars it would end up winning (including one in each of the major categories). Colbert herself had to be picked up at a train station to receive her Oscar, she didn’t think she had a chance to win. It should also be noted that Gables’ Peter is the inspiration for Bugs Bunny. His attitude and demeanor are all there…including the way he talks while eating a carrot. Seriously.
Bottom Line: It Happened One Night is every bit as charming and hilarious as you would expect it to be with leads such as Gable and Colbert. This is the earliest romantic comedy that I have ever seen. I know it’s not the first of it’s type, but it’s clearly one of the best. You can see the blueprint that would become the basis for every film that would follow within the genre. Still, although it has inspired many that have followed it, very few can match the quality of the original.
9/10 (Highly Recommended).