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I want to see what love looks like when it’s triumphant. I haven’t had a good laugh in a week.

It Happened One Night
(1934)

(SPOILERS) In any romantic comedy worth its salt, you need to be rooting for both leads to end up together. That’s why, while each has its individual pleasures – and one is an unchallenged classic in every other department – the triptych of Andie McDowell ‘90s romcoms (Green Card, Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral) fail on that score; she doesn’t elicit any degree of investment (ironically, she’s much better as a knockabout nun doing a dolphin impression in Hudson Hawk). Even Hanks and Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle are merely likeable; you can’t get that caught up if there aren’t any sparks flying (Crystal and Ryan, though). It Happened One Night has sparks in spades, the back and forth between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert ensuring it’s as vital and versatile today as it was 85 years ago.

Night, of course, shares the rarefied plane of taking the five top Academy Awards with only two other films (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs), and one could cogently argue that it’s less attention grabbing, and thus less likely material for such a feat, than either of those. What it has though, courtesy of its stars, director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin (his fifth of thirteen collaborations with Capra), is a deceptively light, assured touch. It’s in the nature of the romcom that the Academy is shy of deeming them truly worthy (besides The Apartment and Annie Hall – Pauline Kael called Nightthe Annie Hall of its day – before the invention of anxiety” – you have to start stretching your genre boundaries), with the consequence that those that have been recognised actually are genuinely very good, almost as if even the Academy had to sit up and take notice.

Peter Warne: Now, that’s my whole plot in a nutshell. A simple story for simple people.

The main characters may sound like clichéd types on paper – during a road trip to NYC, a pampered, spoiled heiress on the run falls in with hard-drinking, quip-happy journalist, such that the friction turns to affection as love gradually blossoms – because they are, but Capra and Riskin make that a virtue; just setting the proceedings in the world of the media savvy means the text is about as self-referential as it gets without breaking the fourth wall, the sale of the story of their story becoming a major plot point.

What really makes Night sing, though, is the dazzling chemistry between Gable and Colbert. The role was, and would remain, something of an exception for the former (Capra commented “He was never able to play that kind of character except in that one film. They had him playing these big, huff-and-puff he-man lovers, but he was not that kind of guy… he just wanted to play Clark Gable, the way the was in It Happened One Night, and it’s too bad they didn’t let him keep up with that” – yet the character is so iconic, it’s rumoured to have influenced the creation of Bugs Bunny). We’re more familiar with Cary Grant, say, in this kind of role, and if Gable isn’t, perhaps, an entirely convincing souse, he lends the material a rugged earthiness that effectively contrasts with Grant’s smoother portraits and is perfect as a counter to Colbert’s privileged remove. Like Grant, though, Gable can get away with a line like “What she needs is a guy that would take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not” and not make us think he really means it.

Colbert’s part of Ellie Andrews requires more heavy lifting by virtue of it being naturally less sympathetic – “the brat” – but she’s utterly captivating and beguiling, able to go round for round with Gable’s Peter Warne and show him up when he least expects it (“There’s a brain behind that face of yours, isn’t there?”). That said, much of the humour derives from Ellie taking offence, be it at Warne or someone else on the journey, the latter usually to Peter’s amusement (“When a cold mama gets hot, boy how she sizzles!” comments Roscoe Karns’ lascivious bus passenger).

Peter Warne: Why didn’t you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars.
Ellie Andrews: Oh, I’ll remember that when we need forty cars.

But there’s also the delight taken in the risqué, pushing gently against the boundaries of taste and decency in a (just) Pre-Hays Code environment. The odd couple pose as husband and wife, erecting “the walls of Jericho” (a blanket hung on a rope) between their beds to maintain decorum, and Peter baits Ellie by undressing in front of her (“Now, uh, according to Hoyle, after that, the, uh, pants should be next”).

But he’s still a very proper drunk scoundrel. When he unknowingly seduces her with romantic poetry and she throws herself at him (“Take me with you, Peter. Take me to your island!”) he sends her back to bed, later informing her “I don’t make it a policy to go running around with married women”. Once we’re into the territory of legal wedlock, however, the final verbal play of the trumpet needed to demolish the walls is the equivalent of Hitchcock’s train going into a tunnel at the end of North by Northwest. And, lest we forget, Colbert had already bathed in asses’ milk a couple of years previously in The Sign of the Cross, so she had a degree of sex siren cachet that was only emphasised by – in the film’s justifiably most famous scene – her flashing her stockinged leg as a hitch-hiking aid when Peter’s method (“Keep your eye on this thumb, baby, and see”) singularly fails.

This being Capra, while we’re served a light and effervescent romantic bauble, Night isn’t wholly divorced from the real world, in particular the Great Depression that Colbert’s privileged Ellie has hitherto been protected from, as she discovers when she has to stand in line to take a shower (I’m not sure that she comes away really liking it is the right kind of positive message, though). This is underlined by the flying trapeze sing-song camaraderie of the bus journey, and the mother who passes out, much to her son’s concern (“We ain’t ate nothing since yesterday”).

Capra isn’t particularly looking to find villains, though. The media and finance are generally not in the best of repute, and are initially tarred with a brush in that regard; Ellie’s father Alexander (Walter Connolly) is a super-rich Wall Street banker, and would usually be the bad guy who objects to his daughter’s match. As a devout Republican, though, Capra might have found such an obvious target a thorny one to come to grips with. Instead, it turns out dad’s right, and that playboy pilot King Westley (Jameson Thomas), the type who captivates the hearts and aspirations of the impoverished, is the cynical one, someone who knows when he’s hit the jackpot financially. Alexander is duly held up as a bad example by Peter (“It’s a matter of principle. Something you probably wouldn’t understand”), but he only really wants his daughter’s happiness and is more than delighted to be rid of Westley, even to the extent of furnishing him with a sizeable cheque when Ellie leaves him at the altar (“What happened? I haven’t the faintest idea”).

Joe Gordon: Agnes, get me a doctor. I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.

So too Peter’s boss Joe (Charles C Wilson), functioning as the equally tender-hearted mentor figure, but to Peter; set up as hard and overbearing – and only after that big story, regardless of the consequences – he ends up imparting pearls of wisdom when the young couple need them most.

Naturally, last-minute complications are required to step in the way of true love winning out too smoothly, thus making the eventual reuniting of lovers that much sweeter. Peter’s request to meet with Alexander over a “financial matter” relating to his daughter is an excellent shorthand means of announcing his purity of motive; this is first interpreted as characterising him as the gold-digger King Westley actually is, but then, when it’s revealed he’s only delivering Alexander a bill for $39.60 for expenses, he’s instantly confirmed him as more than alright in the parent’s books, with no further hoops to have to jump through to prove himself. It’s curious, though, that we don’t actually see the happy couple together after Ellie flees the ceremony; everything subsequent is second hand, be it via Andrews or the couple who own the motor court.

Colbert famously didn’t want to do the movie, and, in the first instance, didn’t have very high opinions of it after the fact either (“I just finished the worst picture in the world”). It also didn’t break out with the public until after its initial run; like The Silence of the Lambs, Night won Best Picture a full year after its first release, a relative rarity, with contenders tending to be jammed into the year-end awards season stage. As for Capra, he was a film away from augmenting his filmmaking outlook, towards producing “fantasies of goodwill”; that might be another reason why, freed from the burden of overt moralising themes or intent, It Happened One Night remains so accessible. A simple story for simple people, but deliriously witty and sharp with it.


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