Frank Capra’s 1934 classic screwball comedy IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is the movie that all other romantic comedies should aspire to. Period.
Directed by Frank Capra
Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert
Released by Columbia Pictures
100 min. (1934)
It Happened One Night was supposed to be a punishment for Clarke Gable. After acting out at MGM the studio bosses decided to loan Gable out to Columbia, at the time one of the “little three” studios in Hollywood known for cartoons and B pictures. Gable got the last laugh though because not only did he win the Oscar that year for best actor, but the film was such a success that Columbia was a “little” studio no more. Whatever kind of person Gable was in his personal life the success of It Happened one Night is rightly deserved and definitely tops my list as the best screwball romantic comedy of all time.
The film opens in Miami where spoiled heiress Ellen “Ellie” Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is being held captive by her father on the family yacht while he tries to convince her to annul her marriage to business man King Wesley. Colbert (who also won the Oscar that year for Best Actress) is amazing in the role, depicting the character of Ellie with a smart combination of sophistication, ego and earnestness. To escape her father Ellie makes a daring escape by jumping off the yacht and swimming to shore, where she plans to meet up with Wesley in New York City.
Gable also shows his acting chops in his opening scene; surrounded by a bunch of buddies at the Miami bus depot, journalist Peter Warren is drunk. (On a totally random side note, I just have to say Gable always played a really good drunk. Just check out his 1960 film The Misfits for a much different but equally as good example of this.) When giving his boss “a piece of his mind” turns into him getting fired, the intoxicated Peter is able to pull off a strong performance of convincing his friends that he quit instead.
When Ellie and Peter first meet on the bus to New York in true romantic comedy style, they hate each other. The feminist in me always gets a bit irked when I watch the setup that all a woman needs is good man to put her in her place, but I understand the plot is a product of the times and the chemistry between Gable and Colbert is too delicious not to focus on. Peter starts to become much nicer to Ellie the minute he realizes who she is and knows that she’s his ticket back to paid employment. Although the film only touches on it briefly when a woman on the bus faints because she didn’t eat all day, this was the time of the depression and not a good time to be out of a job. Instead the film becomes a comedic alternate universe where along the route from Miami to New York there are abundant hayfields in which to sleep in and engage in some G rated sexual tension.
Ellie eventually catches on that Peter isn’t being a gentleman out of the kindness of his heart but he spells it out to her; give me your exclusive story or else I’ll rat you out to your father. She initially resists but when her father puts her picture in every paper across the country offering a 10,000$ reward for her return, Ellie realizes that this cocky newspaperman is the only way she’s going to make it to New York. In one of the funniest scenes ever written for film, Ellie and Peter evade police who are searching the camp site they’re staying at for “heiress Ellen Andrews” by pretending to be a bickering white trash couple.
As the trip continues it becomes less about the scoop or getting back to a spouse, but about the time they share together. Frank Capra is the king of feel good films (I still tear up every Christmas when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life) and with this film he doesn’t disappoint. Yes, it adheres to your standard romantic comedy rules- I’m not ruining anything by saying the mismatched couple end up together in the end, but I almost feel like this film set the rules. And most importantly, they got it right.