It Happened One Night-1934
Starring-Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
Scott’s Review #824
Reviewed October 25, 2018
Perhaps the film which best defines the early cinematic romantic comedy and certainly the one most modern genre films can take a lesson from, It Happened One Night (1934) is a lively, fun romp. The film carted away the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress Academy awards, a rare feat, and defined what romantic tension and smart dialogue ought to be in a quality picture. All the elements sparkle into an excellent classic film watch.
Ellie Andrews (Colbert) is a pampered socialite who has recently disobeyed her overbearing and wealthy father, eloping with a blue-collar pilot who is feared to be after her money. Determined, Ellie escapes her father’s clutches and hops on a Greyhound bus headed from Florida to New York, where her husband is. When she crosses paths with an out of work journalist, Peter Warne (Gable), they each find an opportunity to use the other to their own advantage. The pairs adventures along the east coast lead to antics and schemes as they fall madly in love with one another.
It Happened One Night successfully mixes a good romance with some screwball comedy without ever becoming silly or trite. In fact, the film also serves as a good old-fashioned adventure story as Peter and Ellie face one hurdle after another on their trek north. Pleasing is the way that the duo slowly find romance, but first begin as irritants towards each other. The chemistry between the actors is superb and never seems forced or contrived.
Frank Capra, a famous director with successes throughout the 1930’s, culminating with the holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), had several Oscar winning films during the decade. It Happened One Night, though, seems to have inspired the most of them all, and the acting, farcical situations, dialogue and direction all successfully come together.
Shot in black and white and pre- Motion Picture Production Code, which heavily restricted details deemed too violent or sexual in nature, It Happened One Night was able to push the envelope quite a bit. This is to the film’s credit- who can forget the adorable yet provocative scene in which Ellie shows her shapely legs to enable the duo to catch a ride. The lovable scene, non-risque in today’s modern world, was anything but in 1934.
An interesting, and at that time unique, point, is that supporting characters are more layered than is typical in romantic comedies. Danker, who Peter and Ellie hitch a ride with is seemingly a decent man, but ultimately attempts to steal their luggage. Later, Ellie’s preposterous father turns out to be somewhat of a decent man, so the film contains a few character surprises too.
While not quite a pure masterpiece, It Happened One Night (1934) is nonetheless an inspired legendary film that can be viewed and enjoyed for the time-period in which it was made. The film is a standout among the similarly themed romantic comedies of the 1930’s and 1940’s and a teachable moment for all film makers delving into same genre territory.