Classic Review: It Happened One Night (1934)

Classic Review: It Happened One Night (1934)

Let’s go there, It Happened One Night is a perfect film. When looking at it on paper, the film may seem like just another screwball comedy of the period. One would be wrong. This is magical film, one that stands the test of time and a perfect statement of the talents of everyone involved. It’s amazing start to finish, and it set the rules for the romantic comedies that came after.

It Happened One Night tells the story of Peter (Gable), a reporter who just lost his job due to his poor behavior. He’s been drinking a lot and that led to complications at the office. He’s a man of the people, a guy who doesn’t take bullshit from anyone and who depends on his whit to succeed. Ellie (Colbert) is a spoiled socialite who lived her entire live on a shell provided by her father, and she cannot fathom the idea that her wishes won’t be granted. When her dad tells her, he does not approve her marrying a sleazy guy he knows cannot be trusted, she runs away on a whim. Peter and Ellie meet while both are riding a night bus. Being true to the ground rules of rom coms (or maybe being the one that actually created it), they dislike each other immediately. Peter finds out who Ellie is, and he sees an opportunity of getting his job back by writing an article about her reasons for escaping. They banter all the way through their trip and slowly fall in love with each other.

It Happened One Night is usually categorized as a screwball comedy. It is understandable why it happens, but it’s not actually the case; screwball comedies have a more ditzy and zany energy that is not present here. The film belongs to the rom com category, through and through. One element that makes the connection between the genres is the absolutely brilliant and fast dialogue between the two characters. It’s fast paced and hilarious all the way, with delicious smart quips and moments between them. We have to remember that, in 1934, sound was still relatively new to film, and dialogue and delivery were still aspects of film that needed fine tuning. It’s not difficult to find movies from that period that felt heavy, stuffed, poised, theatrical. All of those were very common characteristics of silent films, and that transitional period gives us very weird attempts to mix the two.

But not here. It Happened One Night was a sound era film all the way, not only because it was dialogue heavy (the script is amazing) but also because it never felt trapped by the staging of the scenes. There’s fluidity in all the scenes, they have rhythm, grace. They are fast paced and electric. That was all new, and not only because sound was there. This film was a unique cinematic experience. Part of that uniqueness comes from what came to be known as “Capracorn”; Capra’s graceful touch, his care for lighthearted themes and showing the best that people could offer. It sounds tacky today, but when you watch it and you look at the world we are living right now… it makes total sense. 

The other element that has to be pointed out as a reason for its success is the casting of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert to the leading parts. Curiously, none of them really wanted to be there. Gable was loaned by MGM as a “punishment”, to teach him a lesson (whatever that means). Ellie’s part was even harder to cast; most prominent stars of the time passed on the script, and Colbert only accepted it because she thought the studio and Capra would not be able to meet her demands. They did, and she gave what was perhaps the performance of her career. They are incredible together, not only because their characters were completely opposites from one another but because their physicality and styles complimented each other’s. It’s mesmerizing watching them together.

Not surprisingly, both actors won the Academy Awards, as did Capra, screenwriter Riskin and finally best picture. It Happened One Night became the first of three films that took all big 5 awards so far. And it was so deserved.

In the end, It Happened One Night is a perfect romantic comedy and should be prescribed by doctors.

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