Movie Review: It Happened One Night (1934)
As a film genre, the screwball comedy arguably made its debut with Frank Capra’s classic, It Happened One Night. Long considered the finest example of the genre, this 1934 Best Picture winner has continued to endure in popularity, thanks in large part to its sharp dialogue and memorable performances. Comedies from “back in the day” don’t always translate as well to today’s audiences, but It Happened One Night remains just as fresh and relevant as it was back in the 1930s.
Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is a wealthy socialite at a time when the majority of the world was suffering through the Great Depression. Frustrated with her overbearing father, Ellie runs away in order to be reunited with her slimy, money-loving new husband, King Westley (Jameson Thomas), whom she married despite her fathers protestations. While on the overnight bus headed for New York, Ellie encounters cynical reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Despite Ellie’s attempts to shield her true identity, Peter figures out that she’s the young runaway rich girl everyone has been talking about. Peter promises to keep her secret, allowing her to be reunited with her husband, so long as she agrees to give him an exclusive interview afterward.
During the 1930s, Hollywood churned out movie after movie featuring characters in despair over the Great Depression. While the issue of money, or lack of, arises throughout It Happened One Night, it is ultimately lighthearted at its centre. Screwball comedies tend to look down on wealth while those with less are deemed more noble and worthy of audience sympathies. With Ellie’s naive outlook on life and money, she only becomes gradually more likeable as her purse starts to lighten as she loses her wad of cash.
As the crabby, older (but not necessarily wiser) Peter, Gable’s grouchy charm is on full display. His rapid-fire way of spitting out his lines of dialogue help endear him to the audience, even when his “know it all” attitude could potentially grate. One of the features of screwball comedies is speedy line delivery. Seeing as It Happened One Night is considered the staple screwball comedy, I wonder if that enduring aspect has to do with Gable’s performance? It wouldn’t be surprising if he influenced how other actors performed in the genre down the road.
However, the real star of the film is Claudette Colbert. The beautiful, doe-eyed French-born actress had a casual charm rarely seen in films of the 1930s. With a voice that was deeper than you’d expect and a slightly awkward goofiness to the way she carried herself, Colbert commands your attention in every scene.
The chemistry between the two leads is palpable from their first meeting. Their playful, cautious banter grows more affectionate as the film progresses, allowing the audience to slowly get used to the thought of them falling in love with one another. Both Gable and Colbert won Best Actor and Actress Oscars for their performances and their ability to balance one another so well on camera was likely a large reason for their wins.
It Happened One Night is a timeless romantic comedy from the days before there were “rom-coms” or gross-out comedies featuring one-note celebrities. Forget the sappy, formulaic drivel you see in too many romantic comedies today. Put two wonderful actors together, combined with a sharp and playful script and solid directing and it’s the perfect recipe for a classic. You will, inevitably, feel the age of the film at certain points, specifically when we first meet know-it-all Peter as he squares off against the naive, innocent and seemingly helpless Ellie. But once the film works past those classic Hollywood gender role cliches, it settles down into an enjoyable little film with the simple premise of two people just getting to know one another.
Considering the film is set over a period of three or four days, instead of one, which is the “one night” that the title refers to? Peter and Ellie embark on a series of mini-adventures on their trek together, allowing the audience to decide for themselves which “one night” was the most significant to the blossoming relationship of Peter and Ellie.
A Gallery of Images from It Happened One Night