It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)

by Douglas Buck January 19, 2020 3 minutes (716 words) 35mm New Beverly Cinema

A spoiled socialite (Claudette Colbert) runs off (well, to be precise, in one of the film’s many enjoyable surprise moments, dives off an ocean yacht and swims away) from her wealthy connected father (Walter Connolly), and ends up on the run, with the press and private detectives hot on her tail, hiding on the road with a gruff, recently fired newspaper reporter (Clark Gable), who knows a scoop when he stumbles upon one. Naturally, along with lots of tension, sparks begin to fly between the two.

That infectious fast-talking 30’s style banter between two stars, Colbert and Gable, defining perhaps their most iconic representations (who would have any idea, watching their playful interactions and sublime line deliveries that there was so much tension on set?). A naughty pre-code attitude (not as ballsy and daring as so many eye-opening pre-code films of the time, perhaps, but at least its ultimate triumph is the celebration of the two characters finally getting to fuck with the ‘Walls of Jericho falling down’!). Brilliant directing, balancing — with sublime precision — poignancy and pure comedy, both clever and slapstick, from American filmmaking legend Capra bringing us one of the greats of the romantic screwball comedies (and also gotta mention that wonderful production design detail of the almost waterbed-like shaking bus that a bulk of the film is spent on… while not realistic, it’s a perfectly conceived, clever and simple way to illustrate a barely functioning, physically-always-about-to-breakdown lower class life).

With It Happened One Night projected from a beautiful, ever-evocative 35mm film print and proceeded by one of the many short animated classics out of the endlessly inspired Looney Tunes vault Captain Hareblower (also on film, as per the New Bev’s mandate), a hilarious pirate ship battle between that conniving, endlessly disgruntled Yosemite Sam and the antagonist he can never escape, the loveable rascal Bugs Bunny, chomping his carrots and outsmarting him at every turn, could there have been a more cinematically joyous way to begin a New Year? I think not (okay, I could come up with a few other film choices to match the pleasure, but none would surpass it!).

It’s true that while the film ultimately forgives Colbert’s bratty rich heiress for how absurdly self-serving her interactions are with the common folk (with down-to-earth audience identification point Gable’s character watching with amusement as she pulls things like expecting the bemused bus driver to wait twenty minutes for her to wander off for a walk, which he – naturally – doesn’t) for being a matter of the girl being pampered too much and sheltered, rather than it being any kind of mean disregard on her part, it still surprises me that, watching in a number of scenes the clear sympathy with which Capra feels for the struggling lower classes they share the bus with (as it did with Capra’s admirably harsh condemnation of the cold-hearted inhumanity with which big banking operates in another of his brilliant films, It’s a Wonderful Life), the filmmaker never found himself before the harsh condemning glare of the 1950’s commie-scare House of Un-American Activities that destroyed so many careers of Hollywood filmmakers who dared be critical of the big business-controlled status quo.

While Capra once again ultimately ends with his belief intact of the emotional center of family as our ultimate salvation (displayed nowhere more effectively than through the heiress’ father – played with such warmth and wit by Connolly, one of those brilliant tubby character actors gifted with near-pitch perfect comedy timing, the type of performer of which the early studio system seemed to grow on trees or something, dropping them into just the right roles whenever needed), it’s not like he doesn’t make an engagingly entertaining and convincing argument. While in later life, the conservative minded Capra would rail against what he saw as the perversions of homosexuality and a permissive society, in the heterosexually-contained universes from within which he (and most Hollywood tales of the time) operated, Capra reveals a love and affection for his characters that is infectious… and quite beautiful.

Capra could have just as easily named this film “It’s a Wonderful Life” as well and it would have been equally as appropriate.

A wonderful Year 2020 and beyond to anyone reading.

It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   clark gable   claudette clobert   frank capra   screwball comedy