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The stories about this picture have been repeated forever: that nobody wanted to make it, that Clark Gable was loaned out to Columbia as a punishment by MGM, that both of its stars thought the script was lousy. That's the kind of lore that results when any sleeper comes from behind to win a lot of awards, and It Happened One Night did indeed surprise everybody. It's a fairy tale about a spoiled heiress and a cocky newspaperman, yet treated in a realistic style. The romantic chemistry generated by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert is almost inspirational -- this is one Hollywood movie that sizzles with the promise of sex, with nary a salacious scene. Well, there are the Walls of Jericho, a symbol that gave 1934 audiences permission to fantasize what their movie idols might be doing when the camera turns away. This is one of the sexiest American pictures of the '30s, and it may be Frank Capra's best picture all around.
Spoiled, unhappy and ungrateful heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) marries the worthless playboy King Westley (Jameson Thomas). When her father Alexander (Walter Connolly) separates them, she runs away on a New York-bound bus. She meets freshly canned reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who tries to help when her suitcase is stolen and she misses her bus. Each is too proud to admit the mutual attraction. Finding out who Ellie is, Peter blackmails her into promising exclusive scoop rights to her story. With little money between them, they share motor court rooms pretending to be married, using a blanket as a curtain of modesty/decency. Avoiding her father's detectives, hitchhiking on an empty stomach and other events on the road bring Ellie and Peter closer together. Their budding romance is cut short when Alexander Andrews throws in the towel and publicly accepts King Westley as his son-in-law. Ellie takes off, leaving Peter alone and betrayed. Ellie feels the same way. She misses Peter terribly but is convinced that he hates her, and decides to go through with a big formal wedding to Westley.
I don't know anybody who doesn't like It Happened One Night. It's a pre-Code gem from the depths of the Depression, with old cars, old music and even an old airplane called an autogyro. But it doesn't seem to have aged. Its featherweight story hasn't a single socially conscious moment. Its success kicked director Frank Capra to the top of the Hollywood heap. Its formula for success is easily explained but difficult to reproduce. All of its comedy is character oriented. Character identification is almost immediate -- five minutes in we feel like we're observing real people that we wish we knew. There is a structured story but the film concentrates on the experience of two people slowly revealing themselves to each other. And finally, every moment of every scene between the lovers feels as if it had been improvised on the spot, as if even Frank Capra didn't know someone's bag would be stolen or a bus would drive into a ditch. By the time we're rushing headlong into the 'big drama at the altar' wedding scene conclusion, we're so firmly in this story's pocket that we'd accept any cliché and call it an inspiration. The show makes us feel good about its characters, ourselves and people in general.
It's hard to believe that It Happened One Night began with the dreary title Night Bus. Two musical remakes were later made, that nobody's ever heard of. The show of course took place of pride for director Capra, whose autobiography labels practically every picture he made as a miraculous meeting of perfect ingredients guided by his masterful hand. People that tally Oscar stats note that it was the first film to win in all five of the top award categories. Add that to Capra's tendency to fabulate, and one would think every detail of the movie was Capra's doing. At this late date cutting through the Capra myth may be impossible, but in this case the tireless, aggressive and passionate director is responsible for many of the film's special qualities. He surely guided his actors (especially Gable) in a fresh direction.
One thing recalled in this viewing is how technically oriented Capra was. His rapport with his cameraman Joseph Walker must have been as close as relationship with his actors. There are no 'generic' scenes on the bus; each takes place at a particular time of day. The outdoor scenes have a natural look, sometimes slightly overexposed to resemble daylight; when rear projection is used, exteriors never have that boxy, don't-move-an-inch look. One excellent day-for-night scene by a brook uses light reflections to sell the idea of moonlight on a rippling river.
Capra was too family-oriented for racy dialogue or the nudity games played by some pre-Codes, yet his film is uncensored and open-minded about its content. Ellie is a married woman co-habiting with a handsome guy not her husband, exactly the kind of no-no that the censors would soon squelch at the scripting stage. The Code Office might object to the Walls of Jericho gag as both a 'dirty joke' and an irreverent Bible reference. The claim that censorship forced Hollywood to be more clever is just bunk. The Code served to sanitize nearly all films to the tastes and biases of a Catholic-dominated cabal. And the censors often saw fit to police politics to their taste as well.
Portly Walter Connolly has the only major role apart from our two stars, Jameson Thomas is appropriately oily as the opportunist husband, and Roscoe Karns is perfect as a sharpie on a bus that wants to turn Ellie in for her father's reward. In this film Capra's bit players and extras are all afforded respect, and some get great little showcase bits. Capra doesn't set them up to be clownish hicks or to worship his leading characters (as in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). The only incident that I see making a statement is when Peter gives money to a crying kid whose mother has fainted because they haven't eaten in two days. Capra wisely doesn't make this a 'teachable moment' for Ellie to be impressed. A more cynical director hungry for a joke might have revealed the mom & kid as a confidence team, pulling this stunt on every bus ride. Capra was respectful of the facts of hard times.
Did Capra and Riskin script the sing-along in the moving bus, or was it an on-the set inspiration? The answer is almost surely the former, yet the scene's spontaneity is such that we would easily believe that it was invented on the set. The sense of community and shared happiness is infectious, as three people take turns singing wild lyrics to "The Man on the Flying Trapeze." The most entertaining of the singers leaps up like it's his big opportunity. Many Hollywood pictures play as rigid constructions of exits and entrances, dialogue recited and kisses exchanged on a scripted schedule. Capra's best work made it seem as if he could pull these joyous moments out of thin air.
I believe that this Blu-ray of It Happened One Night is The Criterion Collection's first Frank Capra Blu. Sony's asset management people appear to have gone to great lengths to get it in good shape for HD. We saw perfect prints of You Can't Take It with You thirty-plus years ago at UCLA, but by the millennium, some DVD offerings looked miserable. For a number of unfortunate reasons Capra's 1937 Lost Horizon ended up butchered, with big pieces lost and much of the rest of it not surviving in prime quality.
It Happened One Night never looked terrible ... but neither was it a showpiece until now. The HD transfer on view here is split between excellent quality and patches of slightly lesser quality, but with little or no damage on view, spices, missing bits of any kind. The dupe film stock for opticals causes a quality shift to occur with most fades and dissolves, an effect that was always part of the film. One good thing about this release is that the higher resolution renders much better the many shots that use diffusion filters. Back with NTSC DVD, it was sometimes difficult to know whether a soft image was an artistic effect, or a mistake.
Frank Capra's legacy compares with that of George Stevens in that his image seems carefully controlled on documentaries, TV shows and disc extras. The official story of the making of It's a Wonderful Life has been optimized into an uncritical legend. 2 This disc's extras begin with an introduction by Frank Capra Jr., and a feature-length docu on the director made with the involvement of the Capra family. Excerpts from the AFI's 1982 tribute to Capra serve mostly to demonstrate how revered the director was in Hollywood; in '82 the renewed popularity of Wonderful Life had made him a celebrity once again.
More dedicated Capra fans will want to see his very first film, a 1921 silent short called Fultah Fisher's Boarding House presented here in fairly good shape. A visualization of a poem, it is directed with considerable enthusiasm and flair. A clever vintage trailer is included as well, while an insert folder contains an essay by Farran Smith Nehme.
The most rewarding extra is a spirited video discussion between film critics Molly Haskell & Phillip Lopate, starting with the question of whether or not It Happened One Night is the first 'screwball comedy'. They end up examining the entire sub-genre to a degree I've not considered. It's very insightful and entertaining.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It Happened One Night Blu-ray
2. One of the making-of books on It's a Wonderful Life is frustrating in that it obscures the development of the script, and glosses over some of its production difficulties. It doesn't pretend to be detailed and comprehensive, but its idea of an 'original script' reads more like a transcription of the final film.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.