It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)

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!!! A+ FILM !!!

In just about every sense, It Happened One Night — the film that catapulted poverty row-era Columbia Pictures to a respectable force and the first film to sweep all major Academy Awards categories — is the archetypal Hollywood romantic comedy, the invention of a wing of populist culture. Its hazy, dreamlike devices and tropes are the distinct stuff of Tinseltown fantasy: the idealistic but subtly snobbish heiress (Claudette Colbert) who jumps ship to marry the boy her stuffy dad doesn’t like, crossing paths with hardened, drunken reporter (Clark Gable) who tails her for the story of the year.

Of course they fall in love; of course their banter and bickering, alternately elevated and natural in its unceasing wit, gives plenty of doubt to shake and shudder all their mutual stubbornness, of course the wedding’s ultimately off with the grinning approval of Daddy, and of bloody course the walls of Jericho will come down. It’s all in the cards, and it’s all supremely wonderful — not just because it’s so much more than a dated, hoary old stereotype of movie love but because it embodies that stereotype with such winning, feverish enthusiasm and completeness.

It’s really beside the point to view the film through its prism as the legendary Big Five Oscar winner, but it’s intriguing to note how considerably the film differs from its predecessors in the Best Picture category. It’s the first to explore a linear, economical, traditionally structured story — but in the grander scheme of romantic comedies from our modern perspective, it’s still a rather bold and unusual bit of storytelling. This must be one of the first major road movies, serving as a travelogue of sorts by boat, bus, train, finally hitchhiking by automobile.

We end up, then, with a film that beyond its ample humor and genuine romance gives a true sense of place and time that, unusually for an Academy Award winner of its day, makes no attempt to reach opulent territory or conjure up the past. It’s meant to happen now in an America it’s passionate about opening up and unfurling. You can feel the rainy streets, the rushed running about of the good-hearted people, the sounds and smells of dewy mornings along the side of the road. However much of it is a fabrication, it feels like a genuine exploration of the country, something to which few Hollywood pictures of the time even pretend to aspire. It’s strongly suggestive, even, of Alfred Hitchcock’s frenetic British films later in the decade, especially Young and Innocent, which seems to call back rather specifically to It Happened One Night with its constant sense of local color and affectionate display of unvarnished “characters,” used for comic relief or as plot devices but still treated with respect.

What’s more, it’s a testament to Frank Capra’s bottomless humanism, the same thing that’d sometimes get him into trouble for hinting at an excessive sentimentality that, frankly, I don’t think he copped to as often as legend would have it. But empathy scatters all over the screen in this film, and not even so much on the principal characters as on the background figures of Depression-era low-level workers, travelers, busboys, drivers, motel owners, funny annoying drunks. They serve the narrative, but they have their own function as well; they mirror ourselves on the screen, and Capra never condescends to them. What a delight it must have been to experience a version of Hollywood that believed in this sort of representation, and what a shame that this factor of Capra’s work — his unwavering belief in populism and the natural goodness embodied in those whose stories he told — has managed to remain so deeply unappreciated.

The strong script couldn’t have landed in the hands of more capable performers than Gable and Colbert. Individually they each claimed to feel strong displeasure at being contracted out and shoved into the film, but you’d never know it from the immense sophistication and believability of both performances. Perhaps they felt comfortable or listless enough to make their evolving relationship, their gently traded screwball dialogue, seem more genuine that it ever typically does in movies like this. Capra’s desire for toned-down realism is an additional underrated element of his work, and while Happened strays far closer to moony summertime poem than to gritty naturalism, it enjoys a down-to-earth and lived-in manner that adds to its magic.

Capra was a pro by now, and he has little trouble making his contrasts of wide-open and confined spaces evocative and often quite lyrical. A few shots in the film are among the most beautiful he’d ever capture; the late campout sequences spring to mind, but don’t underestimate the scene in which the angry would-be couple stew in separate beds and the window casts an unforgivingly lovelorn light on them both. It’s all nonsense of course, just the movies being the movies, but you know in those moments exactly how that room feels: the mood, the discomfort, the lingering shadow of a pining love. It only exists as a two-dimensional film set, in Frank Capra’s mind, and of course in all of our hearts, those being inevitably the true subject of this still-as-splendid-as-ever film.

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