Thursday, September 19, 2013

It Happened One Night – The “RomCom” Of Yesteryear, Still Great

[1934, Frank Capra Dir., Stars: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns and Alan Hale Sr.]

      When I slipped the DVD into my player I truly was looking forward to once again experiencing this iconic film. I’d seen it before; once as a child and again sometime during my University days, but that was a long time ago. Those of us who love old movies embrace the wistful nostalgia they carry; but I really wasn’t sure what I would make of this film, regarded as the original screwball romantic comedy. So I guess my excitement stemmed from a sense of discovery, or rediscovery. I was curious to understand just what made this one picture, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, so memorable for so many.
           The story of It Happened One Night couldn’t be more basic – smooth smart guy reporter Peter Warne (Gable) escorts runaway heiress Ellie Andrews (Colbert) from Miami to New York City. Naturally, the two start out hating each other; him an out-of-work and uncouth nobody, and her - a spoiled and impractical brat. Travelling by any means available, the two of course fall madly in love. Between Miami and New York they share misadventures and legendary movie moments from the blanket hanging (Walls of Jericho) scene in a motel to the hitch-hiking leg flash, even a bus ride sing-along of “The Man On The Flying Trapeze”. No hot house flower, it should be noted, Ellie gives Peter just as good as she gets from him in the wisecrack department. Peter, on the other hand, proves to Ellie he’s not just some penniless rogue out to make a Depression Era buck off of her. Fair to say, these two landmark characters don’t just fall in love with each other – their natural charm and chemistry makes us fall in love with them as well.
            It Happened One Night swept the Academy Awards for 1934, and is to this very day one of only three films to take home all five major awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay. (The other two “Big Five” Oscar winners were 1974’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs in 1991.) Quite an auspicious result for a film that was turned down by Constance Bennett and Myrna Loy both, and Robert Montgomery walked away from the chance to play Peter Warne because he felt the screenplay was the worst thing he’d ever read. Even Claudette Colbert thought the film to be something of a joke, she demanded twice her usual salary and that shooting be completed in four weeks so she wouldn’t waste too much of her time. Hollywood loves those sorts of back stories to major successes; unfortunately today few in LA would have the guts to move forward on a production with that kind of initial feedback.
I may have a bit of an idealistic notion of Hollywood in the 1930’s, while romantic comedies have been around since the beginning, I feel they were more thoughtfully prepared and less formulaic then. Frank Capra’s eminently enjoyable little film holds its well-earned classic status because it came from a time when this sort of film wasn’t being made every day. Capra’s characters were strong and smart, there’s also no denying the very genuine on-screen chemistry between Gable and Colbert. The man pushed the envelope for 1934, too, by showing not only Claudette Colbert’s nicely developed leg in close-up, but also having her and Clark Gable playing an unmarried couple who – gasp! – share cramped travel lodgings. Today’s so-called romantic offerings seem more like cheap fast food compared to It Happened One Night, a proper gourmet meal prepared by a talented chef.
            “They don’t make movies like that anymore” I’m sure some people would say, but the trouble is they do make them, every, single, day, now. Today boy-meets-gets-loses-rediscovers-girl movies are produced en masse. I couldn’t tell you how many are available on Netflix right now for instantaneous romantic gratification and they just keep coming. Whether you call them “chick flicks” or rom-coms, Hollywood churns them out not only for the big screen but for that handful of cable channels geared towards an audience that laps up their syrupy cinematic tripe. Something valuable has been lost, I fear, since 1934. Falling in love, or watching two people fall in love, should always be magical. If it happens every day, love becomes cheapened and common place; it’ll never be as wonderful as it was when it only happened one night.

[“It Happened One Night” is currently available on DVD through Netflix and via VOD on]

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