Apparently, Clark Gable didn’t want to make this movie, and was loaned out to Columbia as a punishment by MGM for being too headstrong and demanding. If Burt Reynolds had been working in 1934 he probably would have turned it down too. The picture became the first movie ever to win all five major Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. This film has been remade so many times that I wouldn’t be surprised a bit if it’s basic premise, mismatched pair bicker their way across the country and wind up falling in love, was first used by some ancient Greek playwright. When you think about it the film is responsible for any number of romantic comedies and perhaps the entire genre of the buddy picture.
It Happened One Night is the story of headstrong poor little rich girl Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), who jumps off her banker magnet father’s boat and hightails it to New York to be with what she thinks is her true love, some guy named King Westley. She’s the kind of girl who has been out in the real world so infrequently she thinks she can keep a transit bus waiting twenty minutes and have it still be there when she gets back. Newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), recently fired for a drunken rant to his boss, agrees to hide her from her father’s minions in exchange for an exclusive.
All the usual conventions of the romantic comedy are here the tensions of a near kiss, the gradual defrosting of the heart, the rueful regret and unwillingness of each party to tell the other exactly how they are feeling, and the panic and worry that just maybe they won’t get together in the end. There’s nothing sadder than a girl slated to marry the wrong guy. Most of those conventions started here and they still work over sixty years later.
It’s hard to decide exactly how to judge a picture that was made this early and remade so many times with the bar perhaps raised a couple notches, and I have to admit that I never really made the kinetic connection to this film that I did with later Capra classics that seemed more technically advanced and more pock filled with idiosyncratic details. It’s almost like looking at an early episode of Seinfeld, where you know that at the time it first aired you thought it was brilliant and perhaps it was, but that later episodes in the series better fulfilled and more compactly succeeded in its premise.
For instance, how is one supposed to look at the racy at the time scene of Colbert hailing a ride by showing some leg, in an era where Angelina Jolie would be half naked, tatted up and ready for danger? Nevertheless, Gable is about as cool as a guy could be in the middle of a depression and the film still has a tender sense of innocence that makes it perfect to watch with the right girl on a brick wall via an old fashioned projector. It certainly wouldn’t make the picture look much worse because most of the prints that you are likely to see are a bit dark and murky. In addition, a film like this is always good for conveying the mysteries of a lost age. Were they really able to smoke cigar’s on a bus back then? Did people use to sing to themselves that much? See how happy you are when Gable only wants $39.60 for his efforts, not the $10,000 reward. Who can resist a movie where the girl’s father provides his daughter with a getaway car from her own wedding? Looking at it now the film stands as a love letter to a time that dreamers perceive to be much more honorable and gentle.