“Maybe there really wasn’t an America, it was only Frank Capra.”–John Cassavetes
It Happened One Night, made in 1934 and starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, is pretty
unremarkable on the surface. The plot device is a typical example of opposites attract, with Colbert playing Ellie, an independent, yet spoiled, rich socialite and Gable playing Peter, a wise-cracking, streetwise reporter.
Having rebelled against her father by marrying an opportunist known amusingly enough as “King” Westley, Ellie is abducted by her father, who is taking her away in order to have the marriage annulled. Refusing to bend to her father’s will, Ellie runs away, intent on returning by bus to her husband in New York. From there on out, it’s a road movie. Hunted by a host of investigators, Ellie tries to lay low. Unfortunately, she’s not very good at it, and it doesn’t take Peter long to figure out who she is, at which point he hatches a scheme to blackmail her into giving him the story he needs to revitalize his career in exchange for his helping her return to New York. What happens after that, of course, is that they fall in love along the way.
It Happened One Night is the first movie to win all five major academy awards–best picture, best director, best actor, best actress, and best screenplay, a feat that didn’t happen again until 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Currently, it has a 98% critic rating and a 94% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So what makes this seemingly run-of-the-mill movie so special? There are lots of potential explanations. For example, it’s widely regarded as the first screwball comedy, so it broke new ground, and screwball comedies would remain popular throughout the thirties. Likewise, with Gable and Colbert, it certainly has star power. According to Wikipedia, Colbert was “the industry’s biggest box-office star in 1938 and 1942,” and they didn’t call Gable the “king of Hollywood” for nothing. Both do an excellent job of living up to their reputations in this film. Not to mention, it’s one of the last pre-code films, so they had a bit more flexibility to do racier gags. In one particularly funny scene, Peter, having informed Ellie of his intention of trading his help for exclusive rights to her story, turns away from her and leans down, providing her with a view of his backside. “Now isn’t that just too cute?” responds Ellie, concluding, “There’s a brain behind that face of yours.”
I suspect, at bottom (no pun intended), it all comes down to Frank Capra and the remarkable ability he had for making films that are more than the sum of their parts, perhaps due to his preference for improvisation. “All I want is a master scene,” said Capra, “and I’ll take care of the rest.” Fine by me. Give me Capra-corn any day. I never met a Frank Capra movie I didn’t like, and It Happened One Night is no exception.