This is the next entry in my ongoing 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number five is the romantic comedy It Happened One Night from 1934. Many hail the picture as the first screwball comedy ever made – although 1933’s Bombshell might have a little something to say about that. Class commentary and romance are the chief preoccupations of both the genre and It Happened One Night. I first saw the movie in college, about 800 years ago, so it’s technically a revisit, but this go-round was almost like seeing it for the first time. In fact, I might have slept through part of it in college; those 8 am classes were a killer… Just like the other films in the series, I borrowed a Blu-ray through intralibrary loan. The disc was produced in 2014 by the Criterion Collection, and although the majority of the film looks sparkling, there are a few shots that show how challenging the 4K restoration must have been.
In 1934’s It Happened One Night, legendary director Frank Capra helped birth one of the most popular sub-genres of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The film is arguably one of, if not the, first examples of the screwball comedy. Because the style was just finding its conventions, It Happened One Night isn’t particularly screwy. You can see the nascent qualities of the form coming together: gender roles upended; a plot line focused on courtship and marriage; a tempestuous relationship between the two romantic leads. But it doesn’t approach the zany heights we often associate with films like His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby. The rat-a-tat dialog exchanges, probably the most famous signifier of screwball comedy, is, if not missing, very much toned down here.
That’s not to say It Happened One Night isn’t hilarious or clever. It’s both, as well as being charming, entertaining, and a showcase for the splendid chemistry between its two stars, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. There’s a scene midway through the picture when the two are having breakfast together and even though their characters, Ellie and Peter, have only known each other for hours, we could believe they’ve been together for years. Such is the delightful level of attraction Colbert and Gable produce on screen. Although at this moment in the movie the two aren’t supposed to particularly like one another, we can see the tide turning, and we know they are meant for each other.
It Happened One Night is based on a short story called Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams, adapted for the screen by Robert Riskin. It includes many of the social issues Capra would explore in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. The story, about a spoiled heiress who defies her father and runs away when he doesn’t approve of her choice of a husband, provides ample opportunity for Capra to identify with the lives of common people. Ellie experiences that kind of life when she meets Peter, an out of work reporter who is convinced getting an exclusive on her story will put him back on top in the newspaper business.
The two make an agreement. Peter will help Ellie get from Florida back to her beloved in New York in exchange for exclusive rights to her story. Love, as it often does in the movies, blossoms between them, albeit with a few of the usual bumps in the road. Along the way we get Peter hilariously scolding Ellie for not knowing how to properly dunk a donut in coffee. Audiences mired in the depths of the depression must have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of an everyday Joe explaining real life to a rich socialite. You can see traces of the same aesthetic in a much later movie that pays homage to the screwball genre, 1987’s Overboard.
Ellie shows Peter a thing or two as well, though. She absolutely schools him on how to get a motorist to pull over while they’re hitchhiking. This sequence offers the most iconic image from the picture, but what’s so funny is the set-up in which Peter’s elaborate theory on the proper etiquette for hitchhiking is shown to be completely useless.
The casual sexism you might expect in a love story made 80+ years ago is here. It’s particularly
noticeable since Capra clearly identifies more with Peter than Ellie. The male gaze he uses to sell the famous shot of Ellie hiking up her skirt – one of the last hurrahs of pre-Code Hollywood – to get a motorist to pull over makes that clear.
Still, it’s all fairly light-hearted, and Ellie is given a good deal of agency in the film. She is the one who decides to defy her father early in the movie. The female character driving the story – upending usual gender roles – is, after all, a hallmark of the screwball comedy. It Happened One Night is a charming tale of love on the road. Colbert and Gable’s on-screen chemistry makes it downright irresistible.