Classic Movie Review: It Happened One Night (1934)

Posted: April 12, 2021 in Comedy
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Beautiful socialite Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is in the middle of a hunger strike on her father, Alexander’s (Walter Conelly) yacht. Ellie refuses to eat unless her father lets her marry King Westley. (Jameson Thomas) Ellie’s father thinks King is a golddigger, marrying Ellie for her father’s money, and tries to annul Ellie’s marriage, Ellie responds by jumping in the ocean and swimming away. She ends up in Miami on a bus to New York to meet King Westley.

On the bus, Ellie meets newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who initially doesn’t know who Ellie is. But Ellie loses her luggage, and then Peter finds out her true identity. Ellie also realizes that without her suitcase she has no money, so she and Peter masquerade as husband and wife to stay in a hotel room, while the bus stops overnight. At the hotel, Peter has a proposal, Ellie tells her the story of her and King’s whirlwind romance exclusively to Peter, or he will tell her father her whereabouts. This bit of blackmail makes Ellie think even less of Peter. Peter thinks Ellie is spoiled and childish. But as they spend more time together, they start to enjoy each other’s company. Is Ellie falling for Peter? Is Peter falling for the spoiled little rich girl?

Why is It Happened One Night a classic? Because the time-honored romantic comedy formula started with this movie. The man and woman initially hating each other, the snooty woman, the fiancé or husband being a jerk, a road trip, these were all elements that have been repeated for the last 86 years, with varying degrees of success, but this movie gets credit for being the first. In fact, Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing borrows a lot from It Happened One Night. Watch the two together and note the similarities. Secondly, It happened One Night is very funny, it is part romantic comedy part screwball comedy, with lots rapid-fire banter between the two leads. The hitchhiking scene with Gable and Colbert has become legendary, and it’s laugh out loud funny. The ending is somewhat predictable, but with movies like this, it’s not the destination, but the journey, and this journey is an enjoyable one.

Most moviegoers wouldn’t picture Clark Gable as a working-class hero, but in this movie he’s a booze guzzling, wisecracking, out of work newspaper reporter, and he is very believable in this role. Mist people wouldn’t think of Gable as a comedic talent either. No, he’s not doing pratfalls, but his comic timing is flawless. He handles the high-volume dialogue effortlessly, and turns himself into a likeable know-it-all. He also puts a lot of male chauvinism into Peter Warne, which was expected at the time, women were expected to sit and take it. A viewer can see elements of this performance, humor, misogyny, playing a regular guy, in another iconic role, Rhett Butler. Gable won the only Oscar of his career for his role of Peter Warne. Claudette Colbert was perfect in the role of snobby socialite Ellie Andrews, she plays a giddy coquettish type at first, but then the writers get wise and give Ellie some snappy comebacks, and Colbert handles the role just fine. Colbert also handles the emotional rollercoaster of the ending quite well. Ironically Colbert did not want to sign up for this movie, as Universal was considered a B-movie studio at the time, so Universal had to give her the ungodly figure of 50,000 dollars to play Ellie Andrews. She also had a bad experience with director Frank Capra in an earlier film, but in the end, she agreed to work on the film. Like Gable, she also was rewarded with an Oscar for her work.

Director Frank Capra had no dramatic set pieces in this film, as he had in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington When Senator Smith embarks on a filibuster, or It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey contemplates suicide. But he did try to spruce up the bus scenes with lots of singing, and it works, the singing adds a lot of cheer to those scenes And of course the hitchhiking scene, which Colbert initially balked at, is the scene that movie fans remember. The pacing is good, he gets great performances, even though Gable and Colbert don’t need much help, and Capra does a pretty good job at keeping the audience guessing throughout the film and holding the ending, until the last possible minute. Capra also won an Iscar for this film.

It Happened One Night: Frank-ly, Capra is a great director.

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