Americana Movie Month: "It Happened One Night" Review


Americana Movie Month: "It Happened One Night" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 23, 1934
Directed by: Frank Capra
Genre: Comedy/Romance

Whether fans realize it or not, the modern romantic comedy owes a lot to "It Happened One Night." Frank Capra's 1934 masterpiece was one of the first films to show the genre's full potential. Not just charming and approachable, "It Happened One Night" is also clever and emotionally resonant. However, the film almost did not make it to the screen at all.

Most of the people involved in making the film did not realize just how great "It Happened One Night" would eventually become. Several prominent actresses rejected the role of Ellie before it went to Claudette Colbert. In fact, Colbert only agreed to the role for the money. Clark Gable, a major star, was also unhappy about appearing in the movie. He felt the fluffy script was beneath his talents. Colbert and Gable managed to get along on the set, but when filming finished, Colbert and others assumed that the movie would be a flop.

However, their dark predictions did not come true. "It Happened One Night" was the first film to win five major Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director. It launched Columbia Pictures from a minor studio to a major player. Many decades later, the film is still just as intriguing as it was in the 1930s. In 1993, nearly sixty years after the comedy's release, the Library of Congress selected the film for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry.

The story has familiar rom-com elements, coupled with screwball plot twists. Ellie (Colbert) is a headstrong heiress who rebels against her pampered lifestyle. She marries a man with the nickname King (Jameson Thomas), mostly just to spite her father. As it turns out, King does not have much true love for Ellie, either. He mostly just admires her bank account. When Ellie's controlling father, Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly), annuls the marriage, Ellie makes headlines by running away. She plans to meet up with King in New York City, but in the meantime, Mr. Andrews wastes no time in offering a juicy monetary prize for his daughter's return.

On her way to New York, Ellie thinks she has a foolproof disguise. However, she cannot escape the notice of Peter (Gable), a newspaper journalist who is down on his luck. Quick-thinking Peter makes a deal with the pretty young rebel: If she will agree to give him an insider scoop on her story, Peter will help Ellie make it safely to New York. If Ellie does not go along with Peter's plan, he will turn her over to Mr. Andrews for the reward money. Although Ellie is not happy with the situation, she reluctantly agrees to the first option. Peter is overjoyed at the prospect of reviving his career.

As it turns out, Ellie was smart to rely on Peter. Out on her own for the first time, Ellie realizes that she is woefully incompetent at navigating the real world. The odd couple faces all kinds of challenges together as they voyage towards New York City. Along the way, to the surprise of both of them (though maybe not to the audience), Ellie and Peter start to develop feelings for each other. Before they can enjoy a happy ending, though, the two will have to face typically screwball misunderstandings and mix-ups.

Although "It Happened One Night" is undoubtedly a cinematic gem, it certainly has its flaws. Modern audiences might find some of the film's elements a little dated or predictable. However, this is not entirely the film's fault. What contemporary audiences may not realize is that "It Happened One Night" inspired countless films over the years, which is why the original now seems so familiar. For its time, "It Happened One Night" had a healthy dose of scandal and sauciness, but these elements are fairly tame by modern standards. One of the film's most famous scenes occurs when a hitchhiking Ellie shows off her leg to attract a ride. The moment is still iconic but much less daring and fresh than it was in 1934.

At the same time, "It Happened One Night" is still so sharp-witted and likeable that fans may be surprised it hails from a pre-World War II era. Colbert brings a refreshing spirit of pluck and sassiness to the spoiled heiress, showing her journey from an attention-seeking princess to an independent woman who knows her own heart. Gable's timeless handsomeness and easygoing appeal makes the dynamic between Peter and Ellie really sparkle. While some aspects of the film have not withstood the test of the time, the movie is smart, sweet, heartfelt, and genuinely funny. As the grandmother of romantic comedies, "It Happened One Night" is a must-see for any true fan of the genre.

Rating: 4 out of 5