Thursday 25 February 2010

It Happened One Night (1934)

Director: Frank Capra
Stars: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I learned plenty here, from a film that I hadn't even heard of before starting out on my journey through the IMDb Top 250. In fact it was only after checking up on director Frank Capra, a name I'd heard of but didn't know much about, after watching Arsenic and Old Lace in 2004, that I discovered that It Happened One Night was something of a legend as far as the Academy Awards go. It was the first film to sweep all four of the most important Oscars: for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress. This being 1934, the achievement was even more stunning because the supporting categories didn't come into play for another two years, meaning that It Happened One Night pretty much won everything there was to win. Oh yeah, it won for Best Adapted Screenplay too.

Knowing the sheer bias that the Academy holds against certain genres, this surprised me no end. I thought that films that swept the Oscars tended to be serious dramas with powerful impacts, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence of the Lambs, which also won the top four awards, along with a fifth for Best Adapted Screenplay too. It Happened One Night is far from them, being a romantic comedy, a prototype for the screwball comedies that would run riot over the next decade, with the sort of happy ending that Frank Capra is renowned for. Yet it still holds a solid claim to those five little statuettes because, unlike the musicals and biopics that won in the years around it, it captured the moment better than most films have ever done.

Capra started out in the industry working for the studios of Mack Sennett, probably the first real movie producer there was and certainly the originator of slapstick in Hollywood. I'm sure that gave him a solid inside scoop on how comedy worked on film. He progressed to three Oscars for direction, four films in this list and universal respect for his work, not least through constant reruns of It's a Wonderful Life on TV at Christmas and an episode of The Simpsons being based around Homer rewriting Mr Smith Goes to Washington as an action vehicle for Mel Gibson. It's arguable whether winning three Oscars or being parodied on The Simpsons is the bigger claim to immortality but Frank Capra is one of the few to fortunately have both to his name.

The storyline of It Happened One Night is pretty basic: girl meets boy, girl hates boy and boy hates girl but before long boy and girl are very much in love. Then again, this is a romantic comedy after all. What do you expect? What you probably don't expect is for boy and girl to be thoroughly well defined characters, the sort you just don't see any more. Peter Warren and Ellie Andrews are far from being generic templates, partly through the clever writing of Robert Riskin, who wrote no less than thirteen of Frank Capra's movies including Mr Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It with You and Meet John Doe, and partly through the wonderful character building of the actors, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

We meet Colbert first, as a spoiled heiress called Ellen Andrews. Ellie has just got married to an aviator called King Westley without her father's permission, so he's had her dragged back to his yacht in Miami while he uses his influence to have the marriage annulled. It doesn't go well, however right he may be that she married Westley just because he didn't want her too. After she throws a fit and he slaps her, she dives into the harbour and swims to shore, to find her way to her new husband a thousand miles away in New York. She may be petulant and stubborn but she's far from stupid and she successfully eludes both her father's crew and the horde of private detectives he promptly sets on her trail.

It's on the night bus to New York that she meets Gable, in the form of Peter Warren, because they end up sharing the last seat on the bus. Warren is a newspaper reporter, hardly a rare role for Gable, but he's been fired, apparently not for the first time, and we first meet him drunkenly trying to cajole his editor into hiring him back again over a collect call. He's hardly the picture of decency when he tells her to scram out of his seat and doesn't even offer to put her bag on the rack for her, but when it's stolen at the first stop he tries to chase down the thief. He may be rude and insufferable but he's no fool either. It's when she refuses to report the theft or let him tell the driver that his reporter's blood realises that he's stumbled onto a story, one that is soon backed up by the front pages in Jacksonville.

There's so much to love here that the film becomes contagious. The moonfaced Colbert exudes complexity, constantly mixing an air of innocence and decency with the arrogance of a spoiled brat and the inherent assumptions that come with privilege. That's how she can successfully throw out a line beginning 'Now look here, young man!' to Gable, who was two years older than she was. It's also how Ellie can instinctively tell the driver to wait for her if she's a little late back to the bus from their thirty minute stop for breakfast. Needless to say he doesn't, but as Warren has worked out who she is by this point he's there waiting for her with the ticket she left on her seat. He wants the exclusive on her 'mad flight to happiness' and a twelve hour wait till the next bus isn't much of an inconvenience in the circumstances.

Gable was at his peak, continuing to define the new sort of romantic Hollywood hero that began in 1931 with the shocking scene in A Free Soul when, as a mere supporting actor, he slapped leading lady Norma Shearer. Every female viewer was horrified, of course, but rather aroused nonetheless and Hollywood scriptwriters paid close attention. So three years on, Gable was very much the leading man playing Peter Warren in ways that the old school types could never have done. That era was gone and many of the actors that Gable supported in his dozen 1931 movies were supporting him by this point or just fading away. He was very definitively the future and he was still shaping it when he made this film.

Newshound Peter Warren begins the film drunkenly telling his boss what the score is, unphased even after being fired because he's supremely confident in his talents. He promptly stands up to Ward Bond on the bus, chases after a thief and tells the elegant Ellie Andrews in no uncertain terms to shut up. He takes over her affairs without a single thought, counting her money and stopping her wasting it on a box of chocolates. He pretends to be her husband to save her from Roscoe Karns on the bus and to get them beds for the night when the bus is held up by a washed out bridge. He'll do whatever it takes and he can take anything that's thrown at him. What's more, he knows it. 'Your ego is absolutely colossal,' Ellie tells him. 'Yeah, not bad,' he replies. 'How's yours?'

All this makes utter sense when you know how thirties Hollywood films work, but it's this sort of background that I didn't have when I first watched It Happened One Night in 2004 and the recognition of that fact both epitomised what I was really trying to achieve by working through the IMDb Top 250 and defined much of my viewing for the next few years. I'd always felt that my big gaps were from the fifties to the seventies because I'd seen so much from before and so much from after but so little from in between. However with this film I realised that almost all the many films from the thirties that I knew seemed to be genre movies: the Universal horrors, the swashbucklers and odd little favourites like The Bat Whispers, Mad Love and Freaks. I'd caught up on a few more mainstream movies already through this project but it became obvious to me that I had a long way to go indeed to understand Hollywood's first decade of talkies.

I realised this all the more when looking up the stars of the film. At the time I hadn't even heard of Colbert and I could only name one other film that Gable appeared in, one that I'd watched a little earlier in this very project. What I found, of course, was that both were massive stars in the thirties: Colbert was one of the most popular leading ladies of the era and Gable was literally crowned as 'The King of Hollywood' in 1938, a year before Gone with the Wind. When Warren's fellow drunks pronounce 'Make way for the King' as they walk him to the night bus in Miami, they were actually being rather prophetic. So here were two massively important names and I knew nothing about them, had seen only one film starring either of them and had no reference points at all to their entire careers in cinema.

As any regular visitor to Apocalypse Later knows, I've promptly done my level best to catch up. Since 2004 I've paid more attention to the thirties than any other decade, racking up an average of 67 films from each year and going as high as 94 from 1932. I've consumed the filmographies of the great names of the era, to the degree that I've now seen 35 of Clark Gable's movies from the thirties alone, along with 32 of James Cagney's, 28 of Humphrey Bogart's and 22 of William Powell's. I'm up to 34 with Myrna Loy, 23 with Bette Davis and 20 with Jean Harlow. Of the various Top 100 lists I've dipped into, the thirties list is the one I'm closest to completing, having seen 94 of the Home Theater Forum's 100 Great Films of the 1930's with half the remainder ready to go.

This decade really epitomises the journey I've been making into the history of film and it's been a thoroughly enjoyable and eye opening ride. It really provides a solid grounding to an understanding of Hollywood, beginning with the hesitant transition to sound, progressing through the eye opening freedoms of the precode era to their inevitable lockdown under the forced morality of the Production Code in 1934, and onward to Hollywood's Greatest Year in 1939. Of all the decades of American film it's the most vibrant, honest and fascinating. It was the golden age of the star system but was also packed with great character actors and the most recognisable and prolific extras in American film history. It had everything and even without the expressionistic imagery of film noir to add effect, the forties are stuck in its shadow.

So I did my homework, reading up on famous Colbert movies like Imitation of Life, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Palm Beach Story, along with Gable classics like Manhattan Melodrama, Red Dust and San Francisco, then tracking them down and finding out first hand why they were so important. In doing so I discovered that often it wasn't the films that were important, it was the people in them and behind them. The actors in those days didn't have any control over the films they appeared in, being for all intents and purposes merely property of the studios, and so even if they were great, as I soon discovered Gable was, their films often weren't. Nevertheless, for me to have been so blissfully unaware of two of the greatest stars of the era underlined a massive gap indeed. At least It Happened One Night turned out to be one of the best places to start remedying that.

It was a sleeper hit. From initially indifferent reviews it grew by word of mouth until its sweep of the Oscars didn't seem surprising to anyone. Most of this success is due to the way in which Gable and Colbert play off each other. Their interaction is by turns hilarious, touching and surprising and it never lets us lose interest. I'm not a romance fan by any stretch of the imagination but I loved the way these two went at it when they didn't like each other and nearly as much when they did. What's more important still I cared what happened to both characters. I couldn't care less what happened to Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind but I felt for him here, and Claudette Colbert manages the difficult task of developing believably from a spoiled brat to a decent human being that Scarlett O'Hara was never allowed to try.

That's what makes the film so special. There may be little of real substance here but that little is something that we can and do care about. I'd take a single It Happened One Night over a hundred Gone with the Winds any day, and I'm happy that it looks down at its more famous counterpart from a higher position on this list. What's most strange is that this was a real change of role for Gable, who previously had been continually typecast in the sort of domineering and virile parts that he had pioneered in A Free Soul. His regular studio MGM farmed him out to Columbia for this film as a disciplinary action because he had refused to play yet another of what he called his 'gigolo roles'. Gable had said, 'People are bored to death when I rough up disagreeable women, and I'm getting pretty sick of it myself.' Colbert had misbehaved too, making it acutely ironic that it was while both stars were being disciplined by their studios that they won their only Oscars.

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