Though Frank Capra is known for his humanist films that are often about great men who fight for social justice, one of his best works is (arguably) the first screwball comedy that backgrounds class issues for a rollicking adventure about a dizzy heiress and a hard-boiled reporter. That film is It Happened One Night, and it’s rightfully received a place in the Criterion Collection. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert star, and my review of the film on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
The film opens with Colbert’s Ellie Andrews having just married King Wesley, but her father (Walter Connolly) disapproves of the man and the marriage, so he tries to take her to get it annulled. She rejects this and literally jumps off his boat in Florida. She decides to take a bus to New York to meet her new husband, and hopes to dodge the men her father has sent out to take her back. At the bus station she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a New York reporter who’s fresh out of a job. Seeing that this story of her journey is his ticket back to the good graces of his editor, he tags along with her as they make their way up the country.
Ellie’s picture is in the paper, so after one passenger gets the idea of turning her in for a reward, Peter and Ellie attempt to hitchhike the rest of the way, which leads to the most famous scene in the movie, where Peter presents his technique for getting a ride, while Ellie’s method proves more advantageous. As they travel together, the two fall in love. Once they get close to New York, a misunderstanding separates them, and makes both think the other is a lesser person, but it’s hard to stop true love.
Capra’s reputation has mutated over the years. Once considered a people’s favorite, critical consensus seemed to turn on him with the rise of critics like Pauline Kael, who thought he was full of it. Currently those who curate what can be thought of as the critical canon don’t pay him as much respect, though the IMDb ranks three of his films in the top 150 movies of all time. That’s to be expected as It’s a Wonderful Life became the go-to Christmas movie for many. At this point, he seems viewed as an almost great, or dated kook known for his Capra-corn and as someone who often valued his message over narrative.
Which is what makes a revisit of It Happened One Night so delightful. There is an argument to made that the film isn’t exactly screwball (one that is had in the film’s supplements), but it definitely features similar ideas, with Gable playing the headstrong male (which makes it fun when he gets rattled by his female costar) and Colbert playing the flighty heiress who doesn’t know she’s a tornado. It’s harder to see the genealogy of movies when we don’t have the same context of their release dates, but watching this, it’s easy to see how Bringing Up Baby and more are indebted to the film. It’s a surprise, though a pleasant one, to note that the film won the best picture Oscar in 1934, along with awards for best director, actor, actress and screenplay, considering how the academy rarely gives the big awards to something this light. But it was the movie of its moment.
And part of that is the casting. Though it feels like most people know Gable for his turn as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, he’s just as good in this film, where he gets to be playful (the hitchhiking scene is famous for a number of reasons, including inspiring Bugs Bunny), sexy, and roguish, while Colbert plays the dizzy dame to a T. She might not have had the screwballs gifts of a performer like Carole Lombard, but she’s believably daft here and sexy to boot. These films are driven by sexuality, and the two make a great pair, though once you know that Colbert favored one side of her face, it’s impossible not to notice.
It Happened One Night is a great movie, so it’s weird that Columbia licensed the film out to Criterion. We are all better off for it, but it also points out the state of home video right now. The Blu-ray is presented in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in English LPCM 1.0. The film got a 4K restoration and the results are excellent, there seems to be negligible print damage, while the black and white photography looks to recreate and feel the film must have had when released. The supplements kick off with “Frank Capra Jr. Remembers… ‘It Happened One Night’” (11 min.), which was done for the film’s DVD release and offers an appreciation from the director’s son, who is well versed in his father’s work. It’s followed by “Screwball Comedy?” (39 min.) in which critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate start to discuss if the film deserves to be called a screwball, but then start talking about the picture’s greatness, and it’s well worth watching. It’s followed by the 1921 Capra-directed short Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House (12 min.), and then there’s the feature length documentary Frank Capra’s American Dream (96 min.), which was done for television (and included in a previous Capra box set), and features comments from people like Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Robert Altman, and is hosted and narrated by Ron Howard. It gives a nice overview of the man’s career. Also included is the “AFI’s Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Frank Capra” (59 min.), which offers long clips and nice comments from his stars and other famous people. Finally, the film’s trailer is included.