Frank Capra understood the strange avenues of the human heart like no other filmmaker of his time, perhaps of our time as well. His films always had a deep understanding of human nature, people in his films moved with the freedom and flow of real life. That human quality endeared his films to audiences and that’s why they are still viewed today.
That endearing quality probably came from his directing style. He didn’t believe in sticking to the script. It has been reported that he showed up with only the framework of a scene, and then let his actors fill in the rest. “All I want is a master scene and I’ll take care of the rest”, he said ”How to shoot it, how to keep the machinery out of the way, and how to focus attention on the actors at all times.”
I have always thought of Capra as a pioneer, not least because it was his genius that created It Happened One Night, a movie so popular and so far-reaching that it would inspire two entirely new film genres, the romantic comedy and the screwball comedy. It also helped to perfect the road picture from which some of the greatest films ever made have drawn inspiration; The Hope-Crosby Pictures, Sullivan’s Travels, The Blues Brothers, Lost in America, Midnight Run, Rain Man, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Almost Famous. What these films have in common is some form of familial or romantic attachment from the characters and/or a feeling of self discovery. They are dotted with incidents along the way so that the journey becomes the point of interest, not the destination. No other genre of filmmaking can create so many mishaps, run-ins, close-calls and personal drama as two people in a car on the way to a destination – especially if there is a time-limit.
It Happened One Night is responsible for all of these things. It is a light-as-a-feather romantic comedy, a road picture about two people who meet, have an agenda and have a long series of crisis and personal drama before reaching their destination and falling in love.
The story involves Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), the spoiled daughter of a millionaire on the cusp of marrying an aviator named King Westley against the wishes of her father (Walter Connolly). He has the marriage annulled, and she is so put out that she so jumps off the side of her father’s boat, swims to the shore and boards a bus from Miami to New York in hopes of catching up with her new husband. On the way, she runs into a world-wearing newspaperman, Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who hates her at first sight. He’s a man of the world, who knows how to get around. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and knows very little about how to function in the modern world.
Peter doesn’t think much of her, he knows she’s a babe in the woods and isn’t shy about telling her so. She thinks he’s brutish and cruel but she follows him because he can get her out of a jam, at one point he pretends to be her husband in order to fend off the advances of an overly-friendly traveler that she meets on the bus. He doesn’t want to lose sight of Ellie because he believes that the story could be a major scoop.
Peter and Ellie make amends long enough to get where they are going but their mutual connection is that don’t have one. He knows how to keep her safe – when she runs into the friendly traveler again, Peter pulls him aside and informs that man that he’s a gangster who is about to pull a big job. The frightened man wants no part of any criminal activity and makes tracks. Ellie proves that she can be more on the road than simply a piece of luggage. During a stop on the side of the road, Peter unsuccessfully tries to show her how hitchhike by shaking his thumb in just the right way. A dozen cars pass without slowing down. Ellie decides to show him “a system all my own”. Lifting her skirt, the next passing motorist gets a view of her shapely leg and the guy nearly runs himself into the ditch trying to stop.
There are a dozen moments like that. One night when Peter and Ellie are forced to share the same cottage, he devises a way that two unmarried people (they’re posing as married) can sleep in the same room and have privacy. He builds “The Walls of Jerico”, a clothesline with heavy blankets thrown over it between their beds. What do you think the odds are that before the movie is over, the walls will come down?
What is so perfect about this movie is that the story is thin enough that it allows for moment like that. It may appear as episodic, but those episodes are so funny and so engaging that you really don’t care. What holds the story together is the different worlds of Peter and Ellie, he from the earth of the poor, she from the heavens of the wealthy.
The comedy works in broad strokes, but the ever-present Capra-esqe quality of humanity and social commentary isn’t quite as bold as it is in his later films. It’s there, but it isn’t at the film’s center. Peter and Ellie aren’t interested in the social ills of their country until it crops up – they both have a personal agenda to tend to. This movie was made five years into The Great Depression but that event exists mostly around the edges of the film. It only takes center stage once, during a scene in which Peter and Ellie give their last few dollars to a starving mother and child on the bus. They aren’t trying to change the world, however. This is a personal transition in Ellie’s soul. What we come to realize about Ellie is that she’s been given the spoils all her life and that this revolution – the road trip in which she finds her sense of personal freedom – has been set off by her father, a man who wants her to find her own happiness, not a marriage to an aviator arranged for superficial reasons. He thinks only the best for his daughter. Her meeting with Peter is a revelation because it allows her to see the world in the cold light of day. He’s a man who, as a reporter, has seen the suffering of humanity and he resents her for being so sheltered.
If there is a weakness in the film it may come at the moment when we are supposed to accept that Gable and Colbert have fallen in love. He’s so mean and so critical that it is difficult to believe late in the film that he has actually fallen in love with her. From her side as well, she’s such a spoiled ninny for much of the film that it is difficult to believe that she would fall for a man who is so gruff and uncouth. The movie does allow them to meet in the middle as the heavenly rich and the earthy poor come together, the transition of her soul that allows her to follow her own path. But what does she get from Peter? What would their marriage consist of? There’s no sense of passion in their connection. Their personalities are so specific that you are left to worry about them.
The connection between Gable and Colbert isn’t convincing, but the performances work. Gable gave a great performance despite the fact that he wasn’t happy about having to appear in this project. Reportedly, he was loaned to Columbia Pictures as a sort of punishment by the studio bosses for his off-screen behavior and showed up on the set the first day remarking “Okay, let’s get this over with”.
Gable gives a well-rounded performance and it is a tribute to his dedication as an actor that he gives a great performance in a movie that he really didn’t want to make. Colbert reportedly told a friend afterwards that she had just finished making the worst picture of her career.
Yet, the movie was endearing to filmgoers and to the Motion Picture Academy which rewarded it the first flood-tide of major awards – Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay (a feat that only happened twice more with One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest in 1976 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1992. Gable wasn’t impressed. Reportedly he gave his Oscar away to a fan.
Yet, all that goes out the window when we get into the film. This may not be Frank Capra’s best film but it still works and you can’t argue with that.