It Happened One Night

(Frank Capra, USA, 1934)


Two characters on the road, who meet and reluctantly collaborate: he (Clark Gable as Peter) is a tough-talking journalist; she (Claudette Colbert) as Ellie is a "dizzy dame" on the run from home and father. He's the salt of the earth; she's a rich kid. Both exploit the other for something they need: for him, she means a big newspaper story; for her, he's a way to help get to New York and a forbidden fiancée. In the course of the story, they will move from antagonism to love.

Where is the film classic in that outline? It could be one of a hundred routine, American romantic comedies of the 1930s or '40s.

But, make no mistake, Frank Capra's It Happened One Night is movie magic. This has something to do with how the film conjures an entire milieu: a 'people's America' filled with unlikely rogues and soft-hearted citizens, always ready to share a story and a song, or simply exhibit their lovable eccentricities. The bus that Peter and Ellie take in the first part of the plot is a veritable populist microcosm.

But the film is also careful to explore exceptions to its basic rule: Ellie's father, Andrews (Walter Connolly), turns out to be a pretty swell chap, after all; just as the talkative bus passenger Shapeley (Rosco Karnes) turns out to be a weasel.

Capra and his collaborators are experts at cleverly weaving a story from entirely familiar and ordinary motifs: eating, verbal slang ("ah, nuts"), snoring, washing, dressing and undressing. True to the romantic comedy formula, identities are momentarily dissolved whenever a masquerade is necessary or able to be exploited for secret entertainment – although, whenever Peter and Ellie pretend to be husband and wife, more serious possibilities and destinies suggest themselves .

It Happened One Night is a distant predecessor of today's trash comedies, such as those by the Farrelly brothers. Ass jokes abound ("That upon which you sit is mine"), the pretensions and privileges of the wealthy are mercilessly mocked (even their names are funny: King Westley!), Colbert's famous bare legs stop traffic.

And then there is the sexual tension angle: working patiently through four nights of Peter and Ellie together, the entire film hinges on the symbolism of the 'walls of Jericho' finally toppling – the ridding of the blanket that stands, weakly and tremblingly, as the barrier to consummation of their growing love.

Critics cannot rhapsodise over Capra's powers of montage or mise en scène; style was a functional, conventional business for him. But what he did have was an impeccable sense of script (in both overall structure and small details), and a brilliant rapport with his charismatic actors.

Gable and Colbert help to truly equalise this one-upmanship battle of the sexes, diluting that ideological thrust of the script which suggests that proletarian guys should teach spoilt gals a thing or two about real life.

In the infectious interplay of these stars – in their mutual willingness to play, to laugh, to be vulnerable, to take a joke as good they give it – we encounter an ideal that has been well and truly lost in contemporary, mainstream cinema: reciprocity between the sexes.

MORE Capra: It's a Wonderful Life

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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