It Happened One Night
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
The basic pattern has been repeated in romantic comedies for decades: bickering man and woman quarrel repeatedly until they realize they love one another. Even going a little deeper, the idea of an heiress/princess/president’s daughter (oh god, could someone please erase Katie Holmes in First Daughter from my brain?) who makes a break for freedom, only to be escorted around by a reporter/bodyguard, ultimately leading to romance, has been done time and time again. But really, does it ever get more sublime than It Happened One Night? The more I see it, the more I think the answer to that question is a resounding ‘No!’
Alright, so what sets this particular incarnation of the formula apart from all the clones that have followed? Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Screen chemistry is something that cannot be manufactured, and these two have it but how. Colbert is Ellie Andrews, who jumps off her rich daddy’s yacht so she can be married to her fool of a boyfriend, the outrageously named King Wesley. Gable is Peter Warne, the on-the-outs reporter who smells a scoop even his blowhard boss couldn’t resist. Watching the two of them maneuver an ever-decreasing pocketbook and increasingly dire travel circumstances leads to scene after scene of crackling romantic chemistry.
Frank Capra has a true gift in channeling and displaying what we now think of as classic Americana, but there is always a bit of an edge, a slight dark side, that isn’t discussed as frequently. In this film, it’s displayed through the overt sexuality. 1934 was the year that the Hayes Code cracked down on morality in Hollywood film. It’s difficult to tell if this came pre- or post- crackdown; probably pre-Code, based on the number of scenes that involve undressing, but it’s not quite as blatant as other pre-Code films I’ve seen. Still, watching Clark Gable very purposely and adamantly undress in an effort to scare Colbert over to her half of the room is breathlessly sexy. The fact that she doesn’t leave – and the scene doesn’t end - until the bare-chested Gable literally starts undoing his zipper is deliciously tantalizing. (Hollywood lore has it that when Gable undressed in this scene and it was clear that he wasn’t wearing an undershirt, sales of undershirts plummeted as American men rushed out to emulate the biggest screen star of the day.) Shortly afterwards, as she throws her lace-trimmed lingerie over the “Walls of Jericho,” he stares up at them, a knowing grin plastered over his face. The next morning, pretending to be man and wife to investigating cops, as Gable undoes a few buttons on her blouse, the heat practically jumps off the screen. Even when he does them up again after scaring the cops away, one wonders why she couldn’t do it herself. Then again, if Clark Gable was anywhere near the buttons on MY blouse, I wouldn’t be in a big hurry to push him away either. And holy cow, when Gable puts Colbert to bed in the haystack, she practically invites him in with her for the night. Damn it all, how could any man refuse that look?
Apart from their simply amazing chemistry, the characters in the film lend it far more depth than the brainless romantic comedies that come out of current Hollywood. Everyone is flawed, thereby making them much less of a caricature and much more a character. Ellie Andrews is not a one-note spoiled heiress. Yes, she is spoiled, but she simply doesn’t know any other way. She says herself she’d rather be a plumber’s daughter, and we believe her. She is naïve, having no concept of how little money she has, and yet she also manages to take all of Peter Warne’s chiding and scolding with grace and dignity. Warne, on the other hand, is the loudmouth, brash reporter, a bit too caustic for his own good, with a hidden, sensitive underbelly. It becomes clear from the get-go that as he watches over Ellie, it is not simply driven by his need for a story. Any man who looks at a woman like that is not doing it for his career. Initially, he simply wants to look out for a woman who seems incapable of looking out for herself, but it quickly morphs into a real attraction.
Perhaps most enjoyable of all, and most surprising, is Ellie’s father. How many times have we seen the blowhard rich father, not understanding his own children, who only wants things his way? This stereotype is most certainly NOT Ellie’s father, a much more complex man who truly loves his daughter but knows she is being silly in wanting to marry such a nondescript nothing of a man as King Wesley. It is not that King Wesley does not have money that makes him undesirable, it’s the fact that he is bland as a saltine and just as dry, and he knows his daughter can do better. When Peter Warne shows up at the end of the picture to break up the wedding (thus establishing another Hollywood stereotype that has been endlessly imitated but never bettered), old Pops practically jumps with joy in seeing that a far worthier man has entered his daughter’s life. Who cares if he’s a lowly reporter? Peter Warne’s got panache, and will certainly keep Ellie on her toes! No wonder that Ellie’s father willingly gives his go ahead for THIS union.
The script and pacing of the film are crackling. The plot moves briskly, wasting absolutely no time in setting up the central situation. It’s a refreshing reminder that we don’t always need twenty odd minutes of exposition in order to have an effective movie. All the little travel vignettes that our pair encounter are light-hearted and enjoyable, from an obnoxious salesman to being forced to eat raw carrots. And the lines! Perhaps my favorite is when Gable pointedly says to a sitting Colbert, “That upon which you sit is mine.” Oh, those double entendres!
The more I watch this film, the more I fall in love with it, and with Peter Warne – I admit, I have developed a particular weakness for Clark Gable based on his performance here. Whenever I bemoan the state of current romantic comedies, I know I can turn to the king of them all to pick me back up again. Chemistry, check. Believable characters, check. Crackling setpieces, check. Clark Gable topless, check. Sign me up anytime.
Arbitrary Rating: 9.5/10