Our review of It Happened One Night (1934) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published January 27th, 2015, is also available.
Frank Capra, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, together for the first time.
This is another release in the Columbia Classics collection, and is another example from the days of the studio contract actors and directors. In this case though, the contracts actually worked against getting this film off the ground. In 1934 Columbia was considered a small, poor studio, and was forced to try to get actors from other studios to try to get star power for It Happened One Night. No one really had any confidence in this script, and several name stars, including Myrna Loy, turned it down. MGM also turned down several requests for certain stars. Finally MGM sent them Clark Gable (like I need to remind you who he is, but from Gone With the Wind, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Call of the Wild) as a way of punishing him for asking for too much money. The search for a leading lady finally led to Claudette Colbert (The Sign of the Cross, Cleopatra, I Met Him in Paris), one of the real prima donna major names of the time. She was known for not allowing any shots of her right side (her "bad" side) among other things. In her classic temperamental style, she said she only had 4 weeks to spend on the film, and demanded twice her regular $25,000 salary. Capra agreed, and they began shooting the very next day.
From all this adversity, and the reluctance of the actors, no one expected much. But the magic chemistry between the writing of Robert Riskin (Lost Horizon, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe) and Frank Capra was at full strength, and Clark Gable quickly became an ardent supporter of the film. I must admit here that while Colbert never did think much of the film, even afterwards, she gave a stellar performance, and the results were superlative. In it's initial release, it had a huge groundswell of public and critical support, and ended up with Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Script. This was the first film which took all of "the Big 5," a feat only repeated with 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and '91's Silence of the Lambs. It also set the stage and gave the studio support for the wonderful Capra films to follow.
The strengths of the film are it's story, well-crafted dialogue, and characters you could feel something for. These were really the strengths of Riskin and Capra, who really wanted first an engrossing story, and film considerations followed from that.
As our own Nicholas Sylvain said in a recent review, a journey is a great setting for a film; as the trip progresses so does the story. This is also a theme of It Happened One Night, but is also the unlikely pairing of a runaway heiress and a street-savvy but poor newspaperman. It is a reversal of the Cinderella story, a modern tale with light-hearted sex appeal in which courtship and love triumph over class conflicts, socio-economic differences, and verbal battles of wit.
The story begins with the pampered, spoiled, stubborn, devil-may-care headstrong Ellen Andrews (Colbert) rebelling from her father. She ran off and eloped with a ne'er-do-well playboy and celebrity aviator named King Westley, but was rounded up by her father before the marriage could be consummated, and he wants to have it annulled. Even though it is apparent that she only married him as a sign of rebellion, and does not love him, she instead runs away, or rather swims away from her father's yacht. She escapes and attempts to elude her father and his detectives by traveling by bus. It is on the bus she meets the recently fired and down-at-heel newspaperman Peter Warne (Gable). They are both on a night bus to New York from Miami, and this trip is the focus of much of the film.
Shortly after the trip begins, and the two are forced to share a seat, Warne realizes who this woman is (her escape is top headlines in the papers) he sees he has a chance to rejuvenate his career by writing the story of this woman defying her father to run toward her "true love." It turns out that Ellen has very little money due to the circumstances of her escape, and he takes her under his wing so that she can stretch her limited budget long enough to get to New York. When she tries to resist his help, he informs her he knows who she is. She tries to bribe Peter to keep his silence, but in a quote indicative of the verbal fencing he uses with her, says:
You know I had you pegged right from the jump. Just a spoiled brat of a rich father. The only way you get anything is to buy it, isn't it? You're in a jam and all you can think of is your money. It never failed, did it? Ever hear of the word humility? No, you wouldn't. I guess it would never occur to you to just say, 'Please mister, I'm in trouble, will you help me?' No, that would bring you down off your high horse for a minute. Well, let me tell you something, maybe it will take a load off your mind. You don't have to worry about me. I'm not interested in your money or your problem. You, King Westley, your father. You're all a lot of hooey to me!
Ellen responds by sitting next to a different man on the crowded bus, where she is blatantly hit on by an obnoxious man named Shapely (Shapely's my name, and that's the way I like 'em!). Peter comes to her aid by pretending to be her husband, and resumes his seat next to her. The pretensions of being married repeat when a washed out bridge force the bus to stop overnight, and she wouldn't be able to afford a motel room by herself. One of the funnier scenes, and a famous one, transpires when a blanket over a clothesline separates the two and become "the Walls of Jericho." She isn't happy with the arrangement, but in another classic quote he tells her:
Well, I like privacy when I retire. Yes, I'm very delicate in that respect. Prying eyes annoy me. Behold the walls of Jericho! Uh, maybe not as thick as the ones that Joshua blew down with his trumpet, but a lot safer. You see, I have no trumpet.
Several wonderful scenes follow, with verbal dueling from both sides, and some role-playing to evade her father's detectives. I'm going to leave off the direct details of the plot here, because I want you to watch this film, not just get the whole story from me. But I can say that romance develops between these two, and not in the cheesy one-minute montages usually used today to show wonderful dates followed by being in love. The romance develops very believably, with twists and turns. The mood is kept light-hearted until other plot elements threaten to separate them forever.
This film is funny in a smart but not cerebral way, without having to reach for a laugh. The main characters really shine, and even the wealthy father becomes likable after a not-so-flattering beginning.
Enough about the film (I was tempted to write several more pages on it, but I won't). This disc is another fine addition to the Columbia Classics collection. While the disc does show a fair amount of grain and dirt, and is very softly imaged at times, this is a 65-year-old film. Comparing it to the trailers you can see much loving care was given to restore it. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0, which did a decent job in Pro-Logic mode. Dialogue was always intelligible, and the music didn't get in the way. Columbia didn't leave us wanting in the extras department, with one exception explained in detail below. The best were an eleven minute featurette on the movie from Frank Capra Jr., a commentary track by him, and a broadcast of the live radio version of the film done later, commercials and all. Anyone know where I can find some Lux soap flakes? There were also stills of the theatrical posters, theatrical trailers for It Happened One Night, Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Columbia Talent Files for Capra, Gable, and Colbert.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've been letting Columbia off the hook lately for their Talent Files, but I think they need to rethink them. They don't give a complete filmography, and don't include enough of the cast and crew. There really isn't an excuse for it, considering I can get all that information right off the Internet Movie Database with a couple clicks. The commentary track by Frank Capra Jr. had a fair number of stretches without comment, but I suppose it's not as easy to talk about a movie that his father made rather than himself. Of course there is no one else better qualified to do a commentary now, since the stars and Capra Sr. have all passed away.
I consider this a must buy for anyone who likes classic film. If you haven't been exposed to vintage film much, you owe this a rental anyway; as an example of it at its best. At $24.95 retail and less at many online retailers, this is money well spent. Run, don't walk to your nearest store, or click away to buy it now.
I'm going the extra mile on this ruling. Usually on a great disc we just let them off the hook and apologize. But this time I'm inviting all the Columbia people involved with the making of this DVD for a drink on me. Drop me a line and I'm buying.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track
Review content copyright © 1999 Norman Short; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.