Home Video Hovel: It Happened One Night, by David Bax
There are a lot of stories that surround the making and history of Frank Capra’s 1934 classic It Happened One Night. There’s the one that says Clark Gable was lent to Columbia by his contract-holder MGM as a punishment; he had refused to do one of their movies so they made him do this one that nobody thought would be a winner. For the record, that story is oft-refuted. There’s also the legend that Bugs Bunny, who first appeared six years later, is modeled on Gable’s Peter Warne. Whether this is true or just speculation based on the scene where Gable munches a carrot, the tale has stuck. In the end, though, none of this is important. All you need to know – and all the reason Criterion needs to put out this new Blu-ray – is that It Happened One Night is an absolute landmark of American film.
There may have been earlier romantic comedies in which the leads first hate and then love one another. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that there weren’t. That narrative trope didn’t start with cinema. But It Happened One Night is as close as possible to the Platonic ideal of the format. Peter Warne is a sarcastic and scrappy reporter who’s just been fired when he’s lucky enough to find himself on bus with runaway socialite Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert). He is crassly but charismatically insouciant; she is scorching and headstrong. They clash but, when Ellie’s money is stolen, Peter agrees to help her get to the husband with whom she recently eloped against her father’s wishes. In return, Ellie will grant Peter exclusive rights to what’s sure to be a crackerjack human interest story.
Despite many elements that have persisted into contemporary cinema – such as the leading everyman who’s actually smarter and funnier than any man – there’s at least one thing to find in It Happened One Night that’s rare enough to feel fresh, even 80 years later. Ellie is tougher and smarter than any ten rom-com gals we see today. Her background in high society provides plot generators in the form of her family’s money and her value as tabloid fodder but, at least as Colbert plays her, she’s not spoiled or naïve or ignorant and her character’s catharsis does not take the form of comeuppance as it does for so many other movie women who dared not to see the inner beauty in the scruffy asshole they’ve been hanging out with. It Happened One Night was one of the first films made under the Hayes Code but the homogenizing effect those strictures would come to have on female characters hadn’t fully sunk in yet.
Overall, the Blu-ray transfer looks quite nice, but at 80 years old, some slack must be cut. In particular, the nighttime location shots are a little less than crisp. A lack of perfection is more than acceptable in exchange for the film’s refreshingly varied look. The soundstage artificiality is there but it is supplemented with scenes that take place on city streets and country roads and even in the woods.
There’s a sense when watching It Happened One Night of stepping into another world. It’s not just the signifiers of the past, like Colbert glamorously smoking cigarettes throughout or a character’s arrival via autogyro. It’s Capra’s slyly magical realm where a cynical smartass and an over-it grump can find true love without betraying themselves.
Special features include a conversation between critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate, an interview with Frank Capra Jr., a documentary about Capra, a new transfer of Capra’s first silent short and more.