Romantic comedies come and go, playing off the same idea again and again. Man and woman meet, dislike each other, then slowly fall in love and run off happily ever after. While the differences between a good and bad romantic comedy are clear, even solid romantic comedies fade from personal and public consciousness after a short amount of time. It takes something truly special for any film to last year after year, especially a romantic comedy.
So what makes It Happened One Night so different?
Simply put, it excels in every single aspect. It’s hilarious, filled with great acting, and is simply a joy to experience over and over again. It’s been 80 years since director Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night was released in theaters and it’s just as enchanting as it has ever been. While it wasn’t a commercial hit when it was first put on the silver screen, its quality was immediately recognized. It won all five Academy Awards that it was nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing – one of only three films to have ever one “The Big Five,” the other two being One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs – highly distinguished company.
There are so many wonderful pieces to this film, it cannot be said enough. It Happened One Night was recently given a sterling rerelease by The Criterion Collection, so there’s no better time than now to heap praises upon this wonderful film.
Two Nuts on the Road
One of the best aspects of It Happened One Night is the simple setup that gets going right away and works like a dream throughout its entire runtime. Spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has married “King” Westley against her father’s wishes and runs away to try and be with him. Peter Warne is a newly fired newspaper reporter on the road. The two meet on a bus to New York and Peter decides to help Ellie get to her destination so long as she lets him right a story on her trip, which will get him back into the success and money he needs.
Peter is crass and one of the common folk. Ellie is stubborn and rich. Of course, the wild journey they go through makes them grow close and fall in love. But it’s a bumpy road, filled with run-ins with all sorts of colorful characters as these two scrape together their money and their wits to get where they need to go.
While these two could not be more different, they find much in common and realize what kindred souls they really are. They adapt to one another, but they don’t necessarily change everything that they are for one another.
It Happened One Night may be closing in on a century old, but its comedy and romance are just as sharp and relatable today as they were in 1934. That’s thanks in equal part to the whipsmart performances of Gable and Colbert as well as Robert Riskin’s razor-sharp writing. The two stars fire off at one another in natural but thrilling fashion while getting into all kinds of trouble on the road.
They bicker, hitchhike, and steal when the money runs low, but they somehow draw closer to one another. Scenes like the classic leg-showing by the side of the road and Peter’s gangster-like riffing to an annoying passenger are wonderful on their own, but it’s the chemistry between the two leads that tie the whole film together perfectly.
The Birth of Screwball Comedy
The 1930s was the decade when the screwball comedy film genre was born, with most of these films defined by the relationship between a male and female lead who challenge one another. In addition, a quick repartee and a plot centering on romance take center stage, with social classes often coming into play.
There would be other fantastic entries in the genre that would push the laughs per minute and take the genre to its heights, including Bringing Up Baby, Some Like It Hot, and His Girl Friday, each classics in their own right. But while those films took the genre’s conventions and perfected them, It Happened One Night was just the product of actors, directors, and writer all coming together in harmony.
Capra’s idealistic style and storytelling conventions would come to define the director, especially in later films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, but here they feel more natural. There’s less of a push to get a very specific message across and more of an enjoyment in watching the story of two unique people coming together in a one-of-a-kind journey. It Happened One Night is a well-oiled machine with every part working in sync, but it’s just rough enough around the edges to exude every ounce of charm possible without feeling like it’s overreaching.
Romance for the Ages
Laughs and funny situations aside, the core of It Happened One Night is a romance. It’s most certainly an unconventional one since Ellie and Peter grow close through their confrontations with one another. Ellie is supremely confident in what she is capable of doing while Peter can’t help but be frustrated with her actions. They fight over everything from how to dunk a donut to what a piggyback ride actually is. It may be antagonistic, but there is still something charming and warm about it all. The way they argue shows that there is something that naturally clicks between them.
They both have something to teach one another, with both leads being taken down a peg by the other at one time or another. But when they see eye to eye, they truly grow close. At times, Peter and Ellie are forced to pretend to be husband and wife in order to get a room to sleep in, reflecting the morals of the time. And while they may balk at the concept of being betrothed to one another, they end up having fun doing it. Most notably, their riotous fake argument shows their chemistry as they pretend to be in a huge fight over a night of dancing in order to dupe the group of men looking to bring Ellie back to her father. In exaggerating what they think of marriage, they fall comfortably into the role.
By the halfway point, the two have become quite the duo and eventually Ellie confesses her love to Peter, falling for the heart buried underneath all the bravado and charm. While Peter rebuffs her advances, it’s clear he loves her too when he risks everything and puts aside his pride aside to try and get her marriage annulled and marry her. Of course, it all goes wrong and misconceptions on both their parts separate them. With Ellie’s wedding approaching, the audience is absolutely desperate for them to realize their mistakes and reconcile. While only a happy ending would be appropriate for It Happened One Night, seeing the film’s pitch-perfect resolution is still joyous, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
Making Movie History
It’s easy to see It Happened One Night’s influential place in film history. There have been remakes, homages, and parodies galore in the 80 years since the film premiered, but the dialogue, characters, and feel of Capra’s movie have most resoundingly echoed through the many comedies that seek to make its elements its own. Most surprising, the character of Bugs Bunny has roots in the film, with multiple elements of the classic Looney Tunes rabbit being found throughout the movie. Capra’s simple but elegant cinematography make wonderful use of the black and white style, with nighttime scenes, headlights, and shimmering water all looking fantastic, adding a certain fairytale quality to the story.
What may be most interesting is that the film seemed like an afterthought to the actors involved. Neither was the first choice to star and Colbert in particular was displeased with the events of filmmaking. It’s a well-circulated story that she told her friends she had just made “the worst picture in the world” after filming had wrapped and had to be pulled off a train on the day of the Academy Awards to accept her Oscar, which she never guessed she would win. Afterward, accolades and success made all involved reconsider their thoughts on the film.
Like many defining films of the Classic Hollywood era, such as Casablanca, It Happened One Night was not the product of extreme hype and mega budgets. It was just another film made by true talent. That’s quality that doesn’t fade.