Nearly eight decades after winning a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is still an engaging feature due mostly to the spellbinding magic of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable.
Frequently described as a “screwball comedy classic,” the yuks are few and far between, which says more about how the world has lost its innocence than any real failing of Robert Riskin’s screenplay based on the original short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams to tickle 21st century funny bones.
Still, it’s great fun to watch Gable demonstrate his prowess at hitchhiking and the fine art of eating raw carrots. Colbert’s opening scene with her controlling, filthy rich dad (Walter Connolly) is a marvel of tone and timing; her reaction to Gable’s lesson on how men undress is slightly marred by a late edit that should have found its way to the cutting room floor.
Actors of any age or era would be much better at their craft for studying the verbal banter between the unlikely, reluctant lovers and carefully reviewing their body language from first fight to final—off screen no less, more about Capra below—trumpet call as the Walls of Jericho finally collapse into marital bliss.
Artfully binding everything together is the famed director’s grand vision (literally when he fills the screen with Colbert’s intriguing, enticing visage to silently end a scene but most assuredly speaks volumes nonetheless). Attention to detail yields many unforgettable moments. Having flown her overly controlling father’s lavish coop (a yacht in Miami) and hooked up with the handsome reporter-in-search-of-her-story, the squabbling pair try all means of transportation to get to the apparent safety of New York City. Hot on their heels is Daddy and his army of private dicks who attempt to outpace their prey by chartering a private plane. Cinematically establishing their airborne pursuit, Capra then cuts to the travellers where just in the background the drone of a flying machine can be heard. Again wordlessly, the segment is perfectly glued together. A collage of newspaper headlines also keeps the pace moving steadily forward.
After a looser than wanted orchestra lifts off the musical underscoring of the production, Capra deftly employs a quartet of minstrels to add balance to the otherwise dull bus ride. From barbershop harmonies to three stanzas of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” (where knowing looks from Shapely—Roscoe Karns—the instant bounty hunter are added into the mix), the film’s scope expands even as the plot thickens in time. A sprinkling of chirping birds and singing crickets adds just the right amount of verisimilitude to the outdoor action.
Even though it took more than one night to happen, here’s a film that stands apart from many, many others thanks to great acting and an inventive filmmaker that could probably have created interest in a production based on the Yellow Pages. JWR