Friday, 12 March 2010

It Happened One Night

4. It Happend One Night (1934)
Dir: Frank Capra

There are certain films that are guaranteed to cheer you up no matter when you watch them or what mood you happen to have been in beforehand. For me, 'It Happened One Night' is the epitome of such a film. Director Frank Capra has always been a go-to-guy for feelgood, and such overtly sentimental movies as 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946) and 'You Can't Take It With You' (1938) have earned his work the tag "Capra-corn"! While this is undoubtedly sometimes justified, it is unfair to categorise all Capra's work by the cosiness of some of the more warm and fuzzy moments and his movies are far more than the one-note heartwarmers they are sometimes dismissed as. Case in point, 'It Happened One Night'.

While there are occasional elements of the sentimentality that all us Capra fans love, they are few and far between in 'It Happened One Night', taking a back seat to the fast-paced, unpredictable dialogue and the attention grabbing performances of the leads, Claudine Colbert and Clark Gable. The plot doesn't sound like much on paper: an heiress on the run from the overbearing father who opposes her recent marriage, makes the acquaintance of a hard-drinking newspaper man who agrees to help her travel across the country undetected to her new husband's arms in exchange for exclusive rights to her story. First they annoy each other but gradually a relationship develops and the two fall in love. Can their feelings for each other conquer all the obstacles that stand in their way? Sounds like any number of dreadful films you've sat through before, doesn't it?

'It Happened One Night', however, is far from dreary or unoriginal (remember it was made in 1934, when cinema was still in its infancy). It's packed with great, unusual dialogue, such as Gable and Colbert's argument about what makes a good piggyback, and hilarious bit-parts such as the incessantly jovial driver who gives Gable and Colbert a lift and insists on turning every conversation they have into an improvised song. This sort of quirky materiel crops up throughout the movie, wrongfooting anyone expecting the same predictable squabbling that characterises so many of these couple-thrown-together comedies. Also wrongfooted are those expecting Capra-brand sweetness and light. Although it may seem dated to modern audiences, 'It Happened One Night' is shot through with constant sexual themes which would have seemed quite risque to 1934 viewers. Of course, there's the famous hitchhiking scene in which Colbert memorably shows off her legs to a passing motorist but, more importantly, there's the "Walls of Jericho", a symbolic blanket which Gable hangs between his and Colbert's beds every night to give them privacy. The moment Gable names the blanket the Walls of Jericho, we know it is destined to crumble at some point and every sexually repressive hang-up this barrier represents will crumble with it. We're encouraged to desperately await not the couple falling in love but the act of consummation that will confirm this love.

There's also an edginess to many elements of the script, most notably in a still shocking scene in which Gable poses as a murderous kidnapper to scare off an unwanted pest who has caught on to the truth behind Colbert's identity. He begins by acting threateningly towards just the weaselly snooper himself but the dialogue becomes more brutal (and, consequently, more jaw-droppingly hilarious) when Gable begins to imply that some nasty accident might befall the man's young children, a suggestion that sends him fleeing wildly from the scene. It's a sequence that still has the power to amaze viewers after seven decades and Capra pulls it off with finesse. He deftly weaves such brutally funny set-pieces together with moments of real warmth and joy. The most conspicuous of this is a communal sing-a-long on a bus which turns into a full-on musical number, with passengers taking turns to perform a verse of 'The Man on the Flying Trapeze'. It's borderline Capra-corn but, as usual, Capra keeps it just the right side of endearing and follows it immediately with the aforementioned child-threatening sequence thereby maintaining a perfect balance between the movie's cutting, edgy wit and its warm, sincere lovability.

Despite being only a small movie financially, 'It Happened One Night' became an enormous hit by word-of-mouth. It is exactly the kind of film that becomes popular because people are so taken with it that they feel the need to see it again, and with friends. The film went on to win all five of the major Oscars at that year's ceremony (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay), the first film to do so and a record that was not equalled until 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' did the same in 1975. While in most critics eyes it has been displaced as Capra's masterpiece by the likes of 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1939), 'It Happened One Night' remains Capra's most constantly watchable, zestiest film and will likely continue to delight film-lovers and win converts for decades to come. It sets the bar by which romantic comedies should be judged and it's a sad thing to note that the majority of recent films in that genre have made no serious attempt to equal its wit and charm.

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