Like “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “It Happened One Night” seems to be far from his bolder social statements. Yes, there is some criticism of the upper classes, but nothing that is too distracting. Instead the focus is really in the war of the sexes love story between a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) and a fast talking and recently unemployed reported (Clark Gable) while travelling from Miami to New York.
While this indeed one of the great romantic comedies ever made, after watching it I was able to put it in context in a way I hadn’t before. For the past few years I became more and more familiar with silent and Pre-code films, as this blog attests. So while before my film knowledge really started at around 1934, now it goes much further back. And this allowed me to see the film in an altogether different light.
Suddenly I fully understand why this is a cornerstone film. Perhaps its key achievement is how subtly different in construction is from its contemporary comedies. Unlike many other comedies from the early 1930s, for instance, the WB comedies with the likes of Joan Blondell or James Cagney or Lubitsch’s films at Paramount, this is a milder affair – both sexually and verbally. Yes, there are clear innuendos and dialogue flies, but comparing that with Howard Hawks’ “Twentieth Century” (along which is credited as the first important screwball comedy) it’s tame. But this apparent loss is actually to the film’s gain. The story is told in less fragmented manner, more coherently. This approach allowed the characters to develop, instead of being one or two dimensional creatures and would be the template on how Hollywood treated comedy until the end of WWII. And yes, for the following few years, spoiled heiresses would keep falling in love with wisecracks and witty dialogue would attempt to reveal the sexual tension that could not be properly shown, thus creating what is known as “screwball comedy”.
In case you haven’t seen the film, I think I should mention that Colbert and Gable are excellent, both giving career high performances and both, like Capra, collecting Oscars – making this the first of only three films to win the five main awards: film, director, actor, actress and screenplay. Gable’s performance is probably the most relaxed I have ever seen him on screen. Oh yes, and that end scene that brought the house down with laughter...