Saturday, February 16, 2008

It Happened One Night. Release date February 22nd, 1934. (*********9/10)

As I am now speeding through the Frank Capra movie collection, I just watched It Happened One Night. Another classic, and another wonderful film. But since I watched it, I have been wracking my brain to figure out why I enjoyed it so much. And why it didn't bother me. Had this film been made today, it would have starred Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, and it would have made me very angry. And it isn't just that Clark Gable keeps his shirt on and Claudette Colbert is a better actress than Kate Hudson that makes the difference. Sure, Gable and Colbert are hundreds of times better than most modern actors, but there is little sense of realism in this old movie. It's not like the dialogue is any more realistic than it is today, in fact it is less so. And by all rights, I should hate it, because it was an example of the beginning of the genre that plagues me most today - romantic comedies where the leads hate each other to start with, then end up falling in love and getting together at the end of the film. I hate that garbage!

But then, that's kind of like hating Minor Threat just because they helped create emo. I just can't do it. In fact, I loved this movie. I loved the dialogue. It isn't realism this movie aims for, it's entertainment, intelligent entertainment. The dialogue is whip-cracking fast, smart, and incredibly engaging. Clark Gable is effortlessly charming and clever, Colbert is innocently sweet and naive, with more to her under the surface. She plays a rich-kid girl who is running away from her father to marry the guy she believes she loves. Of course, she doesn't really love him, because otherwise the movie would not make sense, and she would not end up riding a train with Clark Gable. He is a reporter who has been fired for drinking on the job, and he sees Colbert as his golden opportunity. A rich girl whose father is scouring the country for her, whose name and picture are in all the papers, and who has a $50,000.00 reward for her discovery. Now Gable has the story of a lifetime, and he means to see it through to the end. That means keeping Colbert hidden until she reaches her husband-to-be, and helping her through by stealing food and lodgings, bribing people, threatening those who mean to expose her and otherwise breaking the laws at every turn.

This romantic comedy is as "light" a comedy as it gets. It's non-stop, whether it's action as they run from one place to the next, or dialogue, as when Gable lights into Colbert as a stuck-up rich snobby brat, or humour. One of the funniest recurring bits in the film is the telegrams Gable keeps sending his old newspaper editor, the one who fired him. He keeps telling him that he has the runaway rich girl, that he's onto the story of the century, and that this editor can't have it. And he sends these telegrams collect. This film is so quick, so funny, so well-paced and so well acted that it really stands the test of time, despite the romantic comedies that followed it with so much less success.

At the time of the filming, Claudette Colbert really didn't want to do the project, and when filming wrapped, she was quoted as saying it was going to be the worst movie of her career, and one of her worst performances ever. However, somehow, despite her, Capra was able to get the most out of her that he could. In fact, I would suspect the credit would have to go more to Clark Gable in this instance, since it seems he is drawing the very best out of Colbert in every scene simply by virtue of his magnetism and exuberance for the role. The movie succeeded despite her, and she excels despite herself. In the end, It Happened One Night became the first movie ever to sweep the five major Oscar categories - Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Deservedly so in all categories. The only other movies worth while in that year were The Thin Man (still a wonderful classic comedy/mystery) and Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra, also starring Claudette Colbert in the title role (no longer really remembered). But only one of those films endures to this day, and that is It Happened One Night. Seventy-four years later, it is still magnificent.

P.S. Most film critics and historians will mention It Happened One Night in conjuction with two other, seemingly undrelated movies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence Of The Lambs. That is because to this day, they are the only three movies ever to win all five of the major Oscar awards. And in each case, those were the only five awards they picked up. Oh, and in the interests of accuracy, so I don't get any angry emails, Clark Gable does in fact, at one point in the film, take off his shirt to reveal his bare torso, a very rare thing in movies at the time. All of which did indeed pave the way for Matthew McConaughey. But I still love this movie.

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