"It Happened One Night" Throwback Review
It’s been over eighty years since It Happened One Night debuted on screens and still, it remains the quintessential romantic comedy to watch. While being the influence of countless films since, It Happened One Night is triumphant and timeless because of its great cast, director, and script.
At the start of the film, we see the beautiful Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) in Florida aboard her wealthy father’s luxury boat. Ellen is planning to marry King Westley, but her father disapproves of him and forces her to stay on the boat until he can find someone more suitable to his liking. This leads her to run away and seek out Westly herself while her father puts out a highly publicized bounty for her return. She boards a bus to New York and crosses paths with the charismatic Peter Warne (Clark Gable). He’s a gifted newspaper reporter who also has a drinking problem that constantly gets him in trouble. Once Warne figures out who Ellen really is, he proposes a plan to her. He will escort her to New York for the rights to her story, which has become a national headline. While the seemingly mismatched pair goes on an adventure they eventually warm up and become close.
The plot flies at a free-flowing pace that allows for wickedly good one-liners. The script is fantastic and allows for great comedic timing and also a sense of drama. There is a bit of suspense as the will-they won't-they couple explore their feelings for each other. While watching the film you get the sense that they will end up together, but it's never fully guaranteed and leaves room for you to doubt. We meet several supporting characters that mostly never overstay their welcomes, such as the bumbling Shapeley and boisterous Danker. They are great in the small amount of time they get and don’t distract from the main narrative. One minor problem with the story is that the geography is very confusing. The audience is left out of the loop when it comes to knowing where exactly the leads are. This makes it hard to track the importance of each setting.
This is the prime example and maybe founding of the screwball comedy. Screwball comedies tell the story of two leads (often an unmarried man and woman) that come from different social classes and how they interact with each other based on their previous lifestyles. If you like films such as Heaven Can Wait and Raising Arizona, you should thank this film for popularizing the genre.
Frank Capra won the Academy Award for Best Director for this film and he totally deserved it. He balances his cast well and allows them to have total freedom within the cramped space of the frame. He pushes the camera for claustrophobic scenes that force the actors to work together to make the physical comedy work.
The acting is the definite draw and best part of the film. Both Gable and Colbert took home academy awards for their performances. Gable will go down as one of the best romantic leads ever. He’s handsome, quick on his feet, and witty. He also delivers the perfect one-liners with confidence and swagger to make women want him and men to want to be him.
Colbert does an excellent job as the uptight and bratty female that so many leading ladies are still trying to replicate almost eighty years later. She perfectly embodies a rich girl that is out of her element while in the real world. She bounces off Gable’s laid back working man character with ease and her one-liners are just as good or even better than his.
Walter Connolly also does a good job as Ellie’s wealthy father, Alexander Andrews. He plays the overprotective but also understanding father. At first, he wants Ellen to marry someone rich and famous in order to boost his social status, but after seeing her unhappiness he changes and sees the errors of his ways. He’s one of those fathers that every girl wants and every man should strive to be.
It Happened One Night is the biggest influence on the romantic comedy genre. Having the great pair of Gable and Colbert, and Capra as the director lifts this film to the heavens of classic cinema. Even in 2018, the film is still fun and can be used to teach writers how to create good comedy.