It Happened One Night: Our First Look at Capra

When it comes to the 20th Century in America, there are very few events that were as cataclysmic to future government policy as the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. The crash plunged America, and the rest of the world for that matter, into a massive economic black hole that took years to recover from. Money was tight and jobs were scarce.

Yet, in the midst of all of that, Hollywood continued to make movies and continued to hand out Academy Awards. The Great Depression defined the 1930s, and Frank Capra’s 1934 romantic comedy It Happened One Night is the first of several films from that decade that I examine in the course of this blog. What the films will tell me, I’m not sure. I hope to find that the movies convey a sense of hope and happiness to theaters full of folks who are desperate and to a county that’s at the edge of ruin.

The 7th Best Picture, It Happened One Night is exactly one of those movies. It pits wealth and struggle against one another and jovially glosses over the dire straights of the day and serves as an escape for its audience. At the same time, though, it remains grounded and, while it features comedic script, subtly brings in everyday struggles into the world of the film.

This was certainly not the best film I’ve seen, but it wasn’t the worst. The score may not be that great, but I’ll always remember this movie because of how it made me feel. This film was a wonderful little escape for me and I smiled the whole time I watched it. Which was the goal.

Now, for the review:

Plot

It Happened One Night features two people from two very different walks of life: the rich heiress Ellie (Claudette Colbert) and the recently unemployed newspaper reporter Peter (Clark Gable). Ellie runs away from her overbearing father to be with her husband King (yes, that’s his real name). She takes the bus to New York and runs into Peter, who was fired from his job in the same bus station. The pair ride to New York and Peter starts compiling his story of a lifetime, escorting a young, famous missing heiress to New York.

The plot for It Happened One Night is utterly predictable. It was the first romantic comedy to win Best Picture. But, the predictable plot doesn’t matter in this movie. In this case, it’s all about the journey, and not the destination. It just so happens that the journey throughout this movie is an actual journey on a bus. 1.

Writing/Dialogue

I’ve always believed that during the course of this blog that it’s not my job to judge a movie by today’s standards of political correctness. Instead, I try to put myself in that movie’s time. This is again the case in It Happened One Night. The script is very misogynistic and would never fly without a lot of outrage today. But, that’s the way that movies were written. The script includes lines like, “You know, there’s nothing I like better than to meet a high-class mama that can snap ’em back at ya. ‘Cause the colder they are, the hotter they get. That’s what I always say. Yes, sir, when a cold mama gets hot, boy, how she sizzles.”

But that’s not to say it’s all bad either. The screenplay, which won Best Adapted Screenplay, is full of snappy one-liners and hilarious quips. This is from an exchange between Peter and Ellie:

Ellie (to Peter): “Your ego is absolutely colossal.”

Peter: “Yeah, yeah, not bad, how’s yours?”

The little quips like this litter the story and I loved it. Or, my dark, sarcastic inner child loves it. 1.

Sound

One of the more interesting thoughts I had when I was watching this movie related to the sound. This movie is only a few years removed from the introduction of “talkies” and another movie that I’ve already watched: The Broadway Melody. The sound in The Broadway Melody surprised me because I didn’t expect there to be much sound. But there was a ton of it. It Happened One Night differed in the fact that it had A LOT more sound. Plus, the quality of the sound was better.

The Broadway Melody had long stretches where there was no sound at all, usually during reaction shots. It Happened One Night had none of that. It resembled a modern movie in this area. It had constant ambient noise from birds chirping to crowd noise at the bus station.

On the music side, and other than a brief musical number, this movie didn’t have any music to speak of. It’s an interesting contrast between Titanic, which had an amazing score, and this one, which only had a short musical number on the bus. Still, the lack of music works. The movie didn’t feel empty without, and for that I have to give it some credit. 1.

Set Design

When it comes to the set for It Happened One Night, I’m conflicted as to how I feel about it. Most of the movie was shot on a sound stage in some back lot in Hollywood. Yet, it’s supposed to take place along the Eastern seaboard. The sets though, are very good, from the bus to the various hotel rooms Ellie and Peter find themselves in.

Again, I compare this movie’s differences to The Broadway Melody. Yes, both of these movies were shot almost entirely on a sound stage, but It Happened One Night’s set seems bigger and bolder. It’s more complicated, too. I have thought for days about what separates the two and I finally came up with and answer: the scenes that don’t take place on a soundstage. There are several shots from outside the studio that made it into the film. And it tricks you into thinking that it’s bigger than it actually is. Chalk one up for movie magic. 1.

Cinematography

Joseph Walker was the cinematographer for It Happened One Night and his efforts, while not recognized by the Academy, were not in vain. It Happened One Night is a very pretty movie, however, it does nothing outstanding in its approach to cinematography.

Capra, in bucking tradition, preferred to put the camera on a movable crane, rather than a stationary tripod. This allowed him to do many tracking shots and add motion to the movie. There aren’t a lot of these shots, like from last week’s Titanic, but when we do have one, it’s effective and pulls you along in the story.

Another interesting note of the cinematography here was the editing. It Happened One Night edited in short, quick bursts. Namely, there were a lot of cuts. This was very different from other movies I’ve watched along the way, like Annie Hall and The Broadway Melody which had very long cuts. This effect added a quick pace to an upbeat film. 1.

Acting

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert starred in It Happened One Night and they’re professionalism sparkled during this movie. It was amazing to me to hear that both actors, particularly Colbert, hated this movie and hated working on it. Colbert wasn’t even at the Oscars when she won Best Actress. Nonetheless, both of their performances live on.

This movie is responsible for Gable’s only Best Actor win out of three nominations. He was magnetic in It Happened One Night, full of life and humor and love. He was the obvious choice for Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (which comes up in a couple of months) and he was a great choice here, too. He pulls off the tireless wit of Peter with ease and shows his easy-going and tender side with perfection. He can be a bit crabby but that’s okay, that’s Clark Gable.

Claudette Colbert only took this role because Capra promised to double her salary. And yet, she does it very well, too. She’s lovesick and spoiled and thinks only of the short-terms solutions to a long-term problem. Her character arc bends the most. She goes from a spoiled brat who is very loose with money to having her priorities straight.

It’s interesting to note that while Gable and Colbert both won Best Actor/Actress, It Happened One Night was the first film to win Best Actor/Actress and was the last one to do so until 1975. Even though both principle actors were dissatisfied with this movie, they’re performances were great. 1.

Directing

If Gable and Colbert didn’t care for the movie, Frank Capra, the director, felt that he directed the worst movie ever made at the time. However, It Happened One Night earned him the Best Director Oscar and it’s one of three movies to ever win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Writing.

It Happened One Night is the first of two Best Picture winners for Frank Capra. Needless to say, This movie helped Capra rise from the ashes and become one of Hollywood’s most influential directors in the 1930s. The Best Director win in 1934 was his first of three wins throughout the 1930s in that category. His scripting, blocking and direction helped bring his employer, Columbia, back from the brink. His willingness to instruct his lead actors who were dissatisfied with the film to produce one that’s in an elite company of Best Picture winners is nothing short of astounding. 1.

Bonus Points

None.

Final Score: 7/10

Oscar Facts

It Happened One Night won the 7th Academy Award for Best Picture at a ceremony in Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on February 27, 1935. In total, it was nominated five times and won five awards, one of four movies to sweep its awards. It beat out The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, The Gay Divorcee, Here Comes the Navy, The House of Rothschild, Imitation of Life, One Night of Love, The Thin Man, Viva Villa!, and The White Parade for Best Picture. This ceremony was the first time that the Academy honored films from the previous calendar year at one ceremony, a practice still utilized today. Shirley Temple won the Juvenile Award that year and, at the age of six, is the youngest person to ever win an Oscar.

Next Week

Next week I’ll take a look at Frank Capra’s second Best Picture Winner, You Can’t Take It With You And then it’s The Deer Hunter, No Country for Old Men, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Dances With Wolves and then My Fair Lady, my first movie from the 1960s.

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