Sunday, October 17, 2010
It Happened One Night
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 46
Writer: Robert Riskin
Director: Frank Capra
Star: Clark Cable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly
For all of his gifts, Frank Capra never could begin or end a movie properly. The beginnings were often melodramatic and always implausible. And the endings? There is often a reel of build-up for a pay-off that lasts only seconds or takes place completely off camera. In “Platinum Blonde” Robert Williams actually divorced leading lady Jean Harlow. In “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” Jimmy Stewart doesn’t even get to embrace his success because he’s too busy fainting like a girly man. And here, in “It Happened One Night,” we don’t even get a kiss between Clark Gable or Claudette Colbert before the fade out!
With the beginning and ending a wash, we can all thank our lucky stars that Capra could pull off a middle better than anyone in the business.
Firstly, let’s make one thing clear. “It Happened One Night” is a great title, but it would be even better if it represented the movie it denotes. The story does not, in fact, happen on one night, but over a series of nights (and days). Try not to shudder as I recite the premise. Rich daddy’s girl Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert, never more beautiful) has married some random guy while her father (Walter Connolly) wasn’t looking and now he wants her to annul. Instead of talking it over like a sane person, Ellie dives off daddy’s yacht, swims to safety and buys a bus ticket to NYC to be reunited with her husband. A beautiful set of clothes, money and luggage seem to materialize between the shore and the bus station. Her Father creates a nationwide manhunt to find her. Down on his luck but savvy (which in 1934 meant drunk) reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) spots her and decides to escort her into the city…if he can get the exclusive interview, of course.
I know, I know! Horrible, right?
And yet once Colbert and Gable are on that bus, the tepid plot machinations seem to disappear and the movie becomes some kind of great. It’s not just because of the chemistry between the leads, though that is palpable. The script becomes witty, the dialogue improves significantly and…well…it’s just plain fun.
There’s something so inherently wonderful about watching Peter carry Ellie through a moonlit stream and then pausing long enough to spank her. Or seeing Ellie flag down a car by showing a little leg. Or watching their hilarious striptease stand-off in a rented cabin. All of a sudden, these characters stop being characters and become fully realized “people,” cliché as that sounds.
There’s a moment about halfway through the movie where everyone in the bus joins together to sing a rollicking song together, and in any other film this type of thing would be poison. But here it works, and for the life of me I cannot comprehend why. I’m sure it’s partially because Gable and Colbert invest themselves in playing along, but there’s something more to it. The scene has that “something” to it—the elusive greatness that cannot be properly put into words, and that magic permeates all of the second act of the movie.
Perhaps part of it is because this film is one of the few romantic comedies that doesn’t rely upon deception and allows its characters to confront their feelings with honesty and forthrightness. Ever since Rock Hudson was such a deceitful asshole to Doris Day all through “Pillow Talk,” the genre has been hobbled time and again by the Idiot Plot, in which characters deceive one another for no apparent reason and everything could be solved if any character said a single sentence. In “It Happened One Night,” Peter is upfront to Ellie about his intentions to get her to NYC and then interview her. When Ellie realizes she has feelings for Peter, she vocalizes them very quickly. The scene is amazingly sexy and romantic, with Peter fantasizing about a paradise he wants to go to one day and Ellie throwing herself on him (literally), telling him she loves him and begging to let him take her with him. It’s at once brutal, heartwarming and one of the most fully realized romantic moments in all of film.
I cannot underline enough just how much Gable and Colbert add to the movie. In fact, I would go far enough to say that the movie would have been atrocious with any other actors in the leads, no matter how talented. Their work here defines what romantic chemistry is on film, and this is quite a feat since they never actually lock lips. They make the movie what it is.
Visually, the movie is passable. There’s that one beautiful unbroken shot of Gable carrying Colbert across the stream, but aside from that Capra supplies the viewer with workmanlike shots without much creativity or passion. Perhaps this was because he didn’t want to get in his actors’ way, but I wanted more.
And then there’s the ending. Perhaps writer Robert Riskin was attempting to slip the finger to the censors by creating the whole “Walls of Jericho” metaphor for having sex. In fact, I’m pretty sure of it. But I would have traded all of his smart-ass attitude about the finale for a single shot of Peter and Ellie reuniting and kissing. We last see Ellie running off from her marriage but never see the conversation leading up to her marriage with Peter. What a missed opportunity.
And yet “It Happened One Night” still (shockingly) works. It’s probably the only film in history where a single great act can make up for two horrible acts. Ah well, that’s why Scene Selection was created on DVDs.
My Score (out of 5): ***1/2