It Happened One Night (1934)
It Happened One Night is the original Romantic Comedy. Okay, so it’s probably not actually the original romantic comedy, but it is the romantic comedy which every one since has tried to emulate in terms of box office success, critical response and timelessness in general. The inimitable Clarke Gable plays a reporter who falls in love with a rather wealthy young lady played by Claudette Colbert. They argue, they whine, they fall in love. Films haven’t changed much at all.
It Happened One Night captures the essence of the escapist comedy. It’s a film made for laughs which is expertly played and beautifully shot. It’s the reason the romantic comedy still exists today! But can you imagine a movie like The Break Up winning Best Picture? I sure can’t. Better yet, can you imagine The Break-Up dominating the Academy awards, winning Jennifer Aniston Best Actress, Vince Vaughn Best Actor, and the film getting best script? The idea’s probably funnier than the movie! But It Happened One Night won all the top awards at the Academys, beacuse this film defined a genre. How did the selectors have the foresight to immortalise this?
Visually this film has a lot more open space than its immediate predecessors. Many scenes literally sparkle, a welcome change from the dreary environments of Cavalcade. There are ocean vistas and wide fields. Clarke Gable cruising down the country lane in an old Ford is an image I could never forget. And I have learned that Frank Capra, who would go on to direct It’s A Wonderful Life, invented some now standard camera techniques, such as the tracking shot, which make this film a technical delight.
It’s interesting that this is the first film since The Broadway Melody to be set in the year it was made. I remember my mother once asked why Musicals and Comedies were in the same category at the Golden Globes, and at the time I couldn’t answer as the two are distinctly different genres today. But undertaking this project and watching these films from the 30’s sheds a little more light on this. There seems to have been a convention for ‘light-hearted’ material (ie Musicals such as The Broadway Melody) to come from the contemporary world, and for human dramas to be set historically or internationally (Cavalcade, All Quiet On The Western Front). This doesn’t mean that the there is a lack of heart in the musical or comedy though. We are still able to learn about what it is to be human. In this case of It Happened One Night, I would suggest that the lesson is that we all need somebody else, no matter how independant we may think we are.
What makes It Happened One Night distinct from the modern RomCom is that it is able to convince you that this is a story worth hearing. It’s very witty and has some great laughs. A question though: why do all the girls from these early films look the same? Clara Bow, Bessie Love, Greta Garbo, Irene Dunn and now Claudette Colbert…pretty much mirror images of one another.