Review: It Happened One Night (1934)

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Most of my relationships are love/hate, although I’m always the one being hated and there’s never a happy ending. I think I need to do something about my relationships!

Screenplay By: Robert Riskin
Directed By: Frank Capra

Frank Capra was never the most technical of directors, he didn’t have a knack for setting up exciting shots or utilizing new ideas with the camera. But, Capra was a master of getting the most out of a simple, linear style of direction. Capra played things straight even when they felt like they should have been played for a laugh and because of his adherence to keeping things straight forward he would get that laugh, his way. There’s no need to have any sort of big set-up when Peter and Ellie are trying to flag down a car on the side of the road. Capra put the two of them on the side of the road and had them bicker and banter back and forth until Ellie raised her skirt and a car screeched to a halt. We in turn laughed at what was going on and also understood the layering that Capra was imposing upon the story through his simple direction. It isn’t always about the complicated set-up or the fancy shot, it’s about getting the characters from point A to point B and making sure the audience is along for the ride. Frank Capra understood that better than any other director I can think of and that’s why he stands among the greatest directors to ever live even if he hated moving the camera, and why It Happened One Night is such a fine picture.

It Happened One Night isn’t the funniest of movies, but it is funny. It isn’t the most romantic of movies, but it is romantic. It isn’t the most heavy of message movies, but it still contains a message. It Happened One Night is one of those rare movies that sets out to be nothing and ends up being a host of different movie ideals as a result. Clark Gable doesn’t want to be funny as Peter Warne, but because of the slickness of his character and the feelings of hate and love that he harbors for Claudette Colbert’s Ellie he ends up getting some of the biggest laughs. What ends up helping It Happened One Night to succeed as a comedy is that it doesn’t strive to be a comedy. Capra places his characters in everyday situations and lets them do their thing and we laugh at the results. It Happened One Night isn’t forced, the story flows naturally and the characters seem real to us and that means we laugh at the jokes, find the romance heartfelt and follow along with the message about love and not shortchanging people. The same is true of the romance and the message in It Happened One Night, they flow naturally from the story and even in the moments when it doesn’t seem romantic there is romance in the air or when the message appears to have been forsaken it pops back up again. It takes someone capable of masterful storytelling to so deftly weave all his story elements together as neatly as Capra has done in It Happened One Night.

It Happened One Night isn’t a perfect movie, like a lot of comedies it does have some jokes that fall flat. However the good jokes outweigh the bad jokes by quite a bit and the romantic story of a hate/hate relationship turning into love/hate finally blossoming into love/love may be nothing new to storytelling but it feels natural and welcoming in It Happened One Night. Frank Capra developed a reputation for instilling his movies with lighthearted messages about the goodness of man, his style was even dubbed Capra-corn because of how popcorn light it was. What some people miss when it comes to Capra and a movie like It Happened One Night is that the message doesn’t need to be heavy or substantial. There is nothing wrong with an overall message of people being good or of expectations being shattered when people don’t end up being what you have stereotyped them as. Not every movie needs to be full of dread and grim images of the sometimes vile nature of humanity, every once in a while a lighthearted look at how good humanity can be is also welcome.

It Happened One Night is considered an all time classic, and while I don’t think it is as great as the Howard Hawks screwball comedy Twentieth Century that came out in the same year, interestingly enough starring Gable’s future wife Carole Lombard, I know I am in the minority view when it comes to that view. But, that doesn’t mean It Happened One Night isn’t a movie worth seeing. It definitely is, it is a funny romp for two hours. You won’t regret for two seconds having picked up It Happened One Night, so go ahead and eat some of that Capra-corn.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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