Criterion Review: It Happened One Night

Up there with It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is one of the preeminent director’s most beloved and finest works. It’s also anomalous – the film is romantic of course, but there’s little of the director’s famous sentimentality and certainly none of the soapbox speechifying that typifies so many of his other films. Instead, It Happened One Night is a snappy, warm and consistently funny romantic screwball comedy that still feels as fresh as it did in 1934.

Practically inventing the modern romantic comedy formula, and influencing such modern classics as When Harry Met Sally, Capra’s film tells the story of cocksure journalist Peter (Clark Gable), and spoiled high-society brat Ellie (Claudette Colbert). When Ellie runs away from her father to marry her fiancé, she encounters a down-on-his-luck Peter in search of a killer story. Quickly figuring out an angle to both their predicaments, Peter agrees to help Ellie cross the country to marry her fiancé, all the while scheming for the society gossip story of his career; it probably comes as no surprise that things don’t quite work out that way, with Peter and Ellie’s tempestuous early scenes soon giving way to deeper passions.

It’s a rom-com structure that modern audiences will be highly familiar with – the leads meet, hate each other’s guts, gradually to grow to like each other, and following some second-act complications, have fallen into each other’s arms. Like all great romantic-comedies, the formula is in service to the sparking screenplay, which with a very unhurried pace, allows space for the unparalleled chemistry between Colbert and Gable. And it’s in that chemistry where It Happened One Night really shines. From their first meeting on the bus, Capra truly makes us root for Peter and Ellie: we know they’re going to end up together, but it’s the getting there that is so fun. In fact, every scene zings with such wit it’s difficult to choose favourites, though Peter’s impersonation of a mobster comes pretty close, and never has the repetition of the phrase, “Oh yeah?”‘ yielded such comedic gold.

The combination of Capra’s playful sensibility, inimitable 1930s line delivery, and a screwball wit really come together here to capture lightning in a bottle. A final act that drags on for a little too long, and a few collar-tugging moments of distasteful, dated gender politics aside, It Happened One Night is as lively, witty and romantic as ever. Buoyed up by dual performances from two of the era’s greats, Capra’s film maintains its status as a classic: at once a rollicking road movie, a genuinely affecting romance, and a screwball comedy that hums with energy, they sure don’t make them like this anymore.

It Happened One Night is released on blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection in the UK.

Christopher Machell | @MagnificenTramp