Sunday, 13 April 2014

It Happened One Night (1934)

Country: USA
Director: Frank Capra
Based on: Night Bus, a short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Screenplay: Robert Riskin
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly
Length: 105 minutes

The spoiled daughter of an overbearing millionaire runs away and falls in love with a surly reporter on a wild road trip from Florida to New York.

This seminal romantic comedy won the “big five” Oscars in 1935 (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), a feat equalled by only two other films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). Gable and Colbert landed the lead roles only after heavyweights like Robert Montgomery, Margaret Sullavan, Carole Lombard, and Bette Davis were unable to commit. One of the last rom-coms screened before the MPAA started enforcing the infamous Hays Code (which would have censored out Claudette Colbert’s famous leg shot), It Happened One Night was initially a critical and box office blah. However, the film quickly picked up steam and became Columbia Pictures’ biggest success at the time, earning $2.5 million on a $325,000 budget.

There’s an old adage that says comedy doesn’t age well. For proof, look no further than It Happened One Night, the “original” romantic comedy in which women are either spoiled brats, unhinged lunatics, or jaded old maids - in short, children. Correspondingly, men exist to rescue, discipline, and think for women, when they’re not spanking them (or threatening to), that is.

Try as he may, writer Robert Riskin’s attempts to make Ellen intelligent, independent, and occasionally averse to Gable’s endless chauvinism drown in the relentless stereotypes of the era. Her actions constantly contradict her words. In a camping scene, Ellen tells Peter she doesn’t need him and that he can leave at any time before turning into a panicky mess when she can’t immediately locate him. And forgive my heresy, AFI, but the “classic” sexy-female-leg-stops-a-car scene made my eyes come this close to rolling out of my head. That and the fact that after only two days with the paternalistic Peter, she can’t imagine living without him.

So how did It Happened One Night end up on our and many other “most important” lists? Primarily because it wrote the blueprint for all future rom-coms. You’ve got your lovers starting as far apart as possible, zingy sparring and bantering, road-trip antics, compounding male chivalry, a few solid comedies-of-errors, near-end misunderstandings, and a final recognition that they were always meant to be together. There’s even a wedding stopped in the nick of time for our lovers to reunite. (Think The Graduate meets Runaway Bride.) Groundbreaking, genre-building stuff and a few good laughs.

Unfortunately, the sexism is so thick and pervasive, no matter how hard I tried to contextualize the film in historical terms, I simply couldn’t enjoy it. I’ll agree that It Happened One Night is an important film, but not only because it helped establish a genre: it was also the unintentional arch-promoter of a thousand gender stereotypes and an unfortunate rogue-rescues-female formula, both of which have plagued Hollywood and society ever since. 

Ugh! Here's the way it works: I'm never, ever, EVER going to like a movie where a "brat" (by 1930s definition, a woman) gets spanked, threatened, scolded and cajoled by her Knight in Shining Armour. Not now, not in any of my former lives, not if the AFI paid me a million dollars, not if the CIA tortured me slowly on a spit over molten hot lava. Eye-rolling, exasperating bulls**t. Did I stutter? (Drops mike and saunters off stage.)


  1. No point in adding this to the "Must Watch" pile, eh?

    1. LOL! Who knows, maybe you'll love it! But, I can tell you it won't be one I watch again :)