It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934) – As anyone who knows the ropes of a movie trivia pub night can tell you, there are only three movies that won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress at the Oscars. Of those three movies, the least substantial by far is It Happened One Night. Thankfully, that’s by design and not mistake. Frank Capra’s breakout hit created the romantic comedy formula, then went ahead and perfected it in the process. Is it dated? Well of course. It’s from the 1930s, so someone is going to mention doling out “a sock in the mouth” at the very least. However, there’s something about the charm, wit, speed, ease, and romance that Frank Capra nailed in the film oh so many moons ago that has never been equaled. The film might feel effortless, but as anyone who has squirmed their way through a crappy rom-com over the last 80 years can tell you, getting this balance right is damn hard. I suppose that’s why Criterion decided to make a rare romantic comedy exception and slide it into their catalogue. One giddy rewatch should instantly settle any skeptic’s mind as to why.
The set up is simple: Claudette Colbert plays a defiant socialite who runs away from her controller father to marry a famous aviator (yep, such a thing existed in the 30s). Clark Gable plays a charming wiseacre of a newspaper man who spots her on a cross-country bus and realizes that he’s stumbled onto one heck of a story. Together the pair form one of those odd couples that proves to be oh so right over a road trip. They bond through bickering, particularly when putting on a show to trick any skeptic around them. Hanging bed sheets are used to separate them at night, but this pre-Hays code production makes it clear that hanky-panky shall eventually be afoot. It’s the old tale of the rogue and the dame taming each other; the type of flick that would likely star Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl now in a work of pure pandering. Thankfully, this movie came from genuine talents who meant it, and as a result it easily holds up despite the decades of depressing rip-offs that followed.
The movie obviously hinges on Colbert and Gable who are one of the great on screen pairs. The deftly barb each other and tease out sexual tension without ever tipping too far. It’s a dance between the duo, executed without a moment of scene thievery. The script by Robert Riskin whisks along, loaded with the brand of rat-a-tat early sound era dialogue that the likes of the Coen Bros have been emulating ever since. Yet, the success primarily comes down to Frank Capra. He executes it all with a delicate touch, but not an invisible one. The film is paced like a rocket with plenty of visual flourishes, just always with the performances held front and center. Capra’s in complete control of every frame and fills the screen with his gentle humanism as well as the dark bite that he rarely gets credit for. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the story with the same skill and grace, which clearly played a vital role in the film enduring for all these years. If even half of the rom-coms we’re forced to choke down these days offered the breezy fun and joy of It Happened One Night, you wouldn’t hear the same level of furious complaints about the mangled genre.
As usual, Criterion has worked their magic on the film’s transfer. No other company comes close to the restoration that Criterion can offer to classic Hollywood black and white films, and this transfer is absolutely beautiful, offering depth and clarity that never seemed possible for this particular picture. It’s an extraordinary transfer, one of the company’s best and no film deserves it more. The special feature section is also stacked beyond what you might expect. First up comes a full hour long AFI Life Achievement award tribute to Capra hosted by Jimmy Stewart that is any film geek’s dream. Carried over from an old DVD comes a short interview from Frank Capra Jr. about the film that’s very sweet and new to this edition is a forty minute discussion between film critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate debating whether or not It Happened One Night is a screwball comedy that is far more involving and entertaining than it sounds. From the archives comes Frank Capra’s first 12-minute silent short Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House that is a fascinating slice of history far darker than you’d expect from the director with a softy reputation. Finally and best of all comes a feature length documentary about Capra from 1997 featuring insights from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Oliver Stone (most appropriately, it’s narrated by Ron Howard). It’s a wonderful documentary that covers anything you could possibly want to know about the beloved director and rounds out an overflowing special feature section that’s more of a celebration of the great Frank Capra than the film itself.
Given that It Happened One Night is likely the finest achievement in Capra’s long career that’s entirely appropriate and thank god the film fell into Criterion’s hands. No one else could have served the film better on Blu-Ray and film obsessives everywhere need to cheer on what they achieved…yet again. A must own for anyone with a sweet tooth for old timey entertainment or even just straight up entertainment for that matter. (Phil Brown)