Or, The AFI List Project #46: It Happened One Night
It Happened One Night has earned a reputation, it seems, as either being a particularly fine example of the ‘30s screwball comedy or one of the best and longest-enduring entries in the rom-com genre. Neither of those, however, is a very accurate characterization: sure, it’s a comedy, and yes, the principals end up getting married at the end, but this is a road trip movie through and through, a Due Date for 1934, with Clark Gable replacing Robert Downey Jr. and Claudette Colbert representing a somewhat prettier and more socially competent (though equally out of her element) Zach Galifinakis.
The plot: Colbert plays young society heiress Ellen Andrews, who, after eloping with an aviator (I guess pilots were the rocks stars of the early part of the last century) is essentially kidnapped by her father and made to stay on his yacht; she escapes with the intent of making her way up from Florida to her husband in New York. Gable, meanwhile, plays Peter Warne a down-on-his-luck reporter who chances on Andrews and thinks he’s finally found his big scoop, since her escape has become big news and he father has been pulling out all the stops to try and find her. Warne commits himself to helping her get to New York, after which he’ll publish the story of their journey. Hijinx and love stories ensue.
The conceit of road movie — one on full display here — is the idea that throwing two apparently incompatible people together for long enough will make them like each other. In a way, that’s hard to argue with: making friends is often a process of sheer luck and change, and if you know someone for long enough it’s hard to not develop some sort of sympathy for them, even if they drive you crazy. (This, incidentally, has been the central theme of “The Office” for the past seven years.) I don’t know if it works as well here, though. Do we really believe that our hero and heroine are going to be able to endure each other for the rest of their lives? Or that they even really know each other?
Small, grudging points, I must concede, and indicative most of all of how little I walked away from this movie with beyond an increasing disquiet with Frank Capra’s need-shot, shoot-shot approach (you wonder if he even thought about how to shoot his scenes in advance) and, to be fair to the movie, a good time. It’s funny — Gable and Colbert have an excellent rapport — and the dialogue is well-constructed; it moves at a good pace, isn’t too hard on the eyes, and is dated enough to be hokey with getting to the level of overly ridiculous.
It also shows up the fact that, in making a Hollywood success, story is far more important than style — which might well be the coda to Capra’s entire Hollywood career. Capra’s films, at least the ones that I’ve seen, combine simple, fun, easy-to-follow storylines with generally low production value. They are, in other words, undemanding and entertaining — fully satisfactory entertainments. They also make people feel good, which may be their greatest draw.
I’m just having a hard time understanding what makes them more than that.