Det Hændte En Nat
”It Happened One Night”: The mother of all romantic comedies.
It is not common that romantic comedies clean the table at the Oscars and bring home the five big ones. These days romantic comedies are the pulp of Hollywood, formulaic and trivial and obviously made for the money they generate. The thirties were not much different, so what makes ”It Happened One Night” so special?
It is tempting to say Frank Capra, he did make a number of very successful films throughout the decade, though not with the same success at the academy awards. More likely it was the chemistry between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, the two leads of the film. But the truth is probably just that it was one of those cases were everything just worked out. It was also the right movie at the right time, an uplifting story about the rich and the poor in the same boat, broke but determined in 1934 while the depression was still ravaging the world.
You cannot talk about ”It Happened One Night” without talking a lot about Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. From beginning to end it is these two who drive the film forward. It lives and dies with them and it lives very well indeed. I cannot help seeing Rhett Butler in Clark Gable. Maybe because there is something of an overlap in characters. Peter Warne is also an upright man with a crooked smile and a glint of mischief in his eyes. He is toying with Ellie just as he is also taking care of her, keeping her out of trouble, much like Rhett Butler does to Scarlett. The combination of decent and caring on the one hand and mischievous and naughty on the other is always a winner in romantic comedies and Peter Warne is all that.
Claudette Colbert is not my favorite actress. In fact this is the only part where I actually liked her. Normally she grates on me. There is an arrogance and condescending attitude about her (and frankly she is not that pretty when compared to the other divas of Hollywood). However this is exactly the sort of character she has to play in “It Happened One Night”: A spoiled upper class brat who ran away from her father to sulk. I do not know if it is Gable’s work or Capra, but they managed to get a playfulness out of her here that enables the chemistry with Gable. Throughout the two of them play at each other, caring or taunting, playing along or fighting and it works.
The backstage story is that Capra and Colbert did not get along at all, that Colbert actually hated everything about the movie and had planned to stay away for the Oscars. Curious how none of that transplanted itself to the screen.
A theme of the film is that of a rich girl coming out of her ivory tower to see real life and real people. In the process she learns a few things about herself and finds love in a place she did not expect to find it. From the viewpoint of the broad public slowly climbing out of depression Peter Warne is their man. He is hardened by life, know how to get by in a crunch and a bit of a rogue but he is also sympathetic and decent and certainly a person you would want to root for. To see him deal with Ellie must have felt good. The common person would feel vindicated.
Ellie’s transformation also means that you get sympathetic toward her as well. Whereas it feels good and well deserved that Peter calls her a brat in the beginning we gradually gain respect for her. When the sulkiness wears off and she needs to step in character she does perform, like in the scene in the cabin when they have to fool the detectives or when they are trying to hitchhike. That realization of who she really is and that what she want is something else and different from just opposing her father is what makes her grow up and become a worthy match for Peter.
A comedy needs some good comedic elements and a character sure to provide it is Mr. Shapeley (Roscoe Karns). He is just perfectly annoying and the way he is dealt with by Peter is wonderful. I love Gable’s gangster imitation and had to laugh out load. Excellent.
The finale of the film is classic. I do not know if this is the film who invented the scene, but certainly this has been repeated so many times that I honestly believe that the most dangerous moment in any marriage must be at the altar when the priest asks if anybody objects. Almost Peter and Ellie are missing out on each other due to some silly misunderstandings and just in the final second they make it. This is sooooo cliché that I almost wished that they went through with the wedding and only then found out what a terrible mistake they had made. But of course then it would not have been a romantic comedy and I do believe that this was not entirely as cliché at the time. As these things go it did go well enough with me.
All in all this romantic comedy is lightyears ahead of its modern mass produced counterparts and highly enjoyable. It does not feel dated at all and is one of the top picks of the thirties.