I have to make a confession – despite being quite an aficionado of comedy films, I had never seen It Happened One Night, arguably one of the greatest comedy films ever made. Now that I finally took the plunge and watched it, not only did I think it was wonderful and absolutely adored it, but I found myself believing that this was one of the greatest films ever made.
This delightful film is centered around Ellen “Ellie” Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a spoiled socialite that runs off to marry the daring King Westley, against the wishes of her wealthy father (Walter Connolly). Running away, she encounters Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a snappy and witty newspaper reporter that was recently fired. Thrust into each others’ lives, Ellie and Peter find themselves being forced to be in each other’s company, because they discover that they need one another to actually achieve the goals that they set out to do at the beginning of the story – but not necessarily what they want to achieve by the end.
I’ll make a bit of an announcement here – I am busy working on a critical thesis on the screwball comedy – and while I won’t get too into it right now, I will say that a screwball comedy needs to have a variety of elements in it that will define it as a screwball – (a) a strong female character that overshadows the man in dominance, (b) a form of emasculation from the male’s perspective, (c) a certain arrogance from either or both characters, (d) social differences between characters, (d) dialogue always being the most important aspect of the film, (e) a form of romance, even if the characters aren’t outright in love and most importantly, above all else, (f) rapid and furious pacing that gives a screwball its recognizable tone. Not only does It Happened One Night exemplify the screwball comedy – I would argue that it pioneered the genre. Perhaps it isn’t the very first screwball comedy, but it certainly is the film that popularized it and defined many of the conventions that would go on to create memorable films such as Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story and The Lady Eve, amongst many, many others.
In terms of Hollywood stars, there were none quite like Clark Gable – witty, dashing and fascinating to watch, Gable was truly the embodiment of a movie star. His performance Peter Warne in It Happened One Night is quite honestly one of the greatest performances in film history, and something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about for days now. He is utterly delightful and juggles the excessive and complicated dialogue of It Happened One Night so masterfully. Gable keeps up with the rapid, quick-fire nature of the film, and constructs Peter Warne as a complex and layered character far different from the kind of dashing, “knight-in-shining-armour” stereotype one expects from a romantic comedy. Gable is utterly incredible and even though he may be more well-known for his performance in Gone with the Wind, his role here is just extraordinary and shows exactly why Clark Gable was one of the biggest stars of all time.
Just as Peter Warne doesn’t represent a typical dashing male hero, Ellie Andrews is as far from the typical femme fatale/damsel in distress that many films contain. Claudette Colbert is just utterly unbelievable as Ellie, playing into her spunky attitude along with really selling her moments of vulnerability. Not only is she a feisty character, who is rebellious from the confines of her gender’s role in literature and cinema of the time, she is also independent and strong-willed – and her portrayal is a very early example of progressive cinema. While there are some glaring moments whereby this feminist portrayal of a female character is flawed (such as her not being able to do certain things by herself a few times), overall it is a positive portrayal and Colbert really does a wonderful job. She is utterly lovely and the chemistry she has with Gable is delightful and palpable, and her performance sparkles with a magic rare from many films.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how modern it is – not only in the dialogue, but just in the general tone of the film. It feels almost timeless, and with the exception of evident visuals, this film doesn’t appear to be dated in the least. The themes of this film are explored in a way that may seem slightly simplistic nowadays, but back in 1934, certain moments (such as female rebellion, the scene where Gable gets dressed and the strangely hilarious last scene of the film) is a product of the Pre-Code era, where the term “anything goes” applies perfectly. It Happened One Night may be a relatively inoffensive film in terms of being controversial or risky, but it certainly was ahead of its time, and that cannot be understated. I look for a lot of things when watching classic films, and the main thing I look for is how the film holds up in a modern context – and It Happened One Night, made way back in 1934, still holds up as a beautiful and hilarious piece of art, over eight decades later.
They just don’t make films like It Happened One Night anymore. I have yet to see a single film made in the last twenty years that exemplifies a screwball comedy, and its both a blessing and a curse – Hollywood has a tendency to abuse genre, and I am glad that films like It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby can exist without Hollywood trying to recapture that spirit, which would likely be completely inferior, unfortunately (Hollywood does a lot of great things, but nostalgia is not always their strong point). Yet, these kinds of films are so brilliant, inventive and beautiful, it is a shame that they exist as an era rather than as a genre. Yet, at least we have It Happened One Night, and I have to say this is most definitely one of the greatest films ever made, and I think every single romantic film made since can be traced back to this one, and that’s a mighty big achievement from what Claudette Colbert called “the worst film in the world”