Movie Reviews

Movie Review: It Happened One Night – A Classic Romantic Comedy, Period

Written by Samuel Hopkins Adams and Robert Riskin
Directed by Frank Capra

My exposure to Clark Gable can be stated in four words: Gone With the Wind. As much as he is revered throughout Hollywood, it’s sad to say that my only exposure to his acting has been that one movie, no matter how fine his performance was in it.

This changed with my recent opportunity to view It Happened One Night. It’s a somewhat familiar story of two mismatched people who seem unlikely to fall in love but somehow do. Although in 2006 the story has been told time and again, it wasn’t this way in 1934 when Director Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life) sent this story to the silver screen.

Claudette Colbert is rich girl Ellie Andrews, determined to override her father’s wishes and marry aviator King Westley, a man who everyone else sees as a gold-digger. Following her elopement, her father steals her away to his private yacht. She promptly escapes and is headed to New York City via bus when she runs into newspaper reporter Peter Warne (portrayed by Gable). Warne is drunk and has just been fired, but sees an opportunity to regain his job if he can get the “real” story behind Ellie and document her adventure as she attempts to return home to her lover against her father’s wishes.

Along the way, the two have a series of mishaps. Ellie loses her briefcase containing all of her money. Peter takes her under his wing and tries to keep others who wish to cash in at bay. All the while, Ellie is getting an education on what life is like on the other side of the tracks, and she’s having fun with it. There are whimsical moments on board the bus, such as when all of the passengers and the driver break out in song.

All of this is a life Ellie has never been exposed to before and it’s a credit to Colbert’s acting abilities that she’s believable in the situation as she both adapts to the situations (although not without some reluctance and pouting) and seems to enjoy them. At the same time, she never quite loses that air of elegance that those in society often have in the way they carry themselves. Still, Ellie is letting her hair down for the first time in her life and learning that there’s more out there than shopping and parties.

Gable is crusty and crabby through the beginning. Peter Warne isn’t quite a burn-out, but he’s rapidly approaching that status. It’s hard to know if it’s just meeting Ellie that’s a pivotal point in his life or if it’s truly her love that turns him around. Would he have turned himself around if he had just cashed in by selling her story? It’s possible as he would have proven something to himself as a writer as well as to his boss. However, there’s something more in the character that changes. Gable portrays him as a man at a crossroads in his life as he has a choice of which path to follow. At the same time, the character is consistent throughout the story without being overblown when he’s making a point to Ellie. Although he calls her “brat” again and again, it’s in virtually the same tone throughout and not really meant to be nasty right from the beginning, nor is it affectionate toward the end. To him it’s simply a fact; ever the reporter.

It Happened One Night is often billed as a comedic battle of the sexes. I just don’t see it. Oh, the comedy is there in more light moments that gave me a wide smile or light chuckle than out-and-out hilarity. But the battle of the sexes is what seems to be missing. Ellie’s not some wilting violet who’s going to be back to parties and society at the end of this film; she’s taking her independence the only way she knows how right from the start and I doubt she’ll be looking back. Although Peter seems to want to dominate at times and tell her what to do, it’s this moxy that truly charms him. Is Gable such a strong actor that he’s cast in a character who often finds himself opposite a strong-willed and independent woman? I will have to view more of his films to find out.

It Happened One Night contains the famous scene where the two unmarried people stay overnight in a cabin and hang a blanket between the six-foot-apart twin beds. Considered quite daring in its day, many people now would likely scratch their heads at the implications, although it’s been repeated in enough places that I think the meaning is still fairly clear.

There are other funny moments that still hold up quite well all these years later. Watching the two hitch-hike with Peter having no success while Ellie pulls her skirt above her knee to have a car stop is fun, as is Ellie’s first exposure to an actual line to use a shower one morning.

It Happened One Night earned five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Capra), Best Actor (Gable), Best Actress (Colbert), and Best Adaptation. While this may be a comedic theme you think you’ve seen done before (think Overboard) I don’t think it’s ever been done quite as good as this. Much of the credit goes to the two leads who are outstanding, as well as Capra for getting such terrific performances from them.


” Frank Capra Jr. remembers It Happened One Night
” Vintage Advertising
” Live Radio Broadcast
” Theatrical Trailers
” Talent Files

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