It Happened One Night (Blu-ray Review)1 Dec, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly.
The first of two movies in history to sweep the five major Oscars (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs are the others) has been readily available for so long that it’s easy to take for granted — and, in fact, I first saw this perennially popular landmark around 1960 when I would have been 12 or 13. And yet, Criterion’s accompanying 38-minute featurette is so credible when critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate go to town on its endless virtues (photographically as well) that this definitive home release is almost like seeing the movie for the first time. Which, come to think, is the standard Criterion intention.
Night is famous for all the actors who turned it down — from Margaret Sullavan and Miriam Hopkins to Robert Montgomery and so on to seemingly everyone this side of Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery. In fact, director Frank Capra and writer Robert Riskin had to beg subsequent Oscar-winner Claudette Colbert to take the role just as she was packing for a four-week Sun Valley vacation, the same four weeks they agreed would be the shooting schedule (minimal sets and Colbert’s minimal wardrobe changes made this just barely possible). Even so — and despite the fact that a huge percentage of the budget went for her salary — she apparently griped the whole way while co-star Clark Gable (on loan from MGM) had a grand old time working for loosey-goosey Columbia Pictures, which wasn’t nearly as pompous as the Lion.
This is sometimes called the first screwball comedy, though it isn’t nearly as screwy or knockabout as, say, Columbia’s own Twentieth Century, which opened just three months later. It also holds up marriage as virtuous and something that’s supposed to last, which was never one of screwball’s major tenets. The springboard was a piece of magazine fiction Capra had read in passing (doctor’s office or something), and at one point Gable’s character was going to be an artist until playwright Myles Connolly suggested to the filmmakers that this would be a box office boo-boo, Depression audiences being what they were.
Shrewdly, Colbert’s character is, yes, an heiress but a runaway heiress who loathes her overprotected lot in life. This goes a long way to explain why she has impulsively married the only guy with whom she’s ever had anything like private time: a celebrity pilot and no doubt gold-digger (who, in vintage-Hollywood fashion looks about 163 years too old for her). Escaping onto a Florida-to-Manhattan bus, Colbert shares a double seat with a boozy reporter played by Gable — who, in ways unpermitted by Metro up to that time, gets to show a vulnerable side here. But playing every audience card, he also gets a great scene where he pretends to be (in ways that shake up the day of a pesky wannabe extortionist played by Roscoe Karns) a mob-connected kidnapper holding Colbert ransom for major bucks.
As seems to be the case with many 1930s Columbias, the print here looks to have been assembled from various sources of widely varying qualities — but at its best, I haven’t seen anything on its level via TV, rep-theatrical or DVD showings. One of the best-looking bits is the one in the middle of the night near a lake that glistens in the moonlight — one of several instances (the nocturnal lighting inside the leads’ auto court is another) where we see how much Capra and frequent cinematographer Joe August could do with lighting. Another revelation (or reminder) is the detail in the scene where Colbert walks to her motor court outdoor shower, with those affected by the Depression milling around in the court backyards. The story is so reflective of the Depression that its 1956 remake was DOA — a movie I saw in theaters a couple years after its release before I saw the original. (The booker, apparently on an experimental dose of early LSD, paired it with The Bridge on the River Kwai.)
Included here is the feature-length documentary Frank Capra’s American Dream — which is honest enough to examine the director’s personal depression and failure to sustain his own postwar production company after a career-impairing break with a sometimes adversary he probably needed: Columbia president Harry Cohn. I had never quite put it together that on three different occasions, Capra followed a problematic picture (either box office or production-wise) with a “safe” stage adaptation: You Can’t Take It with You after Lost Horizon; Arsenic and Old Lace after Meet John Doe; and State of the Union after It’s a Wonderful Life (which wasn’t embraced by the masses until it temporarily fell into public domain status and was thus shown all the time). It is true that Capra’s screen career fell off the cliff after the 1940s, though I’m happy to see that on a featurette included here with Frank Jr., he makes a case for Our Mr. Sun and especially Hemo the Magnificent. These were Bell Telephone NBC specials with boomer-icon status second only to Elvis and a few others — in part because they were shown all the time in middle school science classes (both for merit and because they offered any teacher nursing a hangover a respite from fashioning a lesson plan). Not dissimilarly, I got to spend a day with Capra in the mid-1970s and watched a House of Representatives hearing stop when he entered the room — at which point several Congressmen came over to tell him how Mr. Smith Goes to Washington had inspired them to go into politics.
One of my favorite film writers — Farran Smith Nehme, aka the “Self-Styled Siren” — provides a very crisp essay and comes up with several more casting possibilities that fizzled in pre-production. There’s also Capra’s 12-minute screen debut from 1921 (Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House), which turns Rudyard Kipling verse into a festival of fisticuffs and other hustle-bustle (good score, too). Plus a slightly edited version of Capra’s AFI Life Achievement Award, where he showed up in one of the damnedest tuxedo jackets I’ve ever seen.