Relation/Cinema: It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night banner photo

It Happened One Night is not the first screwball comedy. There, I said it. Heck, It Happened One Night isn’t even a screwball comedy. And it’s certainly not the first romantic comedy. Ever hear of a certain Little Tramp named Charlie? We’re just bustin’ all the myths up in here. 

But lean in a little bit and I’ll tell you: I don’t think any of that matters very much. Because It Happened One Night is still a stellar, wonderful, heartwarming little movie from arguably the greatest director of its era. 

Get this plot: a young heiress runs (or rather, swims) away from home (actually, her yacht) in order to consummate her marriage with a famous aviator in New York. She’s gotta get there fast and without getting caught, or else her (seemingly) domineering father will bring her back home and have the marriage annulled. Along the way, she meets a young newspaperman who learns her secret and agrees to help her if she’ll allow him to write a story about her. Drama, romance, and hilarity in equal measure ensue. 

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in

Now, if you know me you’ll know there’s no way I’m panning a ‘30s Frank Capra picture. In fact, this is a go-to movie for me—something I can throw on in the background while meal-prepping or doing little chores around the house. It was either the first or second Criterion Collection Blu-Ray I bought. It was the first time I was made aware of the startling talents of two of the Golden Age’s greatest actors. So, yeah, I like it. 

The aforementioned Mr. Capra serves up premium quantities of his trademark sentimentality here. He takes care to elicit honesty from Claudette Colbert, never mind the difficult time they had on set. Capra seems to draw out the vulnerability in an actor, as we see in Ms. Colbert as her character cries silently in the hay-bed scene. The lighting in that shot is devastating, illuminating just enough of her face to see her suppressing emotion, while her eyes fail to hold in the tears. 

It’s a Wonderful Life – Enduring Against Discontentment

And this ain’t just the Claudette show either—Clark Gable is fantastic here! Who cares about Gone With the Wind? This is the Gable I want. A snappy, snippy blue collar news reporter, never wanting to beg nor borrow—he keeps his pride intact! Just like Colbert’s heiress, he wants his way and his alone, and he won’t let anybody boss him around. But what happens when this hardboiled man’s man catches feelings? What if the type of person he hates most turns out to be pretty great? What happens when a rich person actually listens to a poor one and they both discover neither one is a boogeyman after all?

Capra focuses on Gable’s tender side as well, showing little moments of vulnerability. For instance, when he’s “boarding his chariot” as the King, we see his mask of pride slip as he realizes, “Oh crap. I don’t have a job!” Not a good place to be in the Great Depression. These little moments are peppered in there to remind us that, no matter how strong, hard, and stubborn he is, he’s still a big pile of mush inside. And nobody makes him mushier than his lady love. 

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night Colorized Tree

If there’s anything to learn from It Happened One Night on the relationship front, it’s humility. Gable’s character Peter Warne is so very certain that everything he knows or does is right. So much that he sometimes gets them into trouble. Colbert’s character, Ellie, has the same problem. Plus, there’s the added element of class conflict (likely brought by screenwriter Robert Riskin) adding an extra level of stubborn ignorance to Ellie and jealous animosity to Peter. In order to get together, they have to overcome all of that. They have to focus on their shared need for freedom and individuality, but also their yearning for a true partner in that. 

There’s also the obvious and often talked-about aspect of their adherence to marital purity. Neither one is willing to compromise on that, which adds a lot of romantic tension as well as an important moral element. The whole movie hinges on sexuality and putting it in the right place. At the risk of sounding like a ‘90s youth pastor, sex is both a delicate and important thing. Too much or too little thought about it can be problematic. But there’s a place for it, and at one time in history, that place was just broadly accepted. There’s your mini-sermon of the week. Then again, it’s also pretty hard to avoid considering the “walls of Jericho” element. 

There’s a lot to love about It Happened One Night. Heck, I didn’t even mention the character actors in bit parts, the influential camerawork, or how cool Ellie’s dad is. This is one of the most influential films of the ‘30s, and you should see it if at least for the historical significance! But let’s not forget that the most important thing a movie should be is entertaining. It Happened One Night is entertaining in spades!

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Stephen McFerron Christian Podcast Cinematic Doctrine

Stephen McFerron likes movies. It’s that simple. From the lowest depths of the drive-in to the highest peaks of arthouse; the grand golden age to superhero spectacles, he’s all in! Since watching Gremlins and Jaws at a young age, Stephen has had an appetite for the strange and fantastic, as well as the old! If you’re here to explore movie history, or learn more about the best of today, Stephen’s your guide! He may even say something mildly profound along the way… if he’s lucky!

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