In a way, It Happened One Night seems like an odd fit for the Criterion Collection. Not because it’s not a great movie — it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it one of the best, both of its genre and more broadly — but rather because of the particular way that it’s a great movie. It Happened One Night is, on paper, pure establishment: a Frank Capra-directed Hollywood hit (albeit a slow-building one) that won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay, then becoming the template for hundreds of romantic comedies that followed.
Criterion has certainly showcased mainstream pantheon movies before (The Silence of the Lambs, once issued on Criterion LaserDisc and DVD, is one of the few other movies to win Oscars in the same five categories as It Happened One Night), but Capra’s film seems, at minimum, like the type of movie studios maintain for their own libraries. But for whatever reason, Columbia Pictures has licensed it to Criterion. The result is a sparkling edition of a sparkling movie.
The movie stars Clark Gable as reporter Peter Warne and Claudette Colbert as heiress Ellie Andrews; even the characters’ professions have become archetypes that romantic comedy fans who haven’t watched a movie made before the year 2000 might well recognize. Ellie, protesting her father’s opposition to her recent eloping, escapes her family’s confines in Florida and heads for New York. On a bus and running out of money, she runs into Peter, and, sensing a story, he agrees to travel with her.
No prizes for guessing whether they go from mutual irritation to attraction over the course of the trip. It’s a plot that’s been recycled countless times since, sometimes as unofficial remake, like Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing, and sometimes simply by using the genre conventions it helped to establish, like any movie where a pair of attracted non-lovers are forced to share a sleeping space. That’s what Ellie and Peter do in the “walls of Jericho” scene, famous for both its Biblical innuendo and its less allusive shot of a bare-chested Gable. There’s also the much-spoofed scene where Ellie schools Peter in hitchhiking technique, also predicated on a type of nudity that no longer really qualifies as such.
It’s remarkable, then, that the 1934 telling of this now-familiar story still feels fresh: still funny, still romantic, and quite beautiful to look at beyond even its two photogenic stars. Restored on DVD and Blu-ray (the latter not made available for this review), the film’s black-and-white cinematography looks terrific, particularly in the motel scene where Colbert lies in bed with silvery raindrops falling on the windowpane above her.
These moments of visual richness match film’s the verbal wit — which is present, but less rapid-fire than the weaponized patter of some of the movies that followed. On one of the disc’s best features, film critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate discuss the history of the film (including its status as one of several scripts based around a bus trip) and debate whether or not it can be considered part of the screwball comedy genre. It’s a debate worth having and worth watching, as the Criterion disc’s feature that most directly relates to the film itself rather than Capra’s general career.
While It Happened One Night has many of the ingredients of the screwball comedy, such as assured as Capra’s pacing, the film doesn’t feel quite as snappy or farcical as screwier comedies like My Man Godfrey or His Girl Friday. There are funny lines, of course, distributed equally between Gable and Colbert. But here one must look at the bus-set scene where Peter contends with a driver whose every rejoinder consists of an irritated “oh, yeah?”: the comedy comes from the driver’s dimness and Peter’s exasperation (finally admitting defeat: “You got me: yeah!”) rather than fast-paced wit. Throughout It Happened One Night, Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin produce something a little warmer, a little more relaxed than straight up screwball; in other words, more of a romantic comedy, which may be why this film in particular has remained such a touchstone decades later.
A lot of the film’s descendants strive for that innate likability while missing one virtue of its not-quite-screwball pacing: simplicity. The movie lets Peter and Ellie spend a lot of time together, focusing on their competing desires rather than the zany logistics of their travel arrangement. Their most famous scenes involve just the two of them, and many of the other sorta-important characters are either comic bit players or mostly offscreen. In the end, their romance, even with all of its twists turned into genre hallmarks, feels as quick and graceful as a magic trick, just as a classic romance should.