A spoiled heiress, running away from her family, is helped by a man who's actually a reporter looking for a story. But then he falls for her...
WINNER OF 5 OSCARS: Best Actor (Gable), Best Actress (Colbert), Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture
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Frank Capra's It Happened On Night (1934) is one of the best romantic comedies in film history; it could be considered one of the original romantic comedies, from which most films of the genre today take their basic plots from. It is also often credited as the first screwball comedy, and the first film to win in all the major categories of the Oscars: screenplay, director, actor, actress, and picture, almost single-handedly pulling the company of Columbia out of it's hard times with its success. For these reasons alone, it is worth seeing, but here's some more: it's an extremely smart and funny romantic comedy, with great dialogue and comedic situations, the likes of which you can't see in theaters today.
The plot is a familiar one now, although it wasn't then: Claudette Colbert is Ellen Andrews, a spoiled heiress who runs away (jumps off a yacht no less) after her father (Walter Connolly) refuses to acknowledge her marriage to a pompous and dull rich man named King Westley. On the bus from Miami to New York, she meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a tough and fast-talking newspaper man who's just lost his job. He discovers who she is, telegrams his boss with the scoop and convinces her to give him an exclusive story if he helps her get to New York, where Westley is waiting. On the road, however, during their many misadventures, opposites attract and, against their will, they begin to fall for each other. The climax includes a series of mishaps that threatens to keep our couple apart, but they are of course ultimately brought back together.
So what is it that makes this classic romantic comedy so good and so superior to what is being made today? To start with, the two stars, Colbert and Gable, have wonderful chemistry, although they both allegedly had a strong dislike for the film. Their characters of Peter Warne and Ellen Andrews continuously bicker and disagree, since they are both know-it-alls, and it makes for hilarious interactions; they argue about everything, from piggy-back rides to eating raw carrots, but they ultimately become a great team. He teaches her to toughen up, introduces her to a rougher way of life and doesn't let her get away with whining, and she makes him let down his guard and reveal a softer side. They're a perfect match because they are so different; they open each other's eyes to a different way of life.
Along with the great lead stars, is the writing and dialogue. Robert Riskin (who often collaborated with Capra) wrote the screenplay from a short story, and deserves the credit of the Oscar he received. His dialogue is snappy, fast and clever, the situations created are hilarious, and the secondary characters, such as Ellie's father and Peter's boss, offer entertaining smaller scenes. Some classic moments of this film include the undressing scene, where Peter starts undressing in front of Ellen to convince her to go to her side of the room and stay the night, and which reveals Gable to have no undershirt on (!); the hitchhiking scene where he tries to show her the best way to get a ride and instead she teaches him her own method, and the clever idea of the walls of Jericho which got around the Production Code with it's sexual innuendo.
The last element of what makes this film great is the director. Capra gives all his films a feel of the time in which they were made-- a realistic portrayal of regular people (specifically the lower or middle classes) amid the ridiculous world of Hollywood. In this film, the scenes on the bus offer a look at the life and times of regular people, trying to get from one place to another. At one point, some of the passengers start playing music and the other passengers sing along to a popular tune, and soon after Capra hints at the hard times people were living through during the Depression, with a boy and his mother on the bus who hadn't eaten for days because they spent all they had on the bus tickets. With scenes like these, and other details of rest stops along the way, the focus of the film is not on the wealthy lifestyle that Ellen comes from, as most other screwball comedies are, but on the lower classes, who Capra always portrays as the backbone and soul of the country.
It Happened One Night offers clever comedy and a believable romance, as well as an illustration of life during the 1930s, all of which come together to create a winner for Best Picture and a fantastic example of romantic comedy and classic Hollywood.