A Conversation about Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night

By  · Published on August 24th, 2016

Remedial Film School

The latest Remedial Film School brings Kate Erbland back to FSR!

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Kate Erbland from IndieWire is our guest, and she chose It Happened One Night from 1934 (currently available for rent on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play). Each section begins with a quote from the film.

“Would you believe it? This is the first time I’ve ever been alone with a man!”

Kate Erbland: The romantic comedy genre doesn’t get enough respect these days, likely thanks to a rash of just terrible cracks at fizzy, dizzy romances – think anything starring Kate Hudson in the last 15 years, or whatever the heck is happening in the diminishing-returns world of “loosely connected people love each other or whatever” mini-genres like Mother’s Day and He’s Just Not That Into You – stuff that’s bad enough to wound an entire cross-section of films with a rich history. Sick of what the cineplex is offering up in the guise of funny, sweet love stories? Go back to the classics.

Classics like, oh, what’s this, It Happened One Night, the gold standard of mismatched meet cute romance. Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, the Frank Capra film actually won Best Picture in 1935 – we’d love to see you try that, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – thanks to its unbeatable combination of snappy story, stellar acting and zippy directing. But at its heart – hey, romance, after all – It Happened One Night works because Gable and Colbert are so well-matched as initially combative compatriots (they meet on a bus, and when has a bus ever put someone in the mood for love?) who eventually realize they want the same thing: Each other.

Colbert is flighty debutante Ellie Andrews, who hit the road after thinking better of her marriage to the gloriously awful King Westley (Jameson Thomas), and Gable is clever reporter Peter Warne, who threatens to blow her story wide open should she ditch him.

What follows is a fast-paced and genuinely fun road trip that plays up what would later become tropes – the pissy leading lady, the charming but devilish leading man – in their totally original form. If nothing else, it’s hard to beat chemistry like Colbert and Gable had, and as they tentatively fall for each other, you will, too. (Also, no one has ever played the roguish cad quite like Gable, and Colbert’s outfits are 100 percent to die for.)

“I come from a long line of stubborn idiots!”

Jeff Bayer: It didn’t even occur to me while I was watching it that this is a film that won five Oscars. I don’t mean that as an insult, it’s more to your point about what a romantic comedy has become now.

I am almost positive this is my third Capra film (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful being the other two). I only recognize one other name and that’s Clark Gable. If you would have asked me who Claudette Colbert was last week, I would have assumed it was Stephen Colbert’s failed attempt as a character (because I’m a moron).

I love that we get into the story right away. There is no dilly dallying around. It’s just one of the reasons why It Happened One Night feels very contemporary. Ellie smokes. I’ver never been a smoker, but I love smoking on the big screen, especially when it’s a woman (because it’s more rare). Thankfully, when her dad Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly) slaps her, she does the right thing and jumps ship. Adventures away!

Gable’s introduction is teased as we can’t see him, but drunk men surround his phone booth to see what he’ll say next. It’s a lovely way to meet a man who is arrogant, confident, and can grab other peoples’ attention.

I officially knew I was in good, intelligent hands when Peter has words with the bus driver. All the driver can muster is “Oh yeah,” and Peter bounces that back at him, and then some. The dialogue gets even better just moments later when the driver says, “Maybe they do, maybe they don’t,” and Peter replies, “Thank you. Move over. This is a ‘maybe they do.’” Whenever I watch a film for this column, I am hyper aware of the beginning of the film, to see if it will grab me right away, if it will take a lot of time, or it’s not my cup of tea. The beginning moments on the bus made me kick back, and relax, because this is the type of tea I like!

Peter and Ellie are stuck with each other, and it really does take them a long time to even consider that they could be falling for one another. During this time, it’s a great hang out film. Heck, in the first 30 minutes Peter even explained his entire purpose to Ellie. He’s a reporter who will follow her for the story no matter what, so she might as well get help going home from him. In lesser hands, that would have been a secret drawn out over the entire film. Sure, there are some scenes that take a little while to get going, and other moments when you realize the cast of characters are singing just because it’s entertaining instead of it advancing the story, but that’s exactly what makes a good “hang out” film. I could easily have this on in the background.

At the core, Peter thinks he knows everything, and always thinks he has something clever to say. Ellie is a little spoiled and naive with too many expectations about the world.

I love the tropes and romantic comedy cliches that aren’t ripping anything off because this film was released in 1934. She accidentally falls into his arms on the bus. She can hitch-hike better than him. In fact, this might be the first time we’ve seen a women use her leg to get a ride. Part of the entertainment of this film is seeing these things and realizing they are fresh for Capra and his team.

Random thoughts and questions …

How many times have you seen this film? How did you discover it?

Did you notice Ellie had perfect form when she dove into the water? I don’t know why, but this matters.

Peter chases after a thief who stole Ellie’s luggage. It proves Peter is a nice guy (even if he hasn’t acted that way yet toward Ellie), and also showcases Ellie’s unawareness. It’s a small moment with a lot of purpose that impressed me.

There is a tracking shot with Ellie at the hotel heading to the shower. It’s really good, and I can’t remember if Capra is known for having a significant tracking shot in his films. I don’t remember anything like that in It’s a Wonderful Life. Thoughts?

What do you like better, Peter telling Ellie how to dunk donuts, or Peter telling Ellie about how to give a piggy back ride?

Ellie refuses to eat a raw carrot. I had no idea raw carrots were a lower-class food back in the day, did you?

I hate when Ellie freaks out when she thinks Peter has left her outside the farm. It’s dated and wouldn’t exist now in the same way. Another change would be him smacking her on the butt at the end of the piggy back ride. The biggest one might be Peter’s “If you do I’ll break your neck” line. It’s actually used to show an endearing side to Peter because he apologizes for lashing out.

Am I correct that Peter thinks it’s OK to steal a man’s car because that guy attempted to steal Peter’s suitcase?

Don’t hate me, but let’s remake this one. I’m thinking it would be set in modern day with Ellie being famous or at least social media famous. Any casting suggestions?

Also, any good recommendations of recent romantic comedies?

Movie Score: 8/10

“I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.”

Erbland: I’m glad you liked it. I shall answer your questions in the order they were received. I’m guessing I’ve seen It Happened One Night at least ten times at this point. Like all good things, from Mike’s Hard Lemonade to sleeping past noon, I discovered it in college (in a class, if you can believe it).

I missed Ellie’s perfect dive, but now I’ve got something new to look for the next time I watch!

Nice call with the scene when someone steals Ellie’s luggage. One of the best things about the film is that it allows both Ellie and Peter to be kind of rogue-ish and wild while still being good people.

Capra has a few tracking shots under his belt – there’s a good one in Forbidden and a few in American Madness – but this one is certainly the most light and flirty.

If I have to pick between donuts and the piggy back ride scene, I’m picking donuts. Every single time.

As far as the raw carrot goes … Where is our documentary about the lower class foods of early America?

Speaking of the “break your neck” line, there are definitely a few moments that would be deemed “problematic” in today’s cultural and societal space, but I do think that the film should be hailed for how free-spirited it lets Ellie be without making her seem like an idiot or a spoiled princess.

Stealing a man’s car if he steals your luggage is bonkers-ass logic. Plain and simple.

As far as the remake goes … Aubrey Plaza as Ellie. Not, I’m not kidding. For Peter? I am at a loss. Help!

Finally, I recommend the romantic comedy Sleeping With Other People. It’s funny, sweet, sexy and satisfying in rare ways.

“That was free verse, you gashouse palooka!”

Bayer: OK, you’re not a palooka, but how could I pass up that line? After all, your idea of strategy is to use a lead pipe. Fine, that was technically another quote from the film. I completely agree with your recommendation of Sleeping With Other People. I gave it a 9/10 and it was even in my Top 10 at the end of 2015 list. Another good one is Friends with Kids.

You gave me Plaza as Ellie, so the easy choice for Peter would be a Parks & Recreation reunion with Chris Pratt. If I didn’t go for the easy answer, then I’ll choose Chris Pine, with that little bit of grey hair. Also, Ellie’s dad must be played by John Slattery, or frankly I don’t know if I want to bother.

I failed to mention how much I liked that scene at the hotel where they play fight. It’s the first time for true teamwork, and they nail it in a very playful way.

Finally, to save everyone a trip to IMDB, the five Oscars that It Happened One Night won were Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Writing (Adaptation). There are only two others to do that. Heard of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs? That’s pretty spectacular company.

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Neil Miller selected Delicatessen (1991). I’ll brace you now. Not only do you have to read the next article, but you have to read the movie too. That’s right, it’s French. It is available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes. Your due date is September 15.

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