After twenty years of trying I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never truly love any film described as a screwball comedy. My working hypothesis is that I am missing the apparently common-place gene that enables most viewers to thrill to the spectacle of pretty, famous people being incredibly pretty and incredibly famous together. I settle instead for “appreciating” the qualities of these beloved films.
“It Happened One Night” (1934) offers plenty to appreciate. Released during the darkest days of the depression, the film boldly tackles a seeming insurmountable problem: making audiences care about the plight of a wealthy heiress. Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) sulks aboard the yacht that doubles as a gilded cage built by her tycoon father (Walter Connolly) who wishes to prevent her from staying with King Westley (Jameson Thomas), an aviator she recently married in a hasty ceremony. She not only argues petulantly with her father but consumes scarce resources in the process, first upending a succulent steak dinner intended as a bribe then leaping overboard and setting into motion a vast manhunt that becomes headline fodder for readers who can’t spare a nickel to buy a paper.
To say the least, Ellie is unprepared for the realities of 1930s America as she tries to make her way to New York to be reunited with Westley. She swaps a yacht for a slow-rolling passenger bus and is soon down to her last four dollars and not a friend in the world except for recently-fired newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Gable brings his trademark macho condescension to bear on poor pampered Ellie, expecting her to unquestioningly follow the syllabus at his ersatz school of hard knocks. She proves surprisingly resilient, enough so that the self-styled man of the world gradually realizes he has found an unlikely soulmate.
Gable and Colbert were two of the biggest stars in Hollywood though “Night” would help to secure their unquestioned super-stardom, and audiences were delighted by their slowly-burgeoning romance. Director Frank Capra and writer Robert Riskin found clever ways to amp up the eroticism (Gable goes shirtless whenever feasible) without risking censorship (the Production Code was in place but not yet in force), including the now-famous “wall of Jericho,” the blanket strung up in their shared motel room ostensibly for the sake of modesty but more as the lid that brings the pot closer to full boil.
Actually it took audiences a little while to catch on as the film opened to mixed reviews and got yanked after two weeks in the cities, but found a devoted following in second-run theaters. It became a commercial hit with working-class viewers and rode the populist momentum to domination at the Academy Awards where it netted statues for Capra, Riskin, Gable, Colbert and as Best Picture, a sweep of the majors that wouldn’t happen again until “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975.
Generally viewed as one of the first American screwball comedies it features some of the rapid-volley banter associated with the genre but nowhere close to the degree that would be employed by Howard Hawks. I rarely find these kinds of glib dialogue exchanges funny and “Night” is no exception, but the film offers other pleasures. Papa Andrews initially seems like a caricatured industrial patriarch, but turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic and genuinely concerned with his daughter’s happiness. Scenes of camaraderie aboard the bus (including a communal performance of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”) speak hopefully of an America that may be short on money and jobs but still long on human kindness. And none of it plays it like so-called Capra-corn either; optimism at the time was a pretty bold artistic choice.
As bracing as that may have been to audiences the primary appeal was still watching the gorgeous Colbert and Gable dueling, doubting, resisting, and then falling head over heels for each other. So what if neither particularly wanted to make the movie, they just had chemistry and the reaction still bubbles over for most viewers even eighty years later.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
According to the Criterion booklet this 4K restoration relied on two separate sources, the original nitrate negative and a 35 mm print. I most scenes the film has a rich, grainy look with strong though not quite razor-sharp image quality; from time to time the quality drops off a bit and some of the softer glamour shots are a bit undefined. I don’t know if a little extra digital boosting was used due to the source material thus leading to a slight loss in resolution. Despite the occasional noticeable inconsistencies, the overall transfer is quite solid.
Please note the above pictures are not captures from the Blu-ray.
The linear PCM mono track is crisp but flat. This was a fairly early sound film and there are quite a few shots where the action plays out with virtually no background sound or music. Listeners used to today’s louder films might even find it a bit off-putting, but I found it refreshing. A few instances of distortion/static crop up from time to time, but nothing major. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The only brand new feature Criterion has included for this release is a discussion (38 min.) between critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate who talk about the film’s relationship to the screwball comedy genre that would soon become a Hollywood staple.
The disc also includes Frank Capra’s directorial debut, the 1921 silent comedy short “Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House” (12 min.) which stars Mildred Owens and was based on a Rudyard Kipling poem. It’s… a first film. It is accompanied by a new score performed by Donald Sosin.
The other extras are culled from various archival sources. “Frank Capra Jr. Remembers ‘It Happened One Night’” (11 min.) is an interview with Capra’s son in which he recalls his father’s experience developing and shooting the movie. “Frank Capra’s American Dream” (1997, 96 min.) is a pretty dry, by-the-numbers overview of the director’s life and career hosted by director Ron Howard. “The disc also includes the broadcast of AFI’S Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony for Capra (1982, 59 min.) with a cavalcade of stars including host James Stewart. We also get a short Theatrical Trailer (1 min.)
The fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.
If you’re less resistant to celebrity charm than I am (and you almost certainly are) you will likely be greatly enamored of this early screwball comedy and its superstars Colbert and Gable. Criterion has done the best it can with the image and sound with some obvious limitations from source material. The extras are a bit stuffy but Capra fans will enjoy the two lengthier programs as well as the inclusion of his first film.