Review – It Happened One Night (1934)

This definitive screwball comedy still manages to charm and delight the coldest of hearts, 80 long years after its release.

Generally considered the very first screwball comedy, the landmark It Happened One Night details the absorbingly romantic story of young spoilt heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), who runs away from her wealthy father and falls in love with lowly reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Directed by the great Frank Capra, the film is also a landmark in the sense that it was the first film ever to win the ‘big five’ Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress; a feat that has only ever been matched twice with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.

The film’s script was turned down by a whole host of actors and actresses, including Robert Montgomery who claimed that it was the worst script he had ever read. An Academy Award for writing would say otherwise and the script is one of the film’s strongest elements. Robert Riskin’s dialogue is so sharp and witty, Peter’s memorable monologue detailing the many different ways in which men undress is comical gold.

Riskin’s script also oozes sexual tension between the two leads; it perfectly manages to balance the necessary mixture of romance and comedy for a romantic comedy to work. A mixture that does not only work, but also laid down the gauntlet for how a romantic comedy should be made. You have to bear in mind that this film came out in 1934, of course there were examples of this genre before then, but this was the definitive romantic comedy, it set the example for years to come, influencing films like Bringing Up Baby (1939) and even several of Woody Allen’s early screwball comedies.

It Happened One Night represented Frank Capra’s first big film, it’s a film that is often overlooked by some if his better known work, films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), but this screwball comedy is certainly up there amongst his greatest achievements.

However, the film’s greatest accolade is the performances of its two lead roles, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, who both received Oscars for their acting. I could easily run out of adjectives and superlatives to describe how fantastic both of their performances are, but I suppose that the best compliment I could give both the now long-deceased performers is that their characters, both Gable’s charmingly eloquent Peter and Colbert’s snobbish but pure Ellie are simply unforgettable. They are characters that have etched their mannerisms into my memory for eternity.

It Happened One Night is simply one of those films that you can’t help but smile about; it somehow manages to keep a smile on your face for its full running period, even when both its protagonists are in a rut. It’s remarkable to think that even after all these years, it is as charming and delightful as it ever was, showing that it is truly, a timeless classic.

Josh Hall

Comedy, romance | USA, 1934 | PG | Criterion Collection UK | Dir. Frank Capra |Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Alan Hale | Buy: [Criterion Collection] [Blu-ray]

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