December 20, 2013

It Happened One Night


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Often we forget that the romantic comedy was once a genre of film that inspired some top-notch pictures. Today the filmographies of Kate Hudson and Jennifer Aniston have worked to collectively stigmatize romantic comedies as female-geared drivel, that of which are packed with the kind of predictable plots/conventions/shenanigans only a hopelessly romantic woman could fork over $10 to see. For every (500) Days of Summer we are served twenty films in the same vein as Sex & the City 2, Valentine's Day, Fool's Gold, What Happens in Vegas, Just Go With It...et cetera. So it's pretty interesting to realize that so many of the romantic comedies of golden-era Hollywood are celebrated classics or were Oscar-nominated or both. Silver Linings Playbook is the most recent modern offering to have seen acclaim and Oscar attention, but you'd be hard-pressed to come up with any other titles. Nearly eighty years ago, It Happened One Night was released and it has since become the pioneering grandaddy of all romantic comedies. It certainly wasn't the first rom-com to be made, but its success at the Academy Awards was unprecedented at the time--in Oscar's first six years, awards distribution was rather fragmented and it wasn't strange to see four different films take Picture/Director/Actor/Actress. The most Oscars a film ever won was three--yet in 1934, everyone was so flush with It Happened One Night fever that the film ended up sweeping the top five categories, a feat that has only been repeated twice ever since. Thus It Happened One Night became the gold standard of rom-coms--almost entirely on accident. Neither of the film's stars wanted to be in the picture. Clark Gable was forced to make it as punishment by M-G-M for demanding more money. Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan, and Myrna Loy each said no to the role of Ellie Andrews and Bette Davis was too busy perfecting her cockney accent for Of Human Bondage to do the picture. Claudette Colbert--who had starred in Capra's 1927 flop For the Love of Mike, also said no, but was eventually persuaded with the promise of a doubled salary, and after filming was completed she allegedly said, "I just finished the worst picture in the world." The film started off with tepid box-office, and it wasn't until it was screened in secondary theaters that positive word of mouth began to spread...and the rest was history.

It Happened One Night has a lot of elements one normally associates with romantic comedies. There's a runaway bride sequence in which Colbert, decked out in a wedding dress, ditches her husband at the alter at the last second. There's a good amount of cheese (I'm stink-eyeing the kid crying about his mom on the bus) and silly shenanigans. There's the happy ending in which hero and heroine, who've spent most of the picture hating each other, realize they in fact love each other and end up living happily ever after. But what distinguishes It Happened One Night from all the rom-com rubbish we see today is that it's meant to be enjoyed by everyone. There aren't overtones suggesting this is a picture meant for females--this is an inclusive film meant to entertain the masses, and thus it is a film that is ridden of the girly glossy sheen we see in The Wedding Planner or Something Borrowed or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days--films that, just from reading the titles, you know are meant for a specific type of person. From a narrative standpoint, the story is pretty clever and balances a fine line between narrative make-believe and realism, never really venturing so far into the former that everything starts to feel ridiculous and contrived (director Frank Capra encouraged improvisation, thus making some of the sillier story antics feel all the more natural). From a technical standpoint, you've got excellent direction from a director with a great eye and understanding of the cinematic language, you've got screenwriter Robert Riskin who had an excellent "feeling for character" and an "unerring instinct for cinematic adaption" which resulted in the creation of two relatable and realized heroes, and you've got two movie stars--not to mention excellent actors, something you don't see often in rom-coms today--in their prime, with palpable chemistry, bringing these characters to life. It Happened One Night never tried to be an excellent romantic comedy--instead, all of these essential components of a film fall into place and blend together, and the result is an accidental masterwork that's stood the test of time.

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