Classic film time once again. It Happened One Night doesn’t contain that many names recognizable to casual black and white fans but it does hold one claim to fame that only two other movies can make – it won all five of the “big” Academy Awards – best film, director, actor, actress and screenplay. It’s also had a subtle effect on popular culture, not to the extent of say, Casablanca, but still a marked one. Ever seen a woman stop a vehicle just by showing some leg? That’s a homage to It Happened One Night.
This story is essentially about a rich young woman, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) who marries someone her father does not approve of. When Mr. Andrews (Walter Connolly) tries to annul the marriage she runs away, catching a bus and running into the down-on-his-luck reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Unfortunately, the sheltered Ellie doesn’t have the resources or know how to meet up with her husband so she agrees to take Peter’s help in avoiding her father, who has offered a hefty reward for her discovery. What ensues is a strange cross between a caper film, a romantic comedy and out and out screwball humor. By the time the story is over Peter and Ellie will have fallen in love, had a falling out and learned a little more about themselves. All in all, not bad for a love story from Hollyweird, right?
So what sets It Happened One Night above the rest? Was it really worth all those Awards?
For starters, Colbert and Gable really do provide a great performance. The chemistry between the two is great and serves to drive the story when the laughs aren’t coming. But there’s not that many points where the laughs don’t come. The script is incredibly tightly written, keeping the audience moving from bus to motel to roadside like a drill sergeant, alternating between showing us how well Ellie and Peter work together and how little they appreciate one another. This is undoubtedly for the best, if scrutinized too closely the whole story would most likely fall apart and yet, once it’s finished, we can’t help but admire the finished product for what it is.
But the greatest strength of the script is in it’s careful use of characterization. It’s very easy for a writer to give into the temptation of spelling out too much. But when Peter finally comes to confront Ellie’s father, when he’s offered a reward for all he’s done and all Peter can do is rant about a woman who he thinks has played with him and left him in the cold, we see far more about how much Peter loves Ellie than any poem or soliloquy could tell us.
Watch It Happened One Night and it’s easy to see how it could have won all five of the Big Academy Awards. The piece itself may be fluff, but it’s such well written, well acted and well directed fluff that you can’t help but loving it for what it is. Whether you love movies, storytelling in general or just a good romantic comedy, I assure you that you won’t be disappointed with what you find.