There are too few cinemas that play the re-releases. It’s probably because audiences are too thin on the ground for a classic from 1934. Particularly as the modern cinema-goers are too enamored with spectacle and the hype-of-the-new to be motivated to discover a cinema cast in a different mold. It’s a massive shame, as they are cutting themselves off from a truly majestic form of cinema that, in lionising the written and spoken word, create worlds full of wit, spark and joy.
It Happened One Night is a masterpiece. It claimed five Oscars in the year of its release and changed the way that Columbia Pictures, up until that point a B-Movie studio, was viewed. The unprecedented Oscar win was not to be repeated for another 40 years (it was Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that finally matched it’s record). Though I am in general suspicious of the Academy’s judgement and their political bias, here at least the film was completely deserving.
Today in the Barn Cinema, when the curtains fell, the room spontaneously erupted into applause and it was magical. It was also appropriate. This is a film from a time when musicians striking up a song on public transport would be welcomed; a joyous moment of inclusion to break up a long journey. Today we would most likely view such an event as an inconvenience. We are so safely wrapped up in our own customised cocoons of digital entertainment that even the idea of talking to someone opposite us on a train, seems outmoded and slightly suspicious.
From the first you know that you will be charmed. The opening scene, an argument between Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and her father (Walter Connolly) is bitingly witty and delivered with an emotional reserve that few have ever matched. The joy of the script is not just in the superb use of language but also in the delicate balance of positive and negative in all the central characters.
Like many of the films from the Golden Age of Hollywood an underlying theme revolves around Men and Women and their inability to communicate directly. Here it is a theme well-handled, one of the most beautiful moments in the film comes when Peter Warne (Clark Gable) seduces Ellie by telling her about his dreams. He can only be honest with her, and indirectly about his feelings for her, because he thinks he has already lost her. He speaks in abstract about a hypothetical other and in so doing is truthful about how he sees their relationship. This is something he is never able to express to her directly, or she to him for that matter. Much of the joy of this film, and the ‘classics’ in general comes from the disconnect between what is said and what is meant.
In modern films, as they reflect modern society, this ability to read between the lines is pitifully withered. The way in which the characters undercut what they say is joyous and expertly-handled. It is also as often physical as it is verbal. Ellie’s jump from the yacht into the sea, to escape her fathers over-protectiveness, is simply comedic. In the next shot, however, her spirited swimming tells us so much about her and her determination that we see that there something to this spoilt young rich thing and despite all she says and does in the first act it never quite diminishes the love we have for her from those few second of powerful swimming.
In all the truly great films that have stood the test of time, when you watch them for the first time you are shocked by their freshness, their unpredictability. This is not because what happens is not predictable. Instead it is to do with the fact that we become so invested in these characters that we know that they have no idea what they will do next. This is partly due to the excellence of the script (by Robert Riskin) but also through the strength of the performances. Clark Gable in particular astounds. His versatility is brought home in a few scenes when he is trying to protect Ellie’s identity from her pursuers (the film was partly designed as a star vehicle for the then young Gable). In these scenes he turns on a dime, from being Peter Warne, a newspaper man, into an abusive blue collar husband or a psychotic gangster, in an effort to outwit their pursues. The power of these performances leave a strong impression and mark Gable particularly, but also Colbert, as powerful actors.
From the very first moment, when the opening titles fade out to a perfectly photographed shot of a yacht at placid anchor the film is ravishingly well shot. It is a visual excellence that cinematographer Joseph Walker never once overplays. There are some fantastic moments; tears shed in darkness, the way Ellie lies horizontally on a fence head to head with the vertical seated Peter, but they never overshadow the story. This balance is almost as well maintained in the soundtrack and overall style. Music and physical comedy, so often anachronistically jarring to a modern audience, is perfectly in keeping and charming, (like O Brother Where Art Thou) rather than distracting.
There is one element of the film that shows it’s age. Gene Havlick, the editor misses a few edit points, where the cut is misplaced and breaks the flow of the scene, and there is some dubious foley work in the wides. But when faced with compressing time as the couples’ story hits the newspapers, his use of superimposing and layering is adventurous and may perhaps have influenced similar scenes from the magnificent Citizen Kane released a few years later. Watching films like these makes one wonder about the advance of experimentation that the digital revolution is supposed to have brought. How many really novel experiments have we seen that have not been performed better and more adventurously previously?
I loved this film. And I suggest to you, if you have half a chance, place yourself in Frank Capra’s hands and watch It Happened One Night. The experience is soul-enriching and you will end up rejoicing to the sound of a toy trumpet and the falling of the walls of Jericho.