Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It Happened One Night (1934) at Criterion


The Siren is still writing, oh yes she is. Here is an excerpt from her essay about It Happened One Night, part of the Blu-Ray package now available from the fine and fabulous folks at Criterion. You can read the Siren's essay in its entirety at their website.

It's been a particularly hard week for the world beyond the movie screen, and indeed a hard year. Frank Capra's joyous masterpiece was made at a time that was, in many respects, far harsher. Watching the film again (and again) and writing about the things that make it great was an uplifting experience. This movie has a true democratic spirit. This long weekend, you could do far worse than to watch It Happened One Night.

No matter what they watch, or whether or not they celebrate this American holiday, the Siren sends all her patient readers warm and loving Thanksgiving wishes.



Almost eighty years ago, the Academy Awards saw a clean sweep of its top five categories—screenplay, actor, actress, director, and picture—not by a grandiose epic or searing social drama but by a romantic comedy, a sparkling, gossamer thing about the love of a pampered heiress for a just-fired, often-drunk scamp of a reporter.

The film begins with the heiress already married to an obvious fortune hunter. Her father has imprisoned her on his yacht, demanding that she accept an annulment. She runs away on a Greyhound bus and finds herself mixed up with that scoop-hungry reporter. They spend one night together, then another. They fall in love. A bare plot synopsis hasn’t got much heft. And yet after all these years, It Happened One Night (1934) is almost universally acknowledged as one for the ages, its gorgeous spirit haunting all the romantic road trips, all the unlikely courtships, all the bickering, smitten couples that have come after.

It’s a movie both escapist and egalitarian. Director Frank Capra, that great American cheerleader, assures everyone that this fair country’s wide-open spaces, while not without peril, are full of fellowship and democracy. Our land can bring out the good in Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert), who is so spoiled that, in the first scene, she flings an entire steak dinner out a porthole. Her father (Walter Connolly) delivers a roundhouse slap, a moment that shocks them both. But for a Great Depression audience, one that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would still describe, in 1937, as “one-third . . . ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” wasting a lavish meal would have bordered on the criminal. Comeuppance must be on its way — and so it is, in the guise of reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). When Pete is introduced, he’s on the phone with the editor who canned him. As an appreciative audience gathers to listen, Pete tilts a bottle of booze down his throat and defends an unprintably bad story with “That was free verse, ya gashouse palooka.” He remains fired, of course, wasting something else that was scarce and precious in 1934: a job.

[snip]

An ideal romantic comedy doesn’t ignore reality; it converses with it. The Depression may be softened by moonlight and shining eyes, but it is everywhere visible in It Happened One Night, from the woman on the bus who faints from hunger to the freight car full of hoboes who wave back at a joyous Pete as he races to propose to Ellie. One of the loveliest shots in the movie is the exquisite track that follows Ellie as she makes her way to the autocamp’s communal shower, while children chase each other and weary adults prepare to get back on the road.

37 comments:

Karen said...

Ah, that's a wonderful piece, Siren; it's only flaw being that it doesn't go on longer.

IHON is truly a timeless film. I screened it for a movie-illiterate friend recently, and he was as charmed by it as audiences were back in the 1930s. Thanks for pointing out the deeper resonances that hover below the fluff.

The Siren said...

You can read the whole thing at Criterion! Or did you actually want MORE than 2000 words? :D in which case, god bless you as always darlin'. I'm not sure **I** want to listen to me longer than that!

It is one of those movies that I take for granted for years and years and then I re-watch it and WOW WOW WOW it's as good as ever.

johncarvill said...

I read and enjoyed your essay the other day, and although I have the DVD I did give in to temptation, and ordered the Criterion Blu-ray - a very expensive proposition here in the UK, where Criterion's products cost well over double the price of any other disc.

>When the bus passengers sing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” it’s an explosion of joy

Indeed. The whole film is 'an explosion of joy'. In a way, it's paradoxical that a film with such ostensible cynicism at its heart - the hard-bitten reporter who avers: "you're just a headline to me", etc - is actually so sweet and life-affirming. And that has only deepened over time.

It's also a satisfyingly strange little gem: Clark Gable is a bit of an oddball for a matinee idol, and Claudette Colbert's an unlikely screwball star.

But I do tend to think that this is a classic film that's 'more honoured in the breach than in the observance': I don't recall having ever met anyone in real life who's actually seen this film. Maybe I just swim in the wrong circles, but I do genuinely sense that this isn't a film that's on the general viewer's radar, despite the clean sweep at the Oscars. A shame, because this is much more cherishable cultural artifact than the worthy but onerous works that clutter up critics' polls such as the infamous BFI one.

And, oh man, those one-liners. "You don't know how to dunk!" Walter Connolly gets the last word, which I won't spoil here in case anybody hasn't seen or has forgotten it; suffice to say it puts the cherry on the cake.


meteskyjr said...

One of the pleasures I get from seeing IHON is the camaraderie of the open road, something which has all but disappeared during my lifetime. With all its upsets and sudden turns of fortune, the Depression put many out onto the roads (and rails) and this movie captures that very well, especially in the group singing of "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." The days of making new friends on a bus and carefree hitchhiking are long gone, but fun to relive through movies like this.

gmoke said...

I like that you gave Riskin some time in the spotlight that Capra always seemed to monopolize. The democratic attitude we attribute to Capra's films was actually Riskin. Capra was a lifelong Republican who opposed FDR.

Birgit said...

This is truly a wonderful film and highlights so much that some took for granted in an era that people were begging for just a bit of what they had. It has heart and for most people, who feel an old movie is from 2005, they should look at this film when learning about the great depression. I am glad it is being spotlighted by you

barrylane said...

In what way is Clark Gable an oddball 'for a matinee idol.' He is the definition of that term, for boys, girls, and adults. The template.

johncarvill said...

<< In what way is Clark Gable an oddball 'for a matinee idol.' He is the definition of that term, for boys, girls, and adults. The template. >>

Well, it's all subjective, of course, but watching this film it did seem to me that Clark Gable was quite odd, which I meant as a compliment. I mean, compare with, say, Gary Cooper. Gable is handsome, of course, but his looks strike me as somewhat idiosyncratic, and even a little freaky. No wonder he was the inspiration for Bugs Bunny!

Lemora said...

What a treat to find your essay on one of my very favorite movies ever! IHON has lifted me out of the doldrums more times than I can count, especially that scene of Gable telling off his ex-boss on the phone, with an audience. Does the new DVD explain what a phone booth was, for the benefit of younger viewers? (I'm old enough to remember phone booths; bus trips; and carefree hitchhiking.) Claudette Colbert's car stopping scene was filmed on Ventura Blvd. in Thousand Oaks, CA. I've often wondered if filming permission was gotten from whoever owned the land and that white plank fence that they sat on. Did this person realize their fence was becoming one of the iconic locations of the 20th century? Also, I wonder where the real Dikes Auto Camp was located. About 20 years ago, I read a fabulous article about location shooting for IHON all over the San Fernando Valley. I wish I'd saved it. Clark may have inspire the creation of Bugs, but he was still drop-dead gorgeous. So was Bugs.

johncarvill said...

>Clark may have inspire the creation of Bugs, but he was still drop-dead gorgeous. So was Bugs

Absolutely! Maybe I gave the impression that I was criticising or mocking Gable? Far from it: I revere him. My list of fantasy dinner party guests would definitely include Clark and Carole Lombard.

Vanwall said...

Happy Thanksgiving, I'll be watching this one for some extra cheer!

yojimboen said...

"I like that you gave Riskin some time in the spotlight that Capra always seemed to monopolize."

One of my first contributions to this kaffee klatch was the story of the day Riskin walked into Capra's office, dumped 100 bound pages of blank paper on his desk and said, "There you go, Frank, give that the fucking "Capra Touch".

yojimboen said...

I forget where I read it, but reportedly Capra was less impressed by the multi-Oscar® rewards to IHON than he was by the power he derived from its B.O. success: He finally forced from Harry Cohn what he’d been after for years – his name above the title. (see Mr Deeds; and the name of Capra’s autobiography.)

Buttermilk Sky said...

I'm watching it right now, and loving it all over again. Although I'd like to know how Ellen jumps off a yacht and winds up at the bus station with money and a suitcase full of clothes. Is it wrong to ask screwball comedy to be logical?

I just finished Mark Harris's terrific "Five Came Back," and Capra does not come off well. He was a populist Republican who dreaded socialism and admired Mussolini. No wonder most of his movies feel so confused.

barrylane said...

Does that mean the opposite is so. Embracing Soviet style 'socialism' and admiring Stalin?

johncarvill said...

>I just finished Mark Harris's terrific "Five Came Back,"

That's a book I've been meaning to get.

>and Capra does not come off well. He was a populist Republican who dreaded socialism and admired Mussolini. No wonder most of his movies feel so confused.

Yes. Under the sunny surface of a lot of Capra's films lurked something dark and reactionary.

The Rush Blog said...

One of my favorite movies of all time . . . even after 80 years. Peter Warne is also my favorite Clark Gable role. He was first rate with resorting to the usual "Gable he-man schtick". And it's hard to believe that Claudette Colbert tried to get out of this picture. I heard that she tried to skip the Oscar ceremony after she had been nominated. I never understood why.

About Capra, do you think his personal politics were reflected in this particular movie?

Lemora said...

I have wondered many of the same things: How did Claudette get out of the water and into that snazzy travel outfit with a suitcase filled with clothes and cash? Maybe her ladies' maid was in on it and waiting for her. And why oh why wouldn't she want to do this role-- never mind having to be coerced into attending the Oscar ceremony while the train waited at Union Station! Peter Warne is also my favorite Gable role. If anyone were to ask me what was the big deal about him in the nineteen thirties, I'd sit them down to watch IHON. And my mom's college room mate was named Ellie Andrews, in the mid-thirties. I can never figure out if or how Capra's politics were reflected in his movies. I've asked myself if I could guess them, if I didn't already know, just from watching his films. He does admire go-getters who take fate into their own hands, i.e. not expecting anyone else --the WPA?-- to take care of them. I hasten to add I revere FDR, and wouldn't agree with this, but maybe that's it, of some of it.

barrylane said...

Why would you believe, for even an instant, that FDR who disagree about go-getters. He was one.

johncarvill said...

>About Capra, do you think his personal politics were reflected in this particular movie?

No, I don't think so. I suppose I *could* try making a case - pointing out how Capra routinely ignores the big political picture, glossing over the fact that the politicians he supported were the ones least interested in helping the ordinary little people who Capra pretends to side with. Capra's films present what we may take to be a liberal worldview, but in fact the man himself was a fan of Mussolini, etc. And careful study of his films has revealed them to often be the opposite of what they seem. But in the case of this particular film, I don't view it through a political lens and I'm happy to see it in more innocent terms. I love the film, even if I'm wary of Capra.



Lemora said...

"I love the film, even if I'm wary of Capra."

Thank you for expressing my thoughts --and probably those of a lot of us-- about Capra and his films so well.

barrylane said...

I think Capra's politics are fine -- although not particularly mine. He picks parts he likes from the real world, which is right in front of him. Good filmmaker, an interesting man and should be accorded the same, or similar regard, as modern Marxists receive.

The Siren said...

Anyone who hasn't read Five Came Back by Mark Harris definitely should. He dives into Capra's personality and contradictions with great fairness and zero scolding. Capra was not a scintillating political mind; he was *patriotic,* the immigrant kid who felt passionate & eternal gratitude to this country. In my view, once you see that love of country is underpinning Capra's every movie (and, very importantly, you also see that Robert Riskin is the more clear & penetrating thinker behind most of Capra's best work) it all makes great humanist sense.

I remember Francis Ford Coppola talking about "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" and how he'd gone to Capra to talk about the script, which they thought of as "Capraesque." As I recall the story, Capra was helpful until Coppola told him the movie would end in a downbeat way. Capra explained, "You can't have a Capra movie that ends sadly! That's like saying the American dream DOESN'T WORK!"

johncarvill said...

<< think Capra's politics are fine -- although not particularly mine. He picks parts he likes from the real world, which is right in front of him. Good filmmaker, an interesting man and should be accorded the same, or similar regard, as modern Marxists receive. >>

I find much of that incomprehensible. If you can view Capra's politics as 'fine', knowing that he was an admirer of Mussolini and Franco, well, there isn't much to discuss.

As for Capra being an interesting man, I'd agree on that.



barrylane said...

Burt and Jane Boyar wrote a fascinating and apparently verifiable book about Franco saving Jewish residents of Spain. Worth checking out. And Mussolini is not Hitler, or Stalin.

johncarvill said...

> And Mussolini is not Hitler, or Stalin.

Oh sure, absolutely. Mussolini? Much-maligned, misunderstood, just wanted to be loved. Not all bad. Nice to his mum. Fond of dogs.

The Siren said...

Barry, I usually don't let you bait me, but sweet suffering succotash you do pick the goddamndest people to get defensive about. Mussolini. Franco. Harry Cohn ...

barrylane said...

Siren darlin' --

No issue about Benito just not equating him with the other more virulent guys out there at the same time. The Franco thing is for real. The book Burt and Jane wrote, How Franco Stopped Hitler is out there and reading about it should do nearly as well as picking it up. But I know Burt and would be happy to but you in touch, off camera.

Harry Cohn, a flawed person, as we all are. Valerie French found him attractive. I know because she found me that way, as well. I asked Louis Hayward about him, and Louis though him okay. I knew, or know several people who worked, not talent, at Columbia. All positive. It is easy taking cheap shots with nothing but malicious gossip to support a contention. Yes...?

The Siren said...

I never said Cohn was bad at running a studio. I did offer strong evidence that it was no picnic to be a young, beautiful, insecure actress working for him.

Also, I don't care who you know, please do not call me by phony endearments when you are including the words "cheap shots" in your comment.

barrylane said...

I did not mean you had made them.

yojimboen said...

Harry Cohn was OK -- after a fashion. Didn’t end well. As his heart was giving out, the agony caused him to groan “Jesus Christ it hurts!” His long-suffering wife Joan (the Shiksa) then quietly exacted some major retribution for Harry's countless conjugal betrayals throughout their marriage by insisting Harry’s outcry indicated a death-bed conversion.

She buried him about a mile from my house in the Hollywood Forever cemetery -- as a Christian. Harry had often warned Columbia execs that if he died before them he would be interred less than 100 yards away, facing the Columbia exec offices -- to watch them.
Some nights when the moon is full…

Regu Vardan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
FDChief said...

Five Came Back made it very clear that Capra's politics were so muddled that it woould be hard to credit him with an actual political viewpoint. And that Capra the man (and the director) was not thoughtful enough either to realize that or grow from his experiences.

Harris uses the example of William Wyler to make that point most vividly; the Wyler that "came back" wasn't the Wyler that left, and the Wyler that came back was deepened (in many ways by sorrow and horror at what he had experienced) into the man who made films like The Best Days of Our Lives. Even John Ford - who pretty much comes off as a monstrous egotist - was changed by his wartime experiences.

Capra? Not so much; he seems to have been way more worried about his influence and status (as he seems to have been by the success of It Happened One Night - what was awesomesauce was the power it gave him over Harry Cohn - NOT that it was a hell of a flick...) then what was happening to the world at war...

Love the flick, but I tend to agree that Capra's "politics" are so rudimentary as to make one of those Schoolhouse Rock cartoons look like a Costa-Gavras film.

FDChief said...

And as a sidelight of the comment above..."The days of making new friends on a bus and carefree hitchhiking are long gone, but fun to relive through movies like this." need to be viewed through the lens of The Siren's comment about Capra and his rose-colored-glasses about the general wonderfulness of America (which, mind you, didn't include the idea of actual Americans helping other actual Americans. He was a virulent anti-New Dealer, dead-set against evil liberal fascism like Social Security and the WPA).

From what I understand the actual Great Depression was no more carefree and wonderful than the Great Recession is. People may have been more used to wearing a skirt or a tie in public, but poor and hungry is poor and hungry; my mother remembers the hoboes fighting outside their Salvation Army because someone had stolen someone else's sad little tag-end of bread or some such...

Yes, people were more accustomed to things like public sing-alongs; the idea that bored passengers on a long bus ride would have entertained themselves and each other was surely likely. But Capra's sweet-natured version is, well, Capraesque. Not necessarily a lie...but perhaps not the truth with the bark still on it, either.

FDChief said...

Barry: Franco might not have been all that much Schindler:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/oct/17/spain

"The Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco, whose apologists usually claim that he protected Jews, ordered his officials to draw up a list of some 6,000 Jews living in Spain and include them in a secret Jewish archive.

That list was handed over to the Nazi architect of the so-called "final solution", the German SS chief Heinrich Himmler, as the two countries negotiated Spain's possible incorporation into the group of Axis powers that included Italy, according to the El País newspaper today.

The newspaper printed the original order, recently unearthed from Spanish archives, that instructed provincial governors to elaborate lists of "all the national and foreign Jews living in the province ... showing their personal and political leanings, means of living, commercial activities, degree of danger and security category"."


Franco - and Il Duce - didn't really get the opportunity to go full Hitler (though the White Terror of the Thirties was pretty awful in itself and Franco, at least, seems to have been pretty good at making his "enemies" disappear...) but at the time and since then were acknowledged to be pretty foul beasts by everyone outside their own partisans on the Right.

I don't think that Capra was some sort of crypto-Fascist. But there really isn't any good way to defend his affection for the Italian and Spanish dictators. He was anti-Communist and Catholic, but so were plenty of his contemporaries who wanted nothing to do with either the Duce or the Caudillo.

AndrewBW said...

One of my eternal go-too "feel good" movies, along with "Some Like It Hot". If I'm in the dumps, watching one of these always picks my up. An excellent essay.

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