Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jordyn Does the Best Picture Winners: It Happened One Night (1934)

1934 was a year of change for film. After 30+ years of uncensored bliss, here comes the Hays Code to stifle swears, violence, sex and all the other things that make Life worth living. It Happened One Night would be the last Best Picture winner to not suffer this oppression until the MPAA ratings system came to be in 1968.

1934 was also the first year Oscar switched to a calendar year plan. Maybe you noticed all the previous BP's covered two years (i.e. 1930-31). Originally the eligibility window arbitrarily spanned from August to July. In 1933, the Academy changed the dates to January 1 to December 31. (By the way, this means there was 17 months to choose a BP for 1932-33 and Cavalcade won.)

All right, let's get to the movie at hand. It Happened One Night is based on the short story "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a spoilt socialite who elopes with probable gold-digger King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Ellie's father (Walter Connelly) disapproves on the marriages and insists on an annulment. Ellie runs away and boards a bus to New York City to be reunited with King. En route, she meets a chivalrous but snarky journalist named Peter Warne (Clark Gable). When Ellie runs out of money, Peter offers to pay her way to New York as long as he gets the scoop on her "runaway heiress" story. If she refuses, Peter will hand Ellie over to her father and collect the reward money. Ellie agrees to travel with Peter and along the way the pair falls in love.

It Happened One Night is often called the first "screwball comedy". I've always found that genre name a little off-putting. I always picture dames in floppy hats tripping in their high heels, bickering with our hero before justly falling into a punch bowl or fountain.

What's this? A clip from The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement!?

Ugh. Yeah, that's the stuff. Shame on you, Chris Pine.

Thankfully Gable and Colbert are far too sophisticated to fall in a fountain. While some "screwball comedies" contain elements of farce, It Happened One Night focuses more on the petty arguments and debates between the leads. This lays the groundwork for most future "road-to-romance" movies: Romancing the Stone, The Sure Thing, Anastasia, Shrek, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Rio*. Much of the couple's squabbling arises from their class differences. Peter finds Ellie's wastrel ways irritating and firmly teaches her humility.

Some of the best moments in the film are the "Seinfeldian" conversations about nothing; things like what makes a good piggy back ride, how to dunk a donut in coffee, and the multiple varieties of hitchhiking. The best is when Peter explains his routine of undressing and how every man does it differently. These discussions feel real and are comforting in their charming inconsequentiality. Later rom-coms would get caught up in the deception, overused pop music, chases to the airport and friggin' Matthew McConaughey.

Even if It Happened One Night beat the Hays Code by four months, Peter and Ellie still deny their carnal desires for one another. They sleep in separate beds with a blanket suspended on a rope between them, christened "the Walls of Jericho". And what's sexier than boning? Not boning. The film positively crackles with sexual tension. (In fact, I haven't seen this much sexual tension since Wings...tee-hee-hee). Peter and Ellie touch a lot...and sometimes no attention is brought to it, which completely shoves their unresolved tension in the audience's face. And God, it is so unsatisfying in a very, very good way.

However after Peter and Ellie finally get together--it's a rom-com! I've spoiled nothing!--there isn't really a pay off. The BIG MISUNDERSTANDING leads Ellie to consent to remarry King Westley with her father's "blessing" (he learned a lesson along the way, too). She learns the TRUTH and runs from the wedding. She does not sprint breathlessly into Peter's arms and kiss him in a heated frenzy. Instead we see we see the Walls of Jericho blanket falling to the floor on the honeymoon. That's right. No kiss and worse, no "I'm sorry"s. I don't really mind that we don't see Ellie and Peter get down tonight, but it feels like the original ending was replaced with another scene that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were unavailable to film.

A small quibble in the big picture. It Happened One Night is the first BP in this little retrospective that I genuinely like and one I have watched for fun. There aren't many rom-coms in our future, unsurprisingly, so cherish this one. In fact, can you imagine something like the similarly themed Leap Year winning the top prize? Good God! I don't want to live in a world like that...

Impressions circa 2004
Positive. Like I said in my BP intro, this is the one that started my interest in the Academy Awards!

Other Nominations and Wins
(bold represents win)
  • Best Director - Frank Capra 
  • Best Actress - Claudette Colbert 
  • Best Actor - Clark Gable 
  • Best Adapted Screenplay 

1934 Best Picture Nominees
(bold represents films I have seen...followed by my opinion in 10 words or less.)
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street 
  • Cleopatra 
  • Flirtation Walk 
  • The Gay Divorcee 
  • Here Comes the Navy 
  • The House of Rothschild 
  • Imitation of Life 
  • One Night of Love 
  • The Thin Man - Enjoyable quippy married couple solves a mystery. Sure.
  • Viva Villa! 
  • The White Parade 

What I Learned From...It Happened One Night
Opposites attract when forced to travel together.

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