Thursday, April 23, 2009
Movie Time: Rewind: It Happened One Night
For the April installment of the Rewind I wanted to look at an actor that I haven't spotlighted yet, namely Clark Gable. Clark Gable was the biggest, if not one of the biggest, stars of the 1930's and would continue to be until his death in 1960. Gable represented the Hollywood image of the virile and strong leading man, the guy who always did the right thing and as such he never really made a picture that cast him as a villain. H is arguably the top star of the 1930's, outdrawing rivals James Cagney and his biggest rival, Gary Cooper.
For my money Gable made several truly great films over his illustrious career, most popularly Gone With the Wind in 1939, which I briefly touched on in my column saluting that golden year of Hollywood. I would have to say his best work outside of that was this film, the first to sweep the top five Academy Awards slots, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and best Screenplay; and that's Frank Capra's 1934 screwball comedy, It Happened One Night.
Frank Capra was under contract to Columbia Pictures at the time, one of the Poverty Row Studios. They were on the low end of the scale and couldn't compete with the likes of MGM and Warner Bros. Sometimes these two studios would loan out there contracted stars for pictures as a lesson in humility if the star refused to do something the studio wanted. Gable had suffered a terrible gum infection and it resulted in the removal of nearly all of his teeth. As the infection was so bad it would take a month for the swelling to go down he went on vacation with his wife, causing the picture he was working on for MGM to be shut down. When he came back after being fitted for dentures, he fell ill again from the infection and had to have his gall bladder removed. All of this time away was costing the studio money and as such studio boss Louis B. Mayer docked Gable 2 weeks pay, causing bad blood between them. The row got so bad that Mayer decided to teach Gable a lesson and loan him to Columbia.
Capra is one of the most decorated directors of the 30's and 40's, having worked on films like It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Jimmy Stewart; Meet John Doe and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town with Gary Cooper; and Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant. Capra invented the screwball comedy with It Happened One Night and would use this and his appeal of a pure sense of "Capra Corn", in which his pictures would often show the despair and tragedy of life and then wrapped up in a happy ending all around.
The lead of It Happened One Night is Claudette Colbert, one of the stars of the silent era who successfully made it into the talkies. She had a rocky start early in pictures, but after teaming with Frederick March in several film in the early 30's, her name became synonymous with quality pictures. It was the year 1934 where she skyrocketed into the limelight with Cecil B. DeMille'e blockbuster epic Cleopatra, where she was both beautiful and charming. It was her other role that year though that would forever immortalize her in Hollywood though, Capra's It Happened One Night.
Widely considered cinema's first screwball comedy starts with Colbert as a wealthy and rebellious socialite name Ellie Andrews who has secretly married high society aviator King Westley. His father, disapproving of this union, whisks her away on his yacht. After a heated argument, Ellie dives overboard and comes ashore in Miami. Wanting to meet her husband in New York, she buys a bus ticket and in the process meets an out of work reporter names Peter Warne, played by Gable. When Peter discovers Ellie's true identity from a newspaper article about her escape he agrees to help her get to her destination for exclusive rights to her story, something he enforces by promising to tell her father where she is if she doesn't cooperate.
They travel cross country posing as husband and wife and stay in hotel rooms together as part of their cover, erecting a blanket that Peter calls "The Walls of Jericho" between them as Ellie is a married woman. As they travel by bus another passenger recognizes Ellie and attempts to coerce Peter into splitting the reward that is being offered for her. Peter scares him off by pretending to be a criminal and the two of them hitchhike from there, afraid that the passenger may notify the police. One of the more famous scenes is here where Claudette Colbert flashes her leg to passing motorists to get them to stop and pick her up, a very risque thing to do in the 30's.
After being robbed by one of the drivers and Peter retrieving their belongings, Ellie throws herself at peter and wants to be together, though he rebuffs her. That night he leaves for New York and Ellie, thinking he has left her, heads back to her father who has softened to the idea of her marriage if she would just come home. Peter sells is story of love and adventure to his old publisher though so not to propose to Ellie broke. Returning just in time he sees Ellie leave with her father and a police escort, and angry he calls the father wanting his reward money.
He goes to Ellie's house as the real ceremony between Ellie and the aviator is to take place and during the ceremony convinces Ellie's father that he loves her and should marry her. As this movie is pure Capra, Ellie runs out on the marriage and her father gets it annulled so she can be with Peter. The film ends in a hotel room with "The Walls of Jericho" tumbling down between them.
I've talked a lot about the main players of the film but not the picture itself. 1934 was very much the real beginning of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The Silent Era was over the new generation of actors where taking their place in films, having worked out the kinks of sound and picture quality that affected many of the early talkies. The actors and directors had embraced this new version of the medium and the audiences where looking for real performances. The new generation of actors had taken root into the public perception and it really started in 1934.
It Happened One Night was the seminal picture of that year, the movie in which Clark Gable won his only Oscar and the film that rose Columbia Pictures from a Poverty Row studio to the likes of the big time. It was the first film to win the Grand Slam at the Academy Awards and it broke a lot of new barriers for its time. It pushed the envelope of sexuality with Colbert and her famous leg flashing scene and the interactions between her and Gable in the hotel rooms between the towel. It also featured very smart dialog that moved at a more frenetic pace than other films, one of the early pictures that tried to have the actors firing lines back and forth. That's part of the reason this is considered the first screwball comedy.
This film defined what a screwball comedy is, a little bit of slapstick, fast paced repartee, usually between two characters that are mis-matched and seemingly wrong for each other only to turn out to love each other in the end in a plot that usually involves courtship or marriage. The dialog of It Happened One night is funny, smart, and charming and had a lasting effect on the ways films were made. The characters and acting in this film would inspire many people down the road to many great performances, launching a new genre of film. It is because of this film that we get so many of the great comedies of the 30's and 40's, like His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday and so many more. The characters were so impactful that even Friz Freleng, one of the creative forces behind the Looney Tunes characters, modeled elements of the actors into many of his creations, including Clark Gable's way of eating carrots and fast talking simultaneously. They even mention the name Bugs Dooley in the film, for which the name was taken. Two other actors in the film, Walter Connely and Jameson Thomas, were even the inspirations for Yosemite Sam and Pepe LePew respectively.
What you get with this film is two actors at the top of their game and a director that truly established himself as one of the predominate men of his generation. You get a really smart and fun script and a beautiful romantic comedy that will make you laugh with a picture perfect ending. I wholeheartedly recommend Columbia Pictures It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, directed by the estimable Frank Capra. Check it out, its great.
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