Sunday, October 11, 2015

AFI Top 100: #46 "It Happened One Night"

Clark Gable & Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934)

Not many comedies are praised on Best of... lists. The American Film Institute even has a separate list for Best American comedies, since so few are represented on the AFI Top 100 each decade. Surprising, considering they are the movies that the masses (usually) enjoy most. Things were no different at the height of the Great Depression, when audiences looked to the movies for laughs and an escape from daily life. It was then, in 1934, that a comedy premiered that not only won over audiences, but critics too. Winner of the Best Picture Oscar that year, the first comedy ever to do so, is the #46 film on our countdown: It Happened One Night—a film that no one wanted to make, but everyone wanted to see.

Rich, spoiled darling Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is found out to have married a society aviator named King Westley against her concerned father's wishes. When he takes her away from him and threatens to have her marriage annulled, she jumps off their yacht and goes on the run to get from Atlanta to New York City where her new husband awaits before her father can make good on his threat. The disappearance of a wealthy heiress is big news, however, and when down-on-his-luck reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable), meets the entitled Ellie on a bus heading north, he recognizes her immediately and makes her a deal: he'll help her hide her identity so long as he gets exclusive access to her story for his paper. Reluctantly, she accepts his help, but their front as a traveling husband and wife might cause Ellie to become fonder of Peter than she expects.

At its core, this is a road trip movie. It's light-hearted and the stakes aren't too high, but we're engaged and invested in them meeting their destination. Add on top of that the chemistry between Gable and Colbert and you've got yourself a solid romantic comedy. Their characters despise each other just the right amount—it's never obnoxious, and they're never set up as incompatible despite their constant bickering. Ellie's feelings for Peter come on slowly and steadily, as do his. Both of their egos dance with their humility, and I adore the dynamic that develops between them. This results in an unexpected depth to a very predictable story.

Colbert is charismatic to the point of distraction. It was nearly impossible to find a picture of her smiling in this movie, but she does—a lot. And when she smiles, you smile. I dare you not to. She's beautiful and remarkably talented, and despite her reluctance to make this supposed "B-movie" (Gable wasn't too stoked on the idea either, as his involvement was rumored to be punishment for the publicity disaster that was his affair with Joan Crawford), she completely delivers. She acts from the inside out, and her eyes light up every time she looks at Gable.

Gable's cocky approach to his character is the perfect counterpart for Colbert. He's down-to-earth, shameless, and he challenges her to shake off her snooty bitchiness by making her just a little bit uncomfortable. Their initial 'wall of Jericho' scene when sharing a roadside motel cabin is one of the film's more famous sequences (that and the iconic hitchhiking bit), and the cuteness meter for both of them goes off the charts. They're able to infuse these stock characters with vitality and sparks of intelligence, and the whole film becomes unspeakably romantic as a result.

Frank Capra's directorial vision has always been to instill comedy or romance within a touching, human story. It Happened One Night might be less heartfelt and inspiring than some of his later works (You Can't Take It With You, and upcoming AFI Top 100 films It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington come to mind), but its creative approach to handling new Code-era restrictions make it far more groundbreaking than most thirties comedy fare. On the surface, it might read like a Howard Hawks screwball comedy, but it doesn't play out that way. The characters are never foolish nor on the receiving end of true humiliation, which for me, makes this far and away one of the better comedies of the era.

This Best Picture winner not only took the top prizeits stars took home Best Acting awards along with Capra for Direction and frequent Capra collaborator, Robert Riskin, for Writing, making it the first film in Academy history to take home the "Big Five." Only three movies have ever achieved this honor, and the American Film Institute honors them all (we've already discussed Silence of the Lambs, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is fast approaching).

It's not surprising that It Happened One Night has stood the test of time. The comedy is relevant and the themes are universal, and I consider it a must-see classic for any movie lover. You won't have to commit much brain power to get through it, but you'll certainly walk away from it with a smile.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Columbia Pictures]

Check back next time for #45 on the list, Shane — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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