Abraham Lincoln, “a natural born piggy-backer”: Why “It Happened One Night” is a classic.

I recently learned that a pun I came up with was already well established in the puniverse. You see, my pun went something like Frank Capricorn; it was going to involve a film director, someone born between December 21st and January 20th, a hot dog, and candy corn. But to my chagrin, the term capricorn has been around quite a while, and it refers to film director, Frank Capra, and his predilection for happy, Hollywood endings. I’m a little disappointed, but frankly, it’s a better use of the pun.

There’s no doubt that It Happened One Night (1934), a film directed by Frank Capra, fits the capricorn model. The ending of the film, with the trumpets of Jericho blowing, and Ellie’s father’s classic line, “Let ’em topple” has a feel good Capra-esque quality to it. So what makes this film so great? This is a hard question to answer because there are so many qualities to this film that have captured people’s imaginations. But let’s take a look at a few– this is by no means an exhaustive accounting.

Critical and Audience Reception

In terms of critical reception, there’s no doubt that this screwball comedy has been widely acclaimed. It’s #46 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list for the greatest American films of all time. It’s #3 on the AFI’s list of Top 10 Romantic Comedies of all time, and that organization ranks it number 8 on a list of greatest American comedies. And its two main stars, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable are each considered one of the top 50 stars in American Film history, in that organization’s estimation.

Reaching out from the hallowed halls of AFI regality, the film has a slightly less laudable reputation among everyday viewers. IMDB users are slightly less enthralled with the film, ranking it as the #238 most popular film on that website. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a near perfect 99% critic rating, and a very admirable 93% rating among the general public.

This is not just a case of the film gaining a reputation with age. It was beloved when it came out, as well. It Happened One Night was the first film to win the five major academy awards, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Best Writing, Adaptation. The film is often thought of a one of the most definitive examples of 1930s screwball comedies. It’s been parodied numerous times, and it’s plot expertly weaves together romance, comedy, and drama.

But aside from what the critics say, let’s take a look at some of the features of this film that makes this film so memorable and enjoyable.

Major Motion Picture Production Code

I think when beginning to understand the film’s imprint on American cinema, we should remember that it’s one of the last films produced and distributed before the start of the Major Motion Picture Production Code–sometimes informally referred to as the Hays code. Because of its presence on the border of this major shift in cinema, this film comes off as a bit too risqué for the code, but not quite as transgressive as some films that came just a few years prior. (Compare the suggestive flirtations in It Happened On Night to the frank portrayals of sexuality in Baby Face (1933) and Redheaded Woman (1932), in the previous two years.) But it also stands apart from Hays code compliant films that would arrive in the mid-20th Century. In this sense, the film functions as a kind of historical marker, a chronological and cultural landmark separating the libertine 20s in cinema history from the more conservative mid-20th Century films.

This borderland quality enables It Happened One Night to play with playfulness– to flirt with the forbidden fruit of the culturally taboo, without fully immersing itself in the transgressive. Many storytellers assume that the overt and explicit is somehow axiomatically superior to the subtle and sub-textual. But, in reality, it’s often the suggestive that’s more satisfying to viewers. Alfred Hitchcock got at this notion when he said that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” — Alfred Hitchcock

What Hitchcock spoke of in terms of terror is also true of other emotions, such as love, disappointment, and betrayal. It’s when we get narratively near these things–sensing them without being immersed in them–that we feel them most acutely. And that’s what It Happened One Night does; the film flirts between the raucous films of the 20s and more subdued films of the 30s and 40s. In other words, the film flirts with sexual undertones without going Basic Instinct. The overall affect is a playful edgy tone that nicely complements the screwball genre.

Class and Gender

One of the signature features of screwball comedies is an attention to class differences, often including reversals of fortune. In these stories, we see lots of connections between the rich and the poor. Characters rise and fall in economic status and social station. They marry into wealth, find fortunes, lose them, are separated from their community, and find new ones. There is a type of fluidity in screwball comedies between social classes that calls attention to the arbitrariness of our capitalist social structure, and it’s no coincidence that this genre emerged during the Great Depression, when economic anxiety followed from millions who were out-of-work, families that were separated, and political turmoil.

It Happened One Night addresses this economic anxiety head on with its central love story. Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a heiress with an independent streak, wishes to marry the aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Ellie’s father, Mr. Andrews (Walter Connolly), suspects Westly of being nothing more than a social climber who is interested in his daughter’s wealth and status, rather than genuinely in love with her. Andrews confines his daughter in a gilded cage–his yacht–hoping to talk her out of her relationship with Westley, but she escapes and heads up the east coast to New York City to meet up with her beloved.

However, along the way, Ellie encounters numerous people from both the middle class and working poor. Most notably, she meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a recently unemployed newspaper writer, who is in desperate need of a story. Peter realizes that a famous heiress fleeing her father to go to her beloved is just such a story, and Ellie needs help getting to New York. So they agree to help each other.

Peter will help Ellie get safely to The Big Apple, and in return, he’ll get the scoop to put him back in his editor’s good graces. That’s the plan, they hatch. However, as they spend more time with each other, unexpected things happen, including their getting to know each other more. Peter and Ellie–especially Ellie–learns how the other half lives, and their burgeoning romance is wound up with conflict that comes from class differences.

Their romance speaks to another characteristic of screwball comedies, the reversal of gender roles. In these films, women pursue and men are sought after. Characteristics traditionally assigned to men are assigned to women, and vice-versa. This feature is on display especially with Ellie, who takes charge of her own fate, when she escapes from her father and when she first proposes to Peter, to name two examples. The limitations set by the Hays Code meant that films needed to find subtle ways to introduce sexuality, and these reversals of gender roles created opportunities for sexually suggestive scenes that weren’t too threatening for socially conservative viewers.

Lighting, Acting, Blocking, and Props

From an aesthetic perspective, this film strategically uses lighting, familiar images, acting, and blocking to tell it’s story. The film’s cinematic elements are not especially showy or flamboyant, in the same way that a Kubrick film’s cinematography is, but there is nonetheless a careful and elegant use of filmmaking tools in each scene to convey a picture of warmth, playfulness, and expressive beauty. Let’s look at some specific scenes that exemplify these cinematic techniques.

Capra’s use of lighting makes use a range of effects; these include low-key lighting, high-key lighting, edge lighting, and soft lighting, each to portray different emotions and show character relationships. The combination of all these techniques evokes an impressionistic mood throughout the film.

For instance, there is the scene where Ellie is lying in the forest (See Image #1 in slide show; images in this section refer to slide show below.). Here we see her in soft, low key lighting, evenly spread out over her face. The overall effect is to convey her as beautiful, vulnerable, and sad. In his scene, there is an edge light around her head that accentuates her from the background. She has an airy, dreamy quality to her, and the edge light contrasts with the soft darkness on her face. Her dark countenance symbolizes her dilemma. She is falling for Peter, but does he love her also?

In another cleverly constructed shot, we see Ellie in the background, well-light, and mistrustful of Peter, who assertively and nonchalantly puts away his things and gets ready for bed (Image #2). Of course, Ellie has never been alone with a man for this long, and she is understandably concerned about what Peter might do. In contrast, Peter couldn’t really care less about her at this point–she’s just a story to him, not an objective for sexual attraction or romantic interest.

Nevertheless, even in this early scene, there is a sexual tension between the two, which comes from their emotive and cultural distance from each other (Image #2). In this shot, we see Ellie well-lit in the background; it’s where our eyes as viewers first go. It is her perspective we most identify with in this scene, and we follow her gaze forward to Peter, who is in the dark, both narratively and cinematically. Who is Peter? What does he want?

In a third scene we see them both in bed (Image #3). They are separated by the Walls of Jericho, a clever familiar image of a curtain that separates Peter and Ellie each night, at least until the Wall of Jericho are ready to tumble. In terms of blocking, they are separated. In this particular shot, we see the light on Peter, as he is contemplating his affection for Ellie. Their separation is both physical and emotional. The lighting is low-key with a hard contrast on Peter.

There is almost always a hard contrast on Peter’s face, and almost always a soft light on Ellie’s. For instance, review the next image (Image #4), also in the woods. There is definitely low-key lighting, with a soft composition for Ellie and a harder one for Peter. Finally, consider one final shot (Image #5), one of the more comic scenes in the film. Most comedies employ high-key lighting, and in this humorous hitchhiking scene, where Peter and Ellie compete to see who can first gain the attention of a driver, the lighting loses its emotive, impressionistic quality. The scene is well lit with a realistic tone, in contrast to the other images I’ve discussed.

In terms of acting, consider one of my favorite scenes, when Peter and Ellie pretend to be married, in order to fool the private investigators that Mr. Andrews has employed to search for his daughter. The rhythmic dialogue, the witty repartee, in this scene is another significant feature of screwball comedies. The way that Colbert and Gable interact in this scene is delightful, especially considering they are playing characters within their characters. For instance, Colbert is having Ellie act, which, to my mind at least, sounds especially challenging.

Overall, this film is funny, romantic, historically significant, and cinematically well-constructed. I’d recommend It Happened One Night for you to watch and enjoy.

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