It’s apropos that the title of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night suggests a flicker of chance, an unperceivable dash of magic. Neither Claudette Colbert nor Clark Gable, who play the film’s central romantic pair, were particularly excited about the project: Colbert was paid double her regular fee, and Capra noted that Gable wasn’t exactly jazzed to be on loan to Columbia from MGM. Colbert was so convinced that she wasn’t going to win her Academy Award that she planned to skip the ceremony, where the film would go on to snag the “big five.” Even now, It Happened One Night carries the unmistakable tenor of a breakout hit, fueled by confidently zippy repartee and manic comic invention that almost none of the innumerable pretenders to the throne of romantic comedy can match.
By the time Gable’s Peter Warne is first glimpsed, stuffed inside a phone box arguing with his editor in close-up, Colbert’s Ellie Andrews has already gone a few rounds of zingers with her overweight, overbearing tycoon father (Walter Connolly). Ellie’s sudden engagement to famed aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas) stirs up Mr. Andrews, who all but imprisons her on his massive yacht, and the script by Robert Riskin, Capra’s longtime collaborator, puts the concept of class and wealth in the foreground. When Ellie escapes her father (and his means), she finds herself depending on Warne’s honed street smarts and charm, but he’s never quite so offended as when she tries to buy him off.
In essence, her trying to pay Warne off is an attempt to extinguish any duty she might have to him as a human relating to another human, and he’s quick to call her on it. For whatever ultra-sized dose of humility Ellie is in need of, however, Warne is long overdue for the chip on his shoulder to be removed, to say nothing about the loud mouth, wild drinking, and up-from-the-gutter pride. And if the film ultimately idealizes the morals of the middle class in terms of usable intellect and responsibility, the narrative builds off the friction between entitlement and self-reliance, both between the two leads and within Ellie. The filmmakers all but underline this early on when Warne’s colleagues christen him “King,” just like Ellie’s other suitor—one given as a sign of a family’s wealth and heritage, the other gifted by the common man for an act of careless, bemused defiance.
When the film hit theaters, it was the men and women of the middle class that fully embraced it too, as the box office was only moderate until it made its way down to the smaller theaters and markets. And Capra clearly revels in the faces, mannerisms, and talents of the less fortunate, as in a late sequence where Warne waves not only to the conductor, but the homeless man riding on the top of the train and a boxcar full of other bums. At another point, a trio of random bus passengers, commoners trying to go home or get away from it, provides impromptu entertainment for their fellow travelers by singing. The common folk that Capra and Riskin present here are, at heart, entertainers both good and bad, people who use storytelling and performance as a way to grapple with bad luck and anxious existence. Taken in all at once, they create a wild pulse of society and community in Capra’s exquisite comedy, of the unknown abilities and wisdoms that the person next to you in traffic carries around, sometimes without even knowing it. On their own, these moments summon everyday passions and expressions that remain quiet until fortuitously called upon, revealing the unexpected dividends of chance.
Sourced from the recent 4K restoration of the film, Criterion’s 1080p transfer of It Happened One Night is a borderline revelation, boosting a remarkable new level of depth as compared to the flatness of prior DVD releases. This is largely due to refined shadow definition, accompanied by nice, inky blacks and a clear array of gray shades; contrast and grain levels are consistently pitch-perfect. There are no major anomalies, though certain transitional scenes are obviously of a lesser grade, but these are also clearly scenes that couldn’t be salvaged for the 4K print. The audio is strictly mono, but it’s clear throughout and there’s a nice, unerring balance to the mix.
The real treat here is Frank Capra’s first film, Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House, a 13-minute adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem "The Ballad of the Fisher’s Boarding House" made in 1921. It’s a short story of doomed love, making for an odd pairing with It Happened One Night, but has strong historical value and gives some minor insights into Capra’s style and vision. Then there’s Ken Browser’s 96-minute documentary on Capra, which goes over most of his career and features interviews with Robert Altman, Michael Keaton, Bill Duke, and Richard Schickel, among others, and the AFI’s Life Achievement Award ceremony for Capra, which features vintage footage of plenty of the director’s acolytes. The video interview with Frank Capra Jr. focuses more on the production of It Happened One Night, and the video discussion between critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate highlights Capra’s place in the canon of screwball comedies. A trailer and a leaflet featuring an essay by Farran Smith Nehme are also included.
Criterion expectedly gives Frank Capra’s pre-code delight a thorough A/V buff and shine, along with excellent supplements that lends more context to Capra the artist than the film itself.