Friday, October 15, 2010

Oscar Review: It Happened One Night (1934)

     In the earlier years of Hollywood when genres were just taking shape, categories such as the romantic comedy and screwball comedy had not yet earned the stereotype of saccharine love stories, overdone plot lines, or ridiculous circumstances that throw unlikely pairs together. It Happened One Night possesses all these elements, but in 1934 it was original, and despite countless knock-offs, this founding screwball comedy still has something of the novelty and freshness that made it an Academy Award Winner.
     The years of romantic comedies over the years make It Happened One Night seem predictable, but it does carry a few gimmicks all its own. When in the last act of the film everything inevitably seems to fall apart, it is surprisingly engaging in how it ever so slightly taunts viewers into doubting a happy ending. The story starts out with a spoiled rich girl with no real knowledge of the actual world, and a hard-up reporter looking for a story. They are thrown together on a train and the usual banter-ridden relationship ensues. He’s a cad and she’s stuffy; basic formula for a romantic setup. Ellie is trying to get away from her controlling father and back to the man she impulsively married. Peter is just looking for a good story to run on the front page, and falls for Ellie in spite of himself because that is what men in romantic comedies do. One of the more surprising details was discovering that Ellie’s father was not as controlling as he was deeply caring and aware of his daughter’s stubborn nature. By the film’s end he has proven himself a sensitive and wise father who knows his daughter’s mind, and truly does know best. And unlike other protagonists of the genre, Peter might make a few suggestive comments or take a few verbal jabs at Ellie, but when faced with a moral dilemma, he elects to
marry her. 

     What is especially curious about watching this former Best Picture winner is how scandalous it pretends to be, despite the era-appropriate decorum with which all the subject matter is handled. Put simply, all the interactions between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert’s characters seem to be some very labored foreplay to the finale in which the two finally consummate the relationship (not shown onscreen). Although both characters
act with propriety, their dialogue is provocative, enhancing the tension that keeps the audience asking “will they or won't they?” Had It Happened One Night been made in the present day, the concern would be that every night the couple spends together would end in a tryst. The title seems to hint at some sort of affair, but ironically, nothing happened one night. In this plucky comedy, the couple spends a few nights together in the same
room with a sheet hanging over a suspended rope to separate them— a curtain that Clark Gable’s character Peter calls “the walls of Jericho.” Peter
teases that he has no trumpet in the manner of the Israelites that would fell the great wall. As the story goes on that barrier seems thinner and thinner until in the final scene the characters are implied standing on either side of it waiting for the word that Ellie’s marriage has been annulled, making Ellie and Peter’s elopement legal. The innkeeper brings Peter a trumpet, and Ellie’s father receives a telegram reading “What's holding up the annulment, you slowpoke? The walls of Jericho are a-toppling!” Her father’s classic response “'Let 'em topple” precedes the final scene in which we see nothing more than the curtain falling. Nothing more needs to be seen; it's as sexy as 1934 can get.

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