Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Thursday, December 30, 2010

It Happened One Night Spooks Me!

Guess I'm safe for assuming that no one else refers to It Happened One Night as the Dawn Of The Dead of romantic comedies, and yet for me, it's every bit as unsettling as that zombie-fest of 1979. I might not even have watched but for Netflix streaming IHON in HD this month, thus chance to look again at latest tweaks Sony/Columbia applied to long-problematic surviving elements. The feel-good Frank Capra classic never left me feeling so, for here's Depression (that D in caps throughout) spread like black tar down roads Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert travel. Post-apocalyptic movies are all the rage now --- who knew they did one in 1934? This is our lives was maybe what patrons thought then, and could be that's what put them in seats by droves. Would It Happened One Night disquiet me less were I not so spoiled? Depressionists didn't just expect food, shelter, and overcoats the way we do now. Life was struggle and there's no assurance Claudette will finish this bus ride intact, hers a perilous trip to Oz with Gable as sole protector. Everyone else traffics at thievery, extortion, and fortune hunting. Even a kid in tears over his mother's starvation comes across as maybe running a scam. You can go cynical quick on human nature watching It Happened One Night.

Jolly Alan Hale gives the couple a lift, then steals off with their luggage, a second time that happens to Claudette's character. Gable takes after the guy, subdues him (offscreen), then reports back later of having tied the would-be rogue to a tree, to which I wonder what'll happen to immobilized Hale when the next band of road agents come along. At one point, Colbert unknowingly breaks line at a communal shower, incurring wrath of surly-at-the-least women I half expected to gang-whoop her. Transit life for all I know is more dangerous now than then, but what engaged me here was Capra's refusal to sugarcoat hardship of living minus a safety net. Busted Gable makes do with raw carrots off the ground and you figure it's not his first time. I wonder how many in 1934 who saw and loved It Happened One Night had known hunger in their own lives and were only recently endowed with means to buy a movie ticket. Something made it click to fantastic rentals, and I'd doubt that was mere Gable and Colbert Together For The First Time (as promoted in the fan magazine ad above).

Don't know where, but I read David Selznick considered It Happened One Night the perfect blend for boxoffice, one he wished could have borne his name. Histories positioned IHON as little engine that could, up from poverty row and defeating odds to become sleeper of all time. Some of that I'd guess is true. Frank Capra would cast the film as underdog not unlike characters he developed for stories to come. You almost wonder why he didn't make a movie about the making of It Happened One Night, so entrenched were legends within short time after perfect storm of its 1934 reception. Remember the part where ...? led off conversation that inspired second, third, whatever viewings. Theatres did better with It Happened One Night on repeat runs than most product on a first, it being among few comedies to engage a truly mass following. Was Capra's just perfect timing? Variety wondered why 1948's reissue booking delivered short for a Los Angeles circuit. Well ... life, roads, and romance saw change (a lot) in those fourteen years between, and maybe folks didn't want reminding of how austere things had all too recently been.

Documentaries about Hollywood weren't complete without excerpts of It Happened One Night. Those walls of Jericho bespoke movies as they'd been and wouldn't be again. Gable and Colbert hitch-hiking encapsulates what Classic Era stars and story-tellers did best ... proof that an industry wasn't making movies like it used to. Such ease of perfection loomed over Frank Capra as well --- why couldn't he do them so well anymore? It Happened One Night, with ducks in a row five minutes past titles, was economical like this director's silent comedies had been. Gable and Colbert vehicles to come were evidence that such quality was had once in a hundred. Part of the freshness came of their acts being not so ossified in 1934. Both major names, neither Gable nor Colbert were yet crated with fixed image that would make later work more predictable. Watch their reunion in 1940's Boom Town and note mannerism, tricks, and gesturing clearly sops to fan expectation. Is it a wonder stars got bored being stars? For It Happened One Night at least, there was fun of personas still developing. Gable doffing clothes to reveal no undershirt was image-defining he (and Metro) would trade on long after this kind of spontaneity got corporate-scrubbed off his plate.

I'd give Frank Capra credit for inventing romantic comedies as we've known them for a past seventy-six years. Was there anything prior to 1934 you'd call a precursor? Not among pics I've seen. Prior (talking) battle-of-gender comedies play more raffish and precode. It Happened One Night got under wire of strict enforcement too, but doesn't really speak in pre-coded terms (could there have been trims made to the negative for subsequent releases?). I wonder if writers of Kate Hudson and Jennifer Aniston rom-coms have watched It Happened One Night. Certainly they know the blueprint, having doubtless looked at numerous other shows that imitated Capra's original. Is it safe to say that all romance comedies are six (more or less) degrees removed from It Happened One Night? My own uneasy response notwithstanding, I'd think civilians would enjoy IHON as much as any 30's sampling, possibly more for having seen its devices reused right up to present day. Frank Capra would travel with It Happened One Night till nearly an end. One early eighties revival he attended at the long-shuttered Capri Theatre in Charlotte found management presenting a 35mm print that looked like a third-generation dupe, for which Capra apologized profusely. This was not the movie I made, said the director to an audience stilled by disappointment.


Blogger VP81955 said...

"It Happened One Night" remains an amazing accident. According to Wikipedia, the following actresses could have played Ellie, but didn't:

Miriam Hopkins (who rejected so many roles she was essentially George Raft on estrogen)

Myrna Loy (though she later said the script she received was not at all similar to what eventually ended up on screen)

Margaret Sullavan

Constance Bennett (who would only play the role if she could produce the film herself, which Columbia nixed)

Bette Davis (Jack Warner wouldn't loan her out...sort of "All About Eve" in reverse, without injuries)

Carole Lombard (who declined because the filming schedule conflicted with that of Paramount's "Bolero," which turned out to be a hit for her; she shortly got her pivotal film, "Twentieth Century," through Columbia)

Loretta Young

In addition, Loy would have been partnered with Robert Montgomery, who also turned it down.

Initially, Colbert rejected the part, due to disastrous work with Frank Capra on a 1927 silent, "For The Love Of Mike." She took the role only after persuading Columbia to double her salary and assuring her it would be done in four weeks so she could go on vacation.

And the story that Clark Gable was sent to Columbia as "punishment" by Louis B. Mayer is nonsense. MGM had no work lined up for Clark at the time, so the studio loaned him out (and Mayer got some money from Harry Cohn for doing so).

A lot of intriguing what-ifs, especially Davis -- had a romantic comedy been the film to put her on the map, her career might have gone in an entirely different direction.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I love this one, and have always felt the gritty surface details you mention are actually a big part of its ongoing appeal. I do think it is the grandpop of modern romantic comedies, presenting a foolproof formula for success: mix together two sexy, magnetic characters who are, never the less, kinda jerks on their own - then, without changing their basic personalities, make them become funnier, more attractive and more likable when they are in each other's company. Of course saying this is fool proof is a little like telling people to buy low and sell high. It's really, really hard to do! The only complaint I heard from my 20 something daughter and friends after a recent viewing (and it was a loud one): how come the lovers reunite at the end...OFF CAMERA!

11:34 AM  
Anonymous dbenson said...

I never really equated IHON with Depression -- just as a film that was made in that time. The "official" Depression comedies seemed to be My Man Godfrey, with its brief glimpses of a soundstage hobo camp full of white-collar bums, and Sullivan's Travels, with its Reality-seeking hero.

The difference? Both those films TALKED about the Depression (often in luxurious settings), while IHON just put it out there as the status quo.

IHON is like comedy shorts in that respect. Chaplin and sometimes Laurel & Hardy occupied a wistful, hobo-friendly landscape; the rest, when not in set in period or burlesqued wealth, were nervous middle class and down. The Stooges were especially low-income as well as low-budget, and even the early Disney and Fleischer cartoons kept their heroes close to the street.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Just happened to watch IHON back at Thanksgiving.

First viewing in 10- 15 years.

I love the "feel" of the movie.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I never really gave IHON my full attention until a year ago in which I liked it so much,I watched it again with my mom shortly after...I'd grown up seeing it in bits and pieces..and yes The Hitchhiking scene and The Walls of Jerico scene got played to death in old documentaries of the 60s and 70s,and is part of the reason that kept me from really being interested in seeing the whole thing.But I'm glad I did,its most enjoyable..

11:26 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Under Capra's tutelage, Gable had the opportunity to establish the "common man" prototype of depression era comedies. (Acknowleging the fact Robert Williams did it earlier, also with Capra, in Platinum Blonde, but that film didn't have nearly the same viewing numbers as IHON). IHON has one of Gable's most human portrayals, in contrast to playing the Olympian God of sexual magnetism, as always insisted by his home studio. Capra was clearly one of Gable's most effective directors, and, as he would later do with Cooper and Stewart, was able to help bring out the best in him as a performer. As much as he disliked being loaned to Columbia, Gable must have felt freer as a performer once he got into the spirit of the production, working on a little film of which noone expected anything than when performing under the protective eye of his MGM masters.

11:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a romantic comedy pre-IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. ME AND MY GAL starring Spencer Tracy. Please do a posting on that film!

8:33 AM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

I've always found the expression "Capra-corn" to be a misnomer. Sure there are corny moments in many of Capra's films, but they're balanced by dark moments ("It's a Wonderful Life"), gritty portrayals of reality ("It Happened One Night") and black humor ("Arsenic & Old Lace"). To paint I've always felt it unfair that so many have painted Capra's films with a broad brush-stroke over the years, leading many that have never seen his films to believe the generalization, and maybe stay away from the films because of it.

As for your post, Johh, another top-notch and thought-provoking entry! As with most of your posts, it makes me want to revisit the film. That is the brilliance of your writing, John - you have the innate ability to engage your readers and to inspire them to further investigate the topics of your writings. :)

9:53 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I would have given some credit to writer Robert Riskin too.





French (contemporary reissue):

















1:45 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Interesting that Robert Montgomery turned it down; the same year he starred in "Fugitive Lovers," which, as memory serves me, was pretty similar in feel. Perhaps he thought one on-the-lam-by-bus romantic comedy was enough?

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Happy New Year, and an off-topic question, about the Hopalong Cassidy fan card you have on the main page today--is that from the original theatrical release, rather than later (when William Boyd bet everything he had on the new medium of television and hit the jackpot as its first live action children's star)?

6:47 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Paul --- The Hoppy card came from Paramount's 1938 pressbook for "Sunset Trail," so it would be the original release.

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting to compare "...Night" to It's 50s remake, "You Can't Run Away From It".There's a social history lesson(in comparisons)right there.And have you seen the 1936 German imitation, "Gluckskinder"? It's set in New York, and It's hero gets a beer at a drug store lunch counter!A song from the film is on the "Inglorious Basterds CD.

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can't cede an invention to one person when it's obvious so many others have their fingerprints on the patent. One example....... the collaboration of Charley Chase and Leo McCarey. Not just situation comedy, but romantic comedy. Capra owed and stole so much from the masters that preceded him. I interviewed him in the early seventies, as he was on tour plugging his autobiog "Name Above The Title." He was reticent to include the names of other Hollywood greats in our interview, even dismissing his time with Langdon, as him exceeding what Langdon could teach him, so he moved on. Many years later, other versions started to surface as to what happened during that time he was with Langdon and Harry Edwards. Don't be so quick to hail Frank Capra as the inventor of anything except Frank Capra and Capracorn.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

The furious reaction to Frank Capra's "Name Above the Title," especially among Harry Langdon fans, never fails to amuse me. Didn't any of these people read the Preface, where Capra states up front that "This is not truly an autobiography;" that he's going to play fast and loose with chronology and facts; that people and events will be presented "as I saw them from the inside of my own eyeballs?" Why do so many people feel taken in?

There's no question Langdon's reptutation has suffered because of both Capra's book and Sennett's from 1954. But in attempting to "set the record straight," a few enthusiasts have gone to the other extreme.

Langdon's vaudeville career is a case in point. While he didn't spend nearly two decades playing tank towns and two-bit "honky-tonks," as alleged by Sennett and Capra, neither was he the big, important vaudeville headliner presented in latter-day books and articles. Yes, he escaped small time when he reached the prestigious Keith circuit in 1911, and was playing (but not headlining at) the Palace in NY by 1916. But six years later, nothing much had changed. Langdon's automobile routine was still the meat-and-potatoes of his act, and while he was a proven audience favorite, he never truly cracked the big time: New York headliner. He was invited to bring his act to Broadway in 1920, in a revue called "Jim Jam Jems," but he wasn't starring, just one of several "specialty" acts. The show closed after about two months, and back he went to vaudeville.

Put another way: In November 1912, Langdon played his "A Night on the Boulevard," an act which was then four years old, at the Colonial in NY; in a less-prestigious place on the bill were Gordon and (Chico) Marx, a pair of Weber-and-Fields wannabes. Three years later, Langdon revised and retitled his act "Johnny's New Car," while Chico was one of the Four Marx Brothers headlining in "Home Again." Langdon started in vaudeville when Groucho was Julius Marx, Boy Soprano, and he was still there when "I'll Say She Is" was killing 'em in Philadelphia.

Back to Capra. Did he "invent" or even co-create Langdon's character? Of course not. Langdon's comedy, his strengths, his schtick, were set in place long before he walked in Sennett's door. The real question is: did Capra, more than anyone else, perceive the kinds of stories, situations and/or gags that would best showcase that character in films? The answer to that is not so cut-and-dried.

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

I'm not a big fan of Capra's films. Not because they are corny; quite the contrary. I often find them -- even the 'uplifting ones' -- too grim. For example, for all of the smiling faces at the end of It's a Wonderful Life, nothing in George Baily's life has really changed. That whistling through tragedy ethos has always left a dank taste in my mouth....

2:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have a inquiry for the webmaster/admin here at

May I use some of the information from your post right above if I give a backlink back to this site?


12:16 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That'll be OK, James. I like Random Shelf.

12:29 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024
  • May 2024