After a brief respite, I’m continuing with my review of Oscar Best Picture winners (I can’t survive on bad movies alone, after all). Next on the list is It Happened One Night, which happens to be the first movie on the list that I’ve actually seen prior to starting my journey through these films, so I should start this off by saying that my review may be a little skewed on this one. Not only have I seen it previously, but I own it, and genuinely like it. Of course, I can’t be the only person to feel this way, since the film holds the distinction of being the first picture to claim all five major awards at the Oscars: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture (Only two other films can claim this distinction: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs). Given my feelings about some of the other Oscar winners from this period, it might seem surprising that I would enjoy a film from this era so much, but it’s just too damn endearing. I’m a sucker for romantic comedies, and It Happened Once Night helped pave the way for the genre.
Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is wealthy socialite who secretly married a disreputable young man whom her father disapproves of. Her father insists they have the marriage annulled, but Ellie refuses and runs away. In her travels to make it back to New York to be with her supposed one true love she meets Peter Warne (Clark Cable), a recently down-on-his-luck reporter. The two clash at first, but Peter recognizes Ellie from numerous articles about her disappearance, and realizing how utterly helpless she is, winds up helping her. The two hide from her pursuers, thugs hired by her father to track her down, while trying to get by on the measly amount of money they’ve got between the two of them. Desperate to get his daughter back, Ellie’s father even offers a sizable reward for information leading to her return.
As inevitably happens in these scenarios (at least in the movies) the two start to fall for each other. However, Peter leaves Ellie asleep one night to travel ahead to get enough money to buy an engagement ring. Believing Peter to have abandoned her, Ellie phones her father and returns home with him, to have a proper wedding with her husband. Both Peter and Ellie are heartbroken, but pride prevents them from saying anything. Ellie finally confides to her father that she fell in love with Peter and wants to annul her current marriage, and her father mentions that he received a telegram asking to meet regarding a financial matter. Ellie leaves in tears, believing Peter to be nothing more than a common scoundrel, after money and nothing else. When Peter and Ellie’s father meet, however, Peter only demands that he be reimbursed for the money he spent on Ellie during their travels, a whole $39.60, and outright refuses any portion of the reward money. Finally acting in his daughter’s best interests, Ellie’s father informs her of this meeting, and gives Ellie his blessing to leave and be with Peter. The film ends with the two of them returning to a small hotel they stayed in during their travels together, finally together as a couple.
As far as plots go, It Happened One Night doesn’t really seem all that special, at least by today’s standards. We’ve been so inundated with romantic comedies of varying degrees of quality that most of all have likely seen a similar situation play out in half a dozen movies. Does that make this a cliche, or even outright bad, film? Of course not. On the contrary, It Happened One Night was a forerunner in the genre, merging a romantic plotline with witty, snappy dialogue and interesting characters. Peter and Ellie are the only characters I call out by name in my summary, because it’s they who carry the film. Everyone else is a foil to Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert’s chemistry, and its their skill, coupled with the wonderful screenplay, to which the film owes much of its success. Had either been inferior, I can perfectly imagine how the story would have played out on screen. It would have been boring, dragging from scene to scene. The problem with plots like the one in It Happened One Night is that it’s simple: there’s really not a whole lot that has to happen to get from point A to point B. The details, then, are what make the film: the side scenes that don’t NEED to happen but which help create richer, more fully realized characters. It Happened One Night is filled with moments like this, and Gable and Colbert make the most of it in spectacular fashion.
Take, for instance, one scene in which Ellie’s trackers burst into their hotel room, searching for Ellie. They know what she looks like, so Peter tells her to muss her hair and keep her face hidden. He begins spewing on and on about various fake family members as the thugs enter the room. The conversation spirals out of control as Peter accuses Ellie of having flirted with a man the night before, as Ellie pretends to cry frantically as she denies this. Within the context of the scene this is all improv, meant to shoo away the hired muscle so that the love story can continue to unfold, but it’s done with such aplomb and sharp timing that it’s one of the most enjoyable scenes in the film.
For the sake of fairness, I won’t pretend that the film is perfect by modern standards. Peter is a bit of a domineering presence, and he tends to boss Ellie around quite a bit throughout the film. He spends half the movie calling her “brat” and telling her what to do. Likewise, Ellie is portrayed as a somewhat naive, dumb young woman, with no concept of money or how to take care of herself. I can reconcile this fact by reminding myself that she’s an heiress in the film who likely WOULDN’T know how to manage money when striking out on her own for the first time. Besides, despite her perhaps needing help, she’s incredibly strong-willed and refuses to ask for it. She will accept a helping hand when it’s offered, but she will never admit that she’s weak in any way. Perhaps she’s not the most feminist character of all time, but at least she’s making her own choices. When she flees her father in the beginning of the movie, she leaps off his yacht and swims to shore, for goodness sake. This is not the action of an idle young woman who lets others make decisions for her. While not perfect characterization throughout, there are at least enough modern sentiments here to make the film watchable and, more importantly, enjoyable over eighty years later.
The writing is snappy and hard-hitting, with Gable and Colbert bantering back and forth throughout the film’s entirety, never missing a beat. The two have incredible on-screen chemistry, and their pacing is spot-on. Compared to some of the earlier Best Picture winners, it’s easy to see why It Happened One Night swept the awards that year. It’s well-made and filled with talent, yes, but its popularity is simpler than that: It’s fun to watch. There are no dull moments in the film, and frankly I would be perfectly happy if it stretched beyond its hour and forty-five minute run time to include additional scenes for Peter and Ellie to banter about in.
As mentioned previously, my opinion may be slightly skewed on this one. After all, I didn’t come into this film blind, and comparing a movie I already know and love to others that I expected more out of and enjoyed far less is perhaps a bit unfair. Still, regardless of my bias, It Happened One Night is a genuinely good movie, and well worth a watch. The acting is spectacular, the script is sharp, and the film provides an entertaining journey for two characters who are just a little too perfect for one another.