Somewhere along the way, Hollywood forgot how to make good romantic comedies. Because there are plenty of them to be found in the ’30s and ’40s, with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night being chief among them. Claudette Colbert plays a rich gal running away from what is essentially an arranged marriage. After she bumps into a reporter played by Clark Gable on a fortuitous bus ride, the two begin a comically adversarial relationship that transforms into true love. But Gable’s all too aware of her father’s quest to find her, and when Colbert learns Gable had plans to write about her in the press, any potential future bliss is imperiled.
It Happened One Night is proof that conflict can inspire some of the most endearing romances. Colbert and Gable most certainly do not fall in love at first sight here. They are thrown together out of inconvenience and often blame each other for their shared misfortune. Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin make the most out of that misfortune with several comic set-pieces, including the famous ‘walls of Jericho’ motel scene, in which Gable hangs a blanket over a rope to give them privacy at a time when unmarried couples sleeping in the same room was quite the scandal. Gable mocks Colbert’s concerns, promising that the ‘walls’ will save her from him. The ‘walls of Jericho’ are mentioned throughout the film, and result in a most memorable ending when the walls come tumbling down. Colbert later gets the upper hand when the two of them are hitchhiking. Gable smugly promises his expertise will catch them a ride, but after successive failures, it’s Colbert who stops a wayward driver by hiking up her skirt.
It strikes me that I don’t remember Gable or Colbert ever saying, “I love you.” They might — I may just not remember. But It Happened One Night is nonetheless a romantic film that doesn’t have to try too hard to convince you that the romance is real. If you have to say it out loud, it’s rarely convincing. Capra lets the reserved dialogue and the performers do the work and is keenly aware of the fact that the audience always loves characters who make them laugh.
This film is a highly enjoyable road trip romantic comedy that helped write the formula for decades to come. The third act threatens to get bogged down in plotting, but is rescued soon enough by a perfect ending to the film. Joseph Walker’s nighttime cinematography is often beautiful, and Walter Connolly puts in a charming performance as Colbert’s father — a man who turns out not to be as stern and uncaring as you might imagine. This delightful film has the distinction of being Columbia Pictures’ first big hit, as well as the first film ever to sweep all five major categories at the Academy Awards.
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Gable), Actress (Colbert), Adapted Screenplay (Robert Riskin)