Criterion: It Happened One Night, Frank Capra, 1934
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll come clean that I’m not a Capra fanatic. That’s not to say that I don’t have tremendous respectful for him as a talented and influential filmmaker, and I like most of his films, even if I do not love them. My first exposure to him came during my younger cineaste years, when I was being reared on the edgy indies of the 90s and the new auteurs of the 00s. Compared to Todd Haynes or Tarantino, the “Capraesque” pictures of the classic Hollywood era seemed rather plain and mundane. Again, I thought they were good pictures, but they laid everything on a little too thick. There was too much ideology in Mr. Smith Goes to Hollywood, too much populism in Meet John Doe, and too much sentimentality in It’s a Wonderful Life.
When I first saw It Happened One Night, I had an anti-Capra bias. Just like with those other films, I did not hate his breakthrough comedy, but I did not love it either. I was ambivalent. That was easily 15 and possibly 20 years ago. I gave it another shot earlier this year, and came out with a newfound appreciation, yet still was not completely enamored. This Criterion disc gives me another chance for a re-visitation, and like their best releases, a new contextualization. Having a lot more knowledge about film history doesn’t hurt either. On this third viewing, the film grew on me quite a bit more.
First, in the context of his library, this film is not as “Capraesque” as I had originally remembered. Beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, his signature style really started to take shape, and was cemented as he continued to work. This film is actually unlike a lot of Capra’s later work, in that it’s more spontaneous, faster paced, and has a lot more of an edge.
It’s worth pointing out that this is a pre-code film. That said, it is a relatively benign pre-code film. The code would begin just a few months later. The writing may have been on the wall, but Capra did not indulge too much. When he did, it served the plot, such as the hilarious mannerisms of speech of Mr. Shapeley. At it’s core, the film is about sex, yet Capra danced around the subject in ways that undoubtedly inspired post-code filmmakers. The ‘Walls of Jericho’ way of dividing the hotel room is the perfect way to have a man and woman sleep together in a non-threatening way. It also became a suitable metaphor for the unspoken subject throughout the film. Some of the dialogue, the undressing scene, and the payoff of the ‘Walls of Jericho’ metaphor would probably have been altered in a post-code world, but it was indirect enough that it could have been a workable canvas to present sex in film.
There are three elements that make this simply a fun movie: Clark Gable, Mr. Shapeley, and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Gable was a delight, and played opposite the stone-faced Colbert with precision. The confident, charming and funny way he delivered his lines during their banter really sold the hostile courtship. He interacted with other characters in the same way, such as his boss, the detectives that try to search his hotel, and last but not least, Mr. Shapely. One of the funniest scenes of the movie, in my opinion, was the way in which Gable manipulates the misogynist character of Shapeley. Even though the character was funny, he deserved comeuppance, and the manner in which he was dispatched was one of the comedic high points. The song they sing on the bus does very little for the plot. It is more of a diversion than anything, but it conveys the relaxed, jovial atmosphere, where the courtship and the ‘One Night’ would eventually take place.
Film Rating: 8/10
Frank Capra, Jr. Remembers – Frank, Sr’s son remembers and discusses a lot of the details about the film. Of course he was born in 1934, so he did not remember anything firsthand, but he probably was exposed to a lot more about the film as a Capra than most others involved. He talked about the situation with Claudette Colbert, how she was about to leave for vacation and would only take the project if they doubled her pay and finished in four weeks. They agreed and literally had to begin production the next day. She was complaining all the time, and told friends that “I’ve just finished the worst picture of my life.” He says that Capra and Gable had a lot of fun making the picture. It shows.
Screwball Comedy? – Conversation between critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate. It Happened One Night is sometimes called first screwball, but that is not altogether accurate. It is only loosely a screwball in the first place, at least in the way that future films would be considered. It was not as fast talking as Howard Hawks’ films, including Twentieth Century that came out that same year. The conversation moves on from looking at it from a screwball perspective and becomes a straightforward critical analysis, although they would often return to view the themes from a screwball point of view.
Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House, 1921 – This is the first Capra film. While his amateurism is on display, some of his skill is also clear. It works well visually, and he blends the title cards into the action effectively. The action scenes were effective, but the title cards were excessive and made the short film tough to follow.
Frank Capra’s American Dream, 1997 – This feature length documentary about Capra’s life was a treat. This and many of the other supplements make the disc far more than just the film. This is a tribute to the entire legacy of the filmmaker. Ron Howard narrates as they follow his origins as a child immigrant, the hard work that gave him opportunities in life, and of course his career in Hollywood. What was surprising was that after the huge success of It Happened One Night, Capra fell into a deep depression due to his success and guilt towards those suffering in the depression. This is where his career took a turn and he worked towards making films that the common man could appreciate. While this is often a criticism of the “Capraesque” method of filmmaking, it is also a justification for it. People in the depression were suffering. Movies were a low-cost escape for them. Capra gave them hope and inspiration, and considering the time, it does not matter how realistic his worlds were. Through this journey, I gained respect and appreciation for the man and his methods, even if I do not always adore his movies.
AFI Salute to Frank Capra – This was the 10th life achievement award in 1982. It plays as an hour-long awards ceremony. Jimmy Stewart hosts the show, beginning with a short feature about Capra’s childhood story up to his breakout in silent pictures. Many other celebrities speak, including Bette Davis and Peter Falk, who worked with him in Pocketful of Miracles. Claudette Colbert came out and was respectful, which is ironic since she had such a miserable time on the picture. Lionel Stander, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, said a few words, as did many stars who were influenced by Capra. These included Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Burgess Meredith, Fred MacMurray, Steve Martin, many more. It ended with Capra giving his acceptance speech, and truly enjoying the moment.
Criterion Rating: 9/10