It happened one night in 1934, and it happens every time we watch this utterly beguiling film. A rather modest effort which brought Capra into the spotlight, we frankly prefer it to many of the more "important" films he made later. It also clinched for good the stardom of Gable and Colbert. (What a pity that their only other teaming was the dismal BOOM TOWN.)
The familiar story, a prototype for many screwball comedies to follow, opens with headstrong heiress Ellie Andrews (Colbert) fleeing her father (Connolly). Trying to make it to her washout fiance (Thomas) on her own, she soon encounters errant reporter Peter Warne (Gable). He agrees to help her make it from Florida to New York in exchange for her story, which will square him with his disgruntled boss. Over the course of several nights, the inevitable happens.
What really distinguishes IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT from so many other films are Capra's handling of the individual comic and romantic setpieces, Riskin's way with a line, and the marvelous cast. Every viewer has his or her favorite scenes. Consider the "wall of Jericho" (a blanket) Peter sets up
between himself and Ellie before bedding down for the night, a sly dig at Production Code prudery just then being enforced. Or what about Peter's famous lessons in how to dunk a donut or how a man undresses? (We all recall, of course, how Ellie shows him up in the memorable hitchhiking lesson.)
For romance, there's some lovely bedside dreaming and even a scene in the hay. There's also Ellie's wonderful wedding gown near the end, the lengthy veil providing a visual exclamation point to rival Elsa Lanchester's hair in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The splendidly cast actors, too, make their bits
of business their own, from Karns' mildly lecherous salesperson ("Shapeley's the name and that's the way I like 'em") turned scared rabbit to Hale's aggressively cheering but deceptive singing motorist. The best support, though, comes from the unfailingly marvelous Connolly in a role he made his
own. Gable and Colbert's screen personas were firmly established here, his tongue-in-cheek machismo and her witty, supple sophistication mixing like gin and tonic.
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT won the top five Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay), a feat only duplicated twice since. Watch it again and you'll remember why.
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