It isn’t long into Frank Capra’s romantic comedy classic, that the audience knows this film is complete– complete in vision, performance, editing… everything. Just as Sunrise and Wings showed how fine a silent film could be, It Happened One Night showed us what the ’emergent’ sound film could be. A reflection of the film’s quality is it being the first film to win the top five Academy Awards of Best Film, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Actor (Clark Gable), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Riskin).
Despite the wonderfulness of the film, there is a very clear infantilization of Ellen Andrews, played by Claudette Colbert. As the daughter of millionaire Alexander Andrews, Ellie is repeatedly called a brat. After destroying her father’s dinner, fine china and all, he slaps her with a force that shocks both of them. Later on in the film, Peter Warne, played by Gable, yells at Ellie to “Shut up!”, tells her she needs a good “sock in the nose,” and threatens to kill her, with veracity and venom that is shocking. Eerily, Ellie walks off and Peter comes to stand behind her, touch her hand, and apologize sincerely. Viewing the film 80+ years after it’s original release, there is a tension understanding the unacceptable actions directed at Ellie by the men in her life, yet enjoying the budding romance between her and Peter. The film reminds us that art is never perfect. It’s up to us to resolve the arguments in our mind and I choose to enjoy the film, in the midst of the jerkiness of the men.
It Happened One Night (1934) 105 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Walter Connolly, Charles C. Wilson.