I can hardly call myself a connoisseur of Classic Hollywood and the romantic comedy if I haven’t got an opinion on It Happened One Night (1934). The film is often considered the blue print for the romcom genre with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable setting the tone for the push and pull of the attraction across social divides for filmic eternity.
Romcoms are supposed to have the following ingredients:
• Introductions to the polar opposites of the main characters
• A “meet-cute” where there separate lives collide in humorous circumstances
• A whole barrage of obstacles
• A grand gesture of romance
• And a Happy Ending!
Of course, It Happened One Night does all this.
Ellen (Claudette Colbert) is a wealthy heiress, whose father has swept her onto his yacht and away from her newly acquired husband, because he believes the groom is a gold-digger. She jumps into the sea to reunite with her love.
Peter (Clark Gable) is a journalist, fly-by the seats of his pants drunk, recently fired.
They meet on a night bus to New York and much hilarity ensues.
It Happened One Night is a great romcom, and there is much already written about the legend.
It was the first of only three films to win the big five Oscars (best actor, best actress, best director, best (adapated) screen play, best film). The other two are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.
It was shot in just four weeks, with both stars reluctant to appear in it. There was a particularly strained relationship between Colbert and Capra (director).
One of the most famous scenes is the hitch-hiking scene, in which Colbert stops a car by flashing her legs. Apparently she didn’t want to do the scene, but when she saw the body double, she shouted, “That’s not my leg.” And her calf is now in the movie.
When it finished shooting, Colbert reputedly told friends that she had just finished the worst film ever. She was so sure it wouldn’t win the Oscar that she planned her vacation on the day of the ceremony. She accepted the award in a travelling two-piece suit.
The other legend is that when Clark Gable unrobed in front of his leading lady, appearing without a vest, the sale of undershirts plummeted. (There is no data to support this but what a story!)
But all of this has been said before.
In fact writing about the romcom pretty much everything has already been said.
Whilst often belittled by critics, they are some of the most profitable and popular films. Their success is often related to the socio and economic circumstances of their production. The 1930s and 1970s are often quoted as being the golden ages of the romcom, when the economy was in down-turn and inequality was rife, meaning audiences wanted escape and romance across the social divides.
It Happened One Night is a perfect example of trying to find love that isn’t bound up with the heroine’s financial worth, but her character. When Peter only wants $39.60 expenses, and doesn’t claim the substantial reward for finding the heiress, that is the true indication of love.
But there is also a particularly moving scene where a woman on the night bus faints from hunger, the reality of Depression era poverty on full display.
And then there are the feminist critiques of romcoms. I have written many myself. Romcoms can perpetuate gendered stereotypes and romanticise male predatory behaviour. It Happened One Night has its problems in this regard. There is a “playful” slap on the bottom, to stop her talking. The machismo threats from Peter, “you do and I’ll break your neck” or about marrying her, she needs “a guy who’ll take a sock to her every day.”
This is not o.k.
There is a sense that she is haughty and needs to be taken down a peg to be properly “rescued.” It is not at The Taming of the Shrew break the spirit levels, but it is there.
But all of this has been said before.
So, what can I add?
Well, would you believe I am going to write about smoking? Because Clark Gable is rarely seen without a cigarette – and all the characters smoke. Smoke constantly snaking out of Gable’s lips, even as he lies in bed with the lights out. (“Don’t set the blanket on fire” was my first thought for a shirtless Gable in a motel room.)
Smoking in It Happened One Night was a reflection of the habits of the cast and crew. Not smoking would have been unnatural. But it looks out of place to a 21st century viewer. (My daughter once pointed out to me someone smoking in the street – “Look, Mummy, a real cigarette.”)
There is no suggestion that Gable’s smoking would cause coughing, stained fingers, yellow teeth and bad breath. No idea that it might contribute to the actor's early death. It just was. It had no plot point. It was as common as eating or sleeping.
As a modern viewer I’m used to smoking saying something.
A cornered woman lights a nervous cigarette, seductively.
The cigarette in hand, a lazy way to denote working class.
The noir detective smokes to slow down the rapid fire of dialogue, a punctuation point.
Cigarette in the hand of an ad-man – so you know he is hard-boiled, and of his time.
While watching It Happened One Night, I found myself drawn to the unspoken habit of lighting up – expecting meaning. But all it says is that this film was made in the 1930s and this is what grown-ups did. Ellen is more disgusted by Peter eating raw carrots peeled with a pen-knife than his constant cigarettes.
There was a popularly held opinion that cigarettes reduced stress, especially stress induced by talking to the opposite sex. Cigarettes were also a cheap appetite suppressant. Peter and Ellen were stuck with each other, on the road, with little money. Cigarettes could blow the stress and hunger away.
So the cigarettes in It Happened One Night reminds us that despite some modern ideas and a plot we all recognise, this was a film of the 1930s.
But I can’t help thinking that a healthier way to deal with the stress of economic downturn and dating, would be just to sit back, relax and watch a good rom com. Can I recommend It Happened One Night?
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About the Creator
Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.
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