hildy, don’t be hasty → a tribute to screwball comedy
It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra)"Good morning. Remember me? I’m the fellow you slept on last night."
Widely regarded as the first true screwball comedy, It Happened One Night was also the first movie to win all five major Academy Awards, a feat that has been matched only twice since (first by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and then by The Silence of the Lambs in 1991). It seems almost fitting, then, that such an iconic picture began its life with all the odds stacked against it — two unenthusiastic stars, an incredibly short shooting schedule, a chronic lack of faith permeating a project that would go on to shape and define a genre.
Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme: runaway heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) meets quintessential roguish newspaperman Peter Warne (Clark Gable) on a night bus. She falls into his lap, he quirks an eyebrow, he’s got a pipe. ”Next time you drop in,” he says, all smirks and suspenders, “bring your folks.” The whole thing smoulders from the get-go, fraught with intensity long before we find the pair spending the night together in a conveniently tiny room with an even more convenient dearth of privacy. Then the Walls of Jericho come into play and every love scene in the history of cinema is put to shame. (I exaggerate, but only slightly. “Perhaps you’re interested in how a man undresses…”)
No one could possibly have anticipated the lasting success of It Happened One Night. Colbert, who’s said to have described the movie to a friend as “the worst picture in the world,” didn’t even attend the Academy Awards ceremony and had to be retrieved from a train station when her Best Actress win was announced. That such a film could provide the framework for countless other screwball comedies, many of them masterpieces in their own right, and create a legacy that’s still present — glaringly, tangibly so — in so many romantic comedies even eighty years later is an undeniably incredible accomplishment.
Ellie Andrews, Peter Warne, the Walls of Jericho, the power of a limb, the right way to dunk a donut, the nights when you and the water and the moon all become one — a man and a woman reclining in the hay, faces shadowed, a hair’s breadth apart —
"Do you love her?"
"Yes! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself."
FILM MEME: THREE GENRES → SCREWBALL COMEDY (1/3)
Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, 1934
FILM MEME: TWO DECADES → THE 1930s (2/2)