Tuesday, July 28, 2015

It Happened One Night ★★★★

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    "It Happened One Night" is an ebullient 1934 cinematic masterpiece and one of the most historically significant films to ever be made with regard to its subsequent influence on the industry itself. The picture in question was not only defined by its social commentary and statements on conflicting classes and gender roles and behavior, but it essentially created a genre all of its own. (That being the screwball comedy, which carries many attributes: a stubborn and egocentric female lead, an ill-matched couple, a masked identity, along with an improbable plot that is centered around courtship and marriage. Or, as film critic Andrew Sarris once boldly put it, "a sex-comedy, without the sex.")

    Of course, this is not to mention the overwhelmingly favorable reception from critics (culminating in a full sweep of all five of the major Academy Awards for that year; the first and one of only three films to achieve the feat), its hand in birthing the quirky disposition of one of America's finest animated figures in Bugs Bunny, and the simple fact that a picture of this stature could never be made in today's cinema.

    Yet, what we truly have here is a film fueled by its symbolically infused dialogue and by numerous iconic scenes that echo its tour de force mentality. (The latter includes a scene in which our central female character hikes up her skirt to gain the attention of passing autoists, and a scene where a bus, filled with middle-class citizens, unexpectedly erupts into a rendition of Eddie Cantor's "The Man on the Flying Trapeze," even if it was a blatant ploy of Columbia Pictures to showcase a song recorded by their musical division.)

    It merely involves the journey of a pampered and naive heiress named Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), on her way back to her estranged husband, and her seemingly fateful meeting of a brash and arrogant journalist named Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who is desperate to cover her story. "One Night" is cheerful, subtly humorous, and ever engaging in its design, which can somewhat be accredited to the lighting of the picture, as its soft and diffused appearance gives the film a fairy tale-esque and rather angelic feeling, and while a plethora of moments (most notably one in which our characters begrudgingly spend the night in a heap of hay) are simply carried by the choice and direction of the lighting itself.

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    If anything is to be analyzed meticulously, however, it must be the contribution of the film's three biggest players (Gable, Colbert, and the world renowned director in Frank Capra). All three individuals got their start during the silent era of the 1920s, and, for the most part, none had produced any viable products up to this point. Sure, Capra had generated a handful of pictures worthy of attention and had worked with a number of "stars" (including Jack Holt and Barbara Stanwyck), but he had yet to direct a surefire classic; as for Gable and Colbert: Both actors had roughly the same humble beginnings when it comes to their acting careers, with more bit roles obtained than anything oozing with actual substance.      

    Gable is witty and utterly charismatic here, in a performance that defined his professional resumé. (In fact, it is my belief that the role of Peter Warne earned him the future part of Rhett Butler in the timeless Southern drama entitled "Gone with the Wind," considering the similar dynamic between the leading male and the egomaniacal and mollycoddled female lead. For, both Warne and Butler can be characterized by their non-sugarcoated outlook on life and how they bombard their other half with the ugly truth.) Colbert is equally brimming with exuberance, and certainly radiates that cherished look and soul of the early actresses of Hollywood, even if her frustration with the film (both pre-production and post) ultimately reared its head.

    At its core, "It Happened One Night" is concerned heavily with love's unpredictability, and more importantly, its imperfections. Here we have a story concerning two self-centered individuals, who have nothing in common, and yet, love finds a way. The symbolism of the "Walls of Jericho," which can pretty much be viewed as the personal barrier between two human beings, permeates throughout the film and helps to spur this theme to its prominence.

    Any lasting contemplation on this picture, however, should focus on Capra's decision with regard to the film's target audience, and the sophisticated treatment of the subject matter. If "One Night" had been targeted to any audience other than the middle-class, then its popularity and critical acclaim would surely have suffered, if for no other reason than because it was not relatable enough. (As Gable's character so brilliantly and symbolically puts it, "it is a simple story for simple people.")

    There is also no denying the time period in which the picture was released (designated as Pre-Code Hollywood), which consisted of other films that covered topics of promiscuity, infidelity, abortion, miscegenation, as well as the inclusion of over-the-top violence and illegal drug use. (Of course, this was before the unadulterated censorship of the Motion Picture Production Code, which spanned several decades, and which virtually erased anything that did not adhere to the rigorous stance of the Catholic Church doctrine.)

    "It Happened One Night" is classy in this regard and handles its material with refined taste, as opposed to the lowbrow subject matter of the aforementioned Pre-Code era. (Even if two particular scenes would have been considered risqué by the future diegesis dictatorship, in which Gable buttons up a blouse of Colbert in a subtly sexy manner, and a scene in which Colbert is practically bare backed.) It was a testament as to what could be accomplished without such undemanding, yet true to life material, and a model for any film that was set to be released in the wholesome and morally clean era to come. In twenty years, this picture's significance may not hold under the weight of today's younger generation, and that is certainly a comfortless notion.            

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