Even if you’ve never seen the film before, it should still seem very familiar. Robert Riskin’s impeccably structured screenplay (based on Samuel Hopkins Adams’ short story “Night Bus”) has influenced almost every “mismatched relationship” story, “road trip” movie and “tough guy who’s actually a big ol’ softie” plot that Hollywood has churned out over the last seven decades. The film is also regularly credited as the first screwball comedy, a genre that remains popular today.
Seriously, see how many other movies pop into your head after reading the plot of “It Happened One Night.” Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a spoiled socialite who marries a wealthy playboy against the wishes of her father (Walter Connolly). Now, for her own good, Ellie’s dad is keeping her confined to his yacht off the Miami coast while he arranges to have the marriage annulled. Undeterred, the young woman dives overboard, sneaks away to a bus station and buys a ticket to New York City so she can reunite with her hubby.
Once on the road, Ellie realizes she might’ve been too hasty. She has no money, no working knowledge of the real world and her father has private detectives searching everywhere. That’s when she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a washed-up reporter looking for a big story to put him back on top. When he discovers the truth about his seatmate, he offers to help her dodge her pursuers in exchange for an exclusive story. With no other choice, she reluctantly accepts Warne’s offer. Complications arise when Ellie’s father announces a $10,000 reward to anyone who tracks her down. Now, with everyone on the east coast looking for her, Ellie and Peter ditch the bus and head north while pretending to be a married couple, bickering the entire time. Try to guess if they fall in love along the way.
There’s a reason Hollywood has been ripping off “It Happened One Night” for almost 80 years: it’s fantastic. Aside from some dollar figures and a few regrettable cultural references, the film has aged surprisingly well. The dialogue is clever, the pacing is quick and the characters prove to be more complex than they initially appear. Capra, who would hit one heck of a winning streak in the years to come, never allows the actors to get too melodramatic or drags scenes out longer than necessary.
Obviously, the film’s most important assets are its leads. The chemistry is evident from their first scene and it’s a joy to watch how the characters evolve due to the other’s influence. This was my first experience with Colbert, but I can understand why she was such a big star in her day. She’s beautiful, her comic timing is impeccable and she holds her own with a larger-than-life costar.
Gable is incredible; his character is a powerful combination of wit, charisma and vulnerability hidden underneath a healthy veneer of machismo. Virtually every line he utters is flawlessly delivered gold. His “walls of Jericho” setup had me laughing out loud while simultaneously comprehending where every old sitcom got the idea for twin beds and separating rooms down the middle.
It’s also abundantly clear that George Clooney is the closest we’ve got to a modern day Gable. (Don’t believe me? Watch Clooney in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — the similarities are astonishing.) Frankly, I’m just relieved I can finally enjoy Gable’s work without sitting through 27 interminable hours of “Gone with the Wind.” (Sacrilege around these parts, I know, but I maintain that Gable is one of the only genuinely great aspects of that overrated movie.)
The supporting cast gets plenty of opportunities to shine. Connolly comes off villainous at first (that tends to happen when your character slaps a woman in the face), but by the end he’s practically a big teddy bear. Roscoe Karns, as an obnoxious bus passenger, earns plenty of laughs. So does Alan Hale, as a duplicitous driver who picks up Ellie and Peter while they’re hitchhiking.
If you haven’t seen “It Happened One Night,” you’re missing out on a truly enjoyable viewing experience. Fortunately, Turner Classic Movies is here to help — the film airs on Sunday, Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. Adjust your schedule accordingly.
(Got a suggestion for a future installment of Catching Up on the Classics? E-mail JoshSewell81@gmail.com with your thoughts.)
“It Happened One Night” is not rated.