Monday, December 24, 2007

Capra for Christmas Eve: It Happened One Night (1934)

Frank Capra's films often enter the TV and personal DVD rotation at years-end. It's perhaps the fact that they expose society's materialistic tendencies at the most commercial time of year, combined with those happy, upbeat "everything will be all right" endings that make them perfect holiday fare. The dark corners of Capra's films serve as reminders in the blinding happiness of the holiday season that greed, selfishness, and bureaucratic red tape will be back come January 2nd. Maybe its because of the relative social tranquility of the Eisenhower era that Capra's films of the '50s are his least known, footnotes in film history for producing two Oscar-winning best songs (HERE COMES THE GROOM's "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" and A HOLE IN THE HEADS's "High Hopes"). And his early films lacked the total creative freedom he needed and demanded in his later work. His better-known movies were made in the midst of the Great Depression, through the war, and during the noirish post-war era (from 1933s LADY FOR A DAY to 1946s IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE). Its these ten films (the number excludes his PRELUDE TO WAR documentaries) that are considered his best work, and each is a film classic. Featuring idealistic hereos who work outside the system to make progress within society thereby exposing conformism (even George Bailey is a nonconformist despite giving up his "dreams"), they end in those signature "only in the movies" climaxes, that have kept them popular through the intervening years.

Frank Capra won three Academy Awards for best director during this period, and received three additional nominations. His first win was for IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, which also swept the awards that year.

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is about an heiress who flees her wealthy father (when he disapproves of her new husband) and falls for a street-smart newspaperman who sees her story as the scoop of the year. Claudette Colbert plays Ellen Andrews opposite Clark Gable's Peter Warren, who doesn't let his newspaper or the Andrews fortune blind him from his ideals. And those ideals lean ultimately toward the romantic side, which is why, aside from the occasional social commentary, the movie exists as a blueprint for the romantic comedy (and the start of the "screwball" genre).

Among the film's funniest scenes is when Peter and Ellen work together to fool detectives by pretending to fight like a married couple. The levity of the film is kept up in clever ways as when, for example, it takes time out for a scene in which the bus passengers sing “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” The inevitable romance is not forced, and Peter’s stubborn disinterest in Ellen keeps it real (and gives Colbert opportunity to show off some acting chops: especially in a scene when she’s stung by Peter’s insults after a moment when they nearly kiss). Some post-“production code” moments have pre-code flavor, particularly in the dialogue (Peter: “Why didn’t you take off all your clothes, you could have stopped forty cars.”)

It Happened One Night (1934): Eternally contemporary film with a dash of Depression era realism not only defined the era’s screwball comedy genre but provided the blueprint for the modern romantic comedy.

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