Undoubtedly, the romantic comedy is one of the most overused genres.
For every 90s Julia Roberts flick, we get a movie like 2010’s Life as we Know it (which, for undisclosed reasons, was once trending big on Netflix) or 2018’s The Kissing Booth (which made a sequel for reasons unknown to us smart movie goers). In this genre, it seems that you win some, you lose a lot.
Most in our society would point to classics such as When Harry Met Sally (1989), Pretty Woman (1990), Groundhog Day (1993), and Annie Hall (1977) as the films that paved the way for this century’s current classics like My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), (500) Days of Summer (2009), The Big Sick (2017), Crazy Rich Asians (2018), and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018).
Still, I go back even further to what may have been the original template for the rom com, It Happened One Night. Though I am sure there were other comedic romances before it (most notably Chaplin’s 1931 magnum opus City Lights), the basis of the rom com started with Capra’s Best Picture winner (it is one of three films to win the top five Oscars: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay).
The template of the film’s plot is, like most of Capra’s works, rather simple. The daughter of a rich man, Ellie (Claudette Colbert) is fed up with staying on her father’s yacht, wanting to go back to her new husband, King Westley. She escapes the yacht, and tries her luck at making it on her own from Miami to New York. Along the way, she runs into the down on his luck reporter Peter (Clark Gable).
Set in modern day of it’s time, the film shows life on the road during the Great Depression, including long bus rides, outdoor inns, and plenty of money saving (which Ellie needs a lesson or two in). It is on the road where the movie not only begins its charm that has lasted for over eight and a half decades, but also established the road trip movie. We meet minor characters, such as the chatterbox who Peter dispenses of in a scene of utter hilarity. There is also the scene where, when detectives are sent to find Ellie, the two leads do an impromptu act as a “happy, married couple” to ward them off (“QUIT BAWLIN’! QUIT BAWLIN’!”). And, of course, there is the still famous scene where Peter tries to give a lesson in how to hitchhike, only to have Ellie come out on top by proving “the limb is mightier than the thumb”.
The arguing and tension that only rises between the two is more reason to know that they will eventually start to have feelings for each other. Capra was obviously much too smart of a filmmaker to not let his characters grow as people. The key scene where Peter and Ellie spend the night near some hay stacks. There is indeed an evident image of the two almost about to share a kiss, but Peter backs off at the last second.
The ending is easy to predict: it set the standard for a type of “wedding scene” where a character may have second thoughts (though I admit to being confused why there was a wedding, since it seemed clear that Ellie and Westley were already married). Still, as is the case with many trips in our lives, it is the trip to the destination (i.e., the end of the film) that is what is most remembered.
Parents, I would argue this is one of the oldest “classics” a child would enjoy. The most risky it gets is the hitchhiking scenes. In fact, one of the running gags of the film is that, since the two of them have to share a room with separate beds, a sheet is hung on a rope dividing them, dubbed the “Wall of Jericho”. The most we see is Gable take his shirt off (it is said that when the film came out, this caused men’s undershirt sales to plummet). In short, any age is fine with the film.
There is a film term called “capraesque”, which is used to describe films that emulate the positive vibes of people who show everyday grit and courage. I would argue it also has a spice of cinema fantasy to it. While it may not be as well known these days as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), It Happened One Night is right up there as vintage cinema that should always be sought out whenever possible.
But don’t hold that against me. I’m a little screwy myself.