The first film to win the big five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress & Screenplay) was ‘It Happened One Night’, a screwball comedy romance directed by Frank Capra. The film tells the story of a spoilt heiress, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) who runs away from her father after he traps her on his yacht after annulling her marriage to a society aviator. She takes a bus back to New York to return to her new husband, and is seated next to cynical newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who she immediately dislikes. However, when her purse is stolen, leaving her with no money, she is forced to take Warne up on his offer: he will help her return home, if she agrees to travel with him, so that when he gets back to New York he can write about her and their journey in an article. When they return to New York, Ellie has to ask herself if Warne was interested in her or just making money out of her.
The film is primarily a comedy, and it is wonderfully funny, thanks to the witty script and the wonderful chemistry between the two leads. I can think of few romantic comedies in which the two leads spend so much screen time together, and every moment sizzles between them. The second that they meet her dismissive attitude sets the scene perfectly and as they grow to know each other, and they start to fall in love it is totally believable. It is perfectly fitting that they both won an Oscar, as if only one of them had played the part as well as they had done, then the film may’ve fallen flat.
The film is full of iconic scenes and moments: the scene in which Warne teaches Ellie to hitchhike is one of my favourite comic scenes ever made, but the scene in which they pretend to be an arguing married couple to fool people who are looking for the missing girl is comic genius. The quick one-liners as the couple scream and shout at each other, mirrored by the utter bemusement of the onlookers is followed by Warne and Ellie giggling at their own quick thinking. It’s absolutely charming.
‘It Happened One Night’ is also technically important, which one might not expect from a mid 1930s romantic comedy, but techniques such as back projection imaging, soft lighting and moving cameras were all used in this film, all of which were new innovations. If you compare this film to the winner the previous year ‘Cavalcade’ then the difference is startling, and ‘It Happened One Night’ seems frighteningly modern by comparison.
There are many screwball comedies made in this period, and a lot of these do seem a little dated today, and it is for this reason that ‘It Happened One Night’ is so good. Some of the ideas and situations would not happen today, but the film is full of so much class and so much wit that the overall feeling is one of timeless pleasure and anyone who enjoys a good romantic film will not fail but to love this film, and see one of the best romantic pairings in the history of cinema.