Saturday, February 20, 2010

It Happened One Night: K.I.S.S.

It Happened One Night: K.I.S.S.

Director: Frank Capra

Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Jameson Thomas

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscars: 5 wins (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay) from 5 nominations

Thus far, the films I have discussed have had an air of self-importance about them. Whether they are historical spectacles, dramas with an all star cast, technical marvels, or films making political statements—each of the previous six films to win Best Picture were in some ways designed to be important pictures, flagships for their studios. It Happened One Night was seen as just another one of the fifty-two pictures a studio would release each year. This was not a film from which all-time greatness was expected. Yet, thanks largely to director Frank Capra, who—in adhering to the mantra Keep It Simple, Stupid—made the first film to sweep the five major Academy Awards and set a rarely matched standard for the romantic comedy.

To tell the story of It Happened One Night, it is necessary to tell the story of its studio, Columbia Pictures. Today, Columbia is now owned by Sony, and is considered to be one of the premier studios in Hollywood, but in the 1930’s it was considered to be on “Poverty Row”. Poverty Row studios were home to films and shorts that could be cheaply made—lots of Westerns, romances, exploitation films—and unlike a major studio, Columbia could not afford to keep a large roster of major stars under contract. MGM referred to Columbia as “Siberia”. While Columbia’s status as a minor studio can be in some part attributed to its owner—the notorious meddler and fussbudget Harry Cohn—in many ways it was the perfect place for an ambitious director to operate free of the expectations and baggage that often came when staging a gargantuan production at a major.

Capra began his career in Hollywood in 1915 working as a prop man. The Sicilian-American filmmaker bounced around several production companies—directing documentaries and silent films before landing with Columbia in 1928. Capra had a reputation for making films quickly and economically while retaining a strong voice and style. While MGM made pictures that celebrated royalty and opulence, Capra’s films with Columbia were characterized by depicting ordinary Americans (and later, his work would become unabashedly sentimental and patriotic). He frequently collaborated with screenwriter Robert Riskin, and the source material for It Happened One Night came from a source wholly opposite of the great and popular novels the major studios had access to—a short story, “Bus Stop” written for Cosmopolitan magazine.

For whatever reason—the status of Columbia as a Poverty Row studio, the lack of prestige in the source material, a script that called for only a few costume changes for the leading lady (in the film Ellie Andrews wears only four outfits—a nightgown, the traveling suit, Peter Warne’s pajamas and a wedding gown), or simple disdain for the script (many actors are quoted as saying it was the worst thing they had ever read)—Capra could not attract a star to his production. Clark Gable—easily MGM’s biggest leading man and arguably the biggest star of the decade—was loaned to Columbia for $2500 dollars per week. Unlike reports that say Gable was lent to Columbia as punishment, the actor was moved for simple profit. At the time the film was being made, MGM did not have a project lined up for Gable, and he was being paid $2000 a week to sit on his ass and do nothing. MGM made an extra $500 bucks a week by loaning Gable to Columbia, and Capra had his male lead.

Finding Gable’s opposite was much more problematic. Capra originally wanted Myrna Loy, but she hated the script. Several other actresses turned the part down, for a variety of reasons. Constance Bennett wanted to do it, but also wished to produce the film herself. Carole Lombard (who received a marriage proposal from Robert Rifkin and would later be the future Mrs. Clark Gable) had a scheduling conflict. Bette Davis wanted the role, but was under contract to Warner Brothers and Jack Warner did not want to have the career of one of his leading ladies diminished by appearing in the film and refused to loan her.

Ultimately, Harry Cohn suggested Claudette Colbert, who after making a disastrously unsuccessful silent picture with Capra in 1927, vowed to never work with the director again. Urgently needing a leading lady, Colbert’s demands were met. She was paid a salary of $50,000 dollars to make the picture, along with the demand that filming be completed in four weeks to accommodate a pre-planned vacation. Her salary represented over a sixth of the film’s estimated $325,000 dollar budget, meaning that Capra not only had to work economically, but also on a limited timeframe.

He also had to deal with a couple of unhappy costars. Both Gable and Colbert were reluctant to be filming the picture at all, but Gable was eventually won over by the director and tried his best to have fun with Colbert, playing practical jokes on her and encouraging a lighthearted mood on set. While Gable was able to establish a rapport with Colbert, she generally acted like a haughty bitch on set. One example of her legendary bitchiness involved filming the famous hitchhiking scene, where Ellie outsmarts Peter by pulling up her skirt and flashing her leg to flag down a ride. Colbert outright refused to do the scene—in the 1930’s, flashing a leg was equated with flashing a breast—but upon seeing the leg double Colbert became indignant, harrumphing “That’s not my leg!” and ultimately filming the scene herself. Even after the film was wrapped Colbert expressed her displeasure with the picture, remarking to her friends “I just finished the worst picture in the world.” But hey, fifty grand buys away discomfort.

Ultimately, it is Capra who made the film a success. In many ways, having to win over Colbert during filming mirrors the plot of the reporter ultimately winning over the reluctant heiress. Whatever tricks Capra and Gable used to make Colbert cooperative worked, because in the picture she is charming, funny and gorgeous. Ellie Andrews is also a bitch herself, but when matched with Peter Warne played by the cocksure Gable, it is easy to see why she melts for him (and he too for her). Gable and Colbert define movie star chemistry on screen. It is a foregone conclusion from the moment the characters meet that they will fall in love by picture’s end; the joy in the film is seeing how the actors play off one another. Capra was wise to give the film an uncluttered feel. The sets are very simple—a bus, simple hotel rooms, a car. Even the Andrews mansion at the end is understated. This allows the audience to focus on the actors and the wittiness of Riskin’s script (Example—Ellie: “You’ve been telling me what to do ever since I can remember.” Her Father: “That’s because you’ve always been a stubborn idiot.” Ellie: “I come from a long line of stubborn idiots.” Also: Ellie: “I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.” Peter: “Why didn’t you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars.” Ellie: “Oh, I’ll remember that when we need forty cars.”).

The story is also uncomplicated. Ellie, an heiress whose life has always been controlled by her father, escapes to elope with a man her father disapproves of. Peter is a newspaper man fired for being a drunk. The father has put out a reward for anyone who can return Ellie to him. Both Ellie and Peter are both headed from Miami to New York and meet on a bus. Ellie is an inexperienced traveler, so Peter agrees to chaperone her—and keep her identity a secret by posing as a married couple—if he is allowed an exclusive scoop to his former employer. On the way there the opposites attract and they fall in love. Simple stuff, beautifully and perfectly executed by cast, screenwriter and director.

Initially, It Happened One Night was only mildly successful in the first run theaters. In the 1930’s films played the venues in the larger cities first then rolled out to the rest of the country (a practice commonly used today by independent or prestige films). During the second run of the film It Happened One Night became a runaway smash. I think a huge reason for the popularity of the film with rural America was that it took time to showcase the Depression era. The characters in the film are all, in one way or another, down on their luck. Even Ellie—spoiled rich girl personified—has to wait in line to use the showers at the motels. Ellie also shows tremendous kindness, giving the last of their money to a mother and child in need, even after Peter chastises her for it. Many characters are driven to odd extremes. The driver who picks up Peter and Ellie actually robs them, inverting the cliché of hitchhikers being dangerous to drivers. As the scene plays out, Capra is sympathetic to the robber. The fact that two of Hollywood’s hugest stars were slumming it to make the picture endeared them to the ordinary moviegoer. Capra makes Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert just like us, and because they are like us, we make a greater emotional investment into their relationship. The film ended up becoming the biggest hit Columbia had to date.

The momentum gained by the film carried all the way into the Oscar ceremony, where it won every award it was nominated for and swept the five major categories (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). It Happened One Night singlehandedly raised the prestige of Columbia Pictures, lifting the studio out of poverty row and establishing Capra as a major director (he would win two other Best Director Oscars in the 1930’s). Funnily enough—and true to bitchy form—Colbert was still unimpressed with the picture. On the day of the Oscar ceremony, she was so sure she wasn’t going to win (ironically, Bette Davis was the favorite in a write-in campaign), that she made travel arrangements instead. Upon her victory, Harry Cohn had Colbert dragged off her train and she accepted her Oscar in a business suit, not forgetting to thank Frank Capra in her acceptance speech. Gable, in a noble gesture, gave his Oscar away to a young boy who admired it, saying that the winning of the award mattered more than the statuette (the Oscar was returned to the Gable estate after his death, ended up being purchased by Steven Spielberg in an auction, and he donated it to the Motion Picture Academy).

So, seventy-six years later, does It Happened One Night hold up? Absolutely. Many film critics bemoan the lack of great romantic comedies being made. I agree. The vast majority of the films released in the genre today are uniformly insipid and charmless, the entire story can be gleaned from the trailer, and more often than not the films feed consumer interests by having a soundtrack filled with pop hits and designer clothes. When an audience goes to see a movie to admire the wardrobe of the actresses, which is a sign of a terrible film. Unfortunately, the clothes are often the most interesting part, with the plots of the films being ridiculous and stupid, the actresses relying on the usual shticks of being overworked and underappreciated (Meg Ryan, Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl, Sarah Jessica Parker and Sandra Bullock are the worst offenders of this), the leading men indistinguishable, there is a montage where someone sings into a hairbrush, and the biggest laugh comes from the heroine falling in the mud.

Modern audiences that have never seen It Happened One Night may probably think it is filled with clichés, but let’s face it; Capra’s film invented the clichés. Maybe—and that is a big maybe—ten romantic comedies since its release have been the equal of It Happened One Night. I daresay that none have surpassed its quality.

This is one of the finest films to ever be awarded Best Picture—easily the best film of the 1930’s accorded the honor—and when I make a list ranking all of the Best Picture Oscar winners, It Happened One Night will be amongst the top five. Next time you (or your girlfriend or wife, and girlfriends and wives, listen up) want to check out the latest romantic comedy at the multiplex (or are dragged there), resist the notion, stay in, and watch It Happened One Night instead. It is well worth 105 minutes of your time.

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