It Happened One Night

A charmer of a film, deeper, even grittier than its Capra-corn romantic populism might suggest, It Happened One Night swept the 1934 Oscars—winning Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, and Director—and if it hadn’t edged out The Thin Man in doing so, I’d say, Bravo, well deserved. The story is a classic class-crossing fable: A spoiled rich girl runs away from her father to join the king she wants to marry; a hardscrabble newspaperman finds her, blackmails her into letting him come along to write a story; they take to the road, by bus, foot, thumb, and jalopy, squabbling, scolding, and, of course, falling in love with each other. Yes, it’s predictable and sentimental, but it’s also funny—one of the first screwball comedies—and genuinely (but not at all carnally) erotic. Gable and Colbert spark like few misdmatched couples in the movies have since. Some of Gable’s lines (about how you’ve got to slap a woman around sometimes) seem jarringly anachronistic, but soon it’s clear that his character has vulnerabilities and the tough talk is a cover: There’s a modern sensibility within the antique formula.

The film was made, and takes place, five years into the Depression, which adds crackle and sorrow to the class tensions driving the plot. Capra exudes a sensuous feel for American life, from posh hill to skid row and the roads and train tracks in between. Capra was famously sentimental about the determination and decency of common Americans, but he didn’t shy away from the abyss that lurks a few false steps away. And his cinematographer, Joseph Walker (who also worked on It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and other Capra films), lights a picture, by turns, haunting and gorgeous.

Criterion Collection’s 1080p transfer—struck from a 4K master of a 35mm safety composite fine-grain of the original nitrate negative and a 35mm nitrate print—captures the look with greater clarity and contrast than you might think possible with an 80-year-old film. It’s not as luscious as some Blu-ray Discs of black-and-white classics made a decade later (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane), but good elements were hard to track down, and, in any case, it’s a handsome pic- ture nonetheless—in some scenes, swooningly so.

The special features are superb, especially a documentary about Capra, directed by Ron Howard, and a very smart discussion of the film by critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate.

Studio: Criterion Collection, 1934
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio Format: 24-bit monaural
Length: 105 mins.
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly

Jon Iverson's picture
Thanks Fred.