Tuesday, June 2, 2009

It Happened Tonight

One of the great comedies of all time, It Happened One Night, is airing at 8:00 PM ET tonight on TCM as part of TCM's salute to director Frank Capra. The story is well-known; Claudette Colbert plays an heiress who wants to marry somebody of whom her father (Walter Connolly) doesn't approve. So, she jumps off their yacht anchored off Palm Beach, and tries to make her way back to New York City. Meanwhile, Clark Gable is a journalist in despearate need of a story, and here's one that's about to fall right in his lap! So, while she's trying to make her way back to New York on a bus, he "protects" her to try to get his exclusive scoop. Along the way, you know he's going to fall in love with her, despite the fact that she's one of the most spoiled and naïve things you'll ever see.

What makes It Happened One Night so good? That's a bit of a paradox. In many ways, the movie is fresh and timeless, despite having been made 75 years ago and being filled with 1930s references (motels being referred to as auto-camps; the autogyro, the Depression, and others). Even today, though, we still have elopements, and the gossip of the idle rich (or nowadays, Hollywood celebrities and American Idol contestants) filling newspapers and entire TV channels. The movie strains credulity -- you'd think Colbert could just call her fiancé collect and have him pick her up in, say, Jacksonville when she gets stranded there. And yet, the movie doesn't seem at all like the escapist stuff we have today.

Also, although the movie is loaded with sexual tension, it still comes across as something that the younger viewers can enjoy -- the real sexual tension will just go over their heads. Clark Gable takes of his shirt and -- surprise surprise -- he doesn't have an undershirt on. Yet, at the same time, he insists on having a "wall of Jericho" between them. And of course, there's also the famous hitch-hiking scene, when Colbert gets a car to stop for them not by using her thumb, but by using her legs. You could say she's using sex to sell herself, but for the young, it can be seen as nothing more than female cartoon characters like the cat Pepe Le Pew keeps falling for.

It helps that the cast is wonderful. It's not just Gable and Colbert who are great together; Walter Connolly is good as the poor put-upon father (a role he would later reprise in Libeled Lady), while character actor Roscoe Karns plays an obnoxiously unctuous bus passenger who harasses Colbert until Gable comes to her defense. The premise is so good that Columbia Pictures remade it twice; once in the 1940s as Eve Knew Her Apples starring Ann Miller, and again a decade later as You Can't Run Away From It with June Allyson and Jack Lemmon. The original is the best, though.

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