Ask a group of cinephiles to identify for a favorite moment in Frank Capra’s standard-bearing romantic comedy It Happened One Night, and you’ll get a lot of different answers: Claudette Colbert putting the “hitch” in hitchhiking; Colbert and Clark Gable pretending to be a pair of bickering plebes to throw police off their tail; the “wall of Jericho” suggestively dropping in the denouement. But for a defining moment, here’s another: Spoiled heiress Ellie (Colbert) and hard-drinking reporter Peter (Gable) are on the bus from Miami to New York—she on the run from her powerful father, he agreeing to help her in exchange for her story. In the back of the bus, a few gentlemen have been entertaining their fellow passengers by singing songs, and they get around to “The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze.” The sing-along chorus is robust and uplifting on its own, but the verses are a democratic affair: Anyone can step up and contribute a couple of funny lines, and they do until the bus is literally rocking, leading the driver to steer it into a ditch.
In an insightful essay for the new Criterion Blu-ray edition, critic Farran Smith Nehme calls It Happened One Night “both escapist and egalitarian,” but it’s really the latter that gives it distinction. Capra’s man-of-the-people reputation stuck with him—and occasionally dogged him—throughout his career, but this moment encapsulates the film’s spirit, which is about finding those common areas where the haves and have-nots, men and women, doughnut-dunkers and dippers, and others can come together harmoniously. At a time when the country was divided and suffering from the class polarization of the Depression, here was a movie that deftly asserted our shared humanity and the possibility for all good people to pursue happiness, regardless of the things that divide them. It’s not surprising that it was the first film to sweep all five major Oscar categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay)—it’s nearly impossible to find anyone who doesn’t love it. Or doesn’t feel, in some way, that it speaks to them.
As Ellie, Colbert loses the press’ image of her as a “spoiled” princess the moment she dives off her father’s ship to pursue an aviator husband (Jameson Thomas) who’s utterly unworthy of her. There’s still a residual girlishness that’s shaken out of her over the course of the film, but Ellie is an adventurer at heart, and infectiously happy on the open road. (A morning where she wakes up in a strange bed, with no money, with a huge smile on her face is the most winning indicator.) For his part, Peter is worldly and sarcastic, and a man of honor despite his reputation as a boozing, roguish, cocksure reporter. The two are paired in classic “opposites attract” premise—one rich, the other poor; one young, one older; one naïve, the other street-smart—and Colbert and Gable have a marvelous chemistry together, fractious at times and chummy at others.
For a low-budget production of the early sound era—1934, seven years after The Jazz Singer—It Happened One Night has a wide-open quality that’s miraculous under the circumstances. This comes through in Capra’s technique, like a long tracking shot that follows Ellie’s humiliating trek to a public shower, but it really shows in the film’s ambition to be about more than this one love story. Though it isn’t about the system like Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, it’s every bit as much about freedom, democracy, and The American Way, and the wonderful things a battered country can still yield for those courageous enough to put themselves out there. Capra’s optimism is persuasive in any era.
In addition to Nehme’s essay—which folds out into a wall-sized mini-poster, with headshots of the stars on the other side—the one feature produced for this edition is a conversation between venerable critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate, who debate the notion that It Happened One Night is “the first screwball comedy.” They mostly disagree with that premise, but from there, they’re really more interested in finding context for the film alongside other studio comedies from that time. A 20-minute Frank Capra Jr. interview from 1999 gives some more background on the film, and a new transfer of his father’s 1921 silent short “Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House” is background of another kind. Also included is a Frank Capra’s American Dream, a full-length 1997 documentary about Capra, narrated by Ron Howard, and an hourlong AFI tribute from 1982 that featured many of his old collaborators (including Colbert) and an appearance by the man himself, in an emphatically 1982 tuxedo.