‘It Happened One Night’ (1934): Undershirts, Love, and Fireflies

Once upon a time ‘It Happened One Night’: a screwball comedy in which the roguish hero and the haughty heroine fight so much they fall in love.

More precisely, that time was 1934 and the director was Frank Capra; real-life Clark Gable and Claude Colbert, the leading stars, fought not to be in the film. Who would have thoughr that ‘It Happened One Night’ was going to become the first film to win the “Big Five” Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing), Benicio Del Toro’s favourite “love-making movie”, and the mother and father of romantic comedy as a genre? The movie also caused men’s undershirts’ sales to skyrocket, as Clark Gable’s wears them throughout the film.

‘It Happened One Night’ begins as a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) escapes from her father’s yacht to marry a famous aviator. Her name is Ellen Andrews and it doesn’t take long for the recently sacked cunning reporter Peter Warne (who else but Clark Gable) to figure out she is one and the same as his unwilling seat partner on the Greyhound bus to New York. Warne seizes the opportunity and offers a deal to a purse-less and helpless Ellie: give him the exclusive story or else he will turn her in.

What follows is a sharper, meaner, muddier ‘Roman Holiday’ adventure which sets the gold standard for hitchhiking, piggy-back riding, proper donut dunking and love-making without a single kiss (shot in the 30s, it was scandalous enough that an unmarried couple was sharing a motel room on screen). It may be old-fashioned, but it is certainly not dated.

But the one thing that struck me most about ‘It Happened One Night’ was its glow. Of course, there’s the  literal, ever-present glow of black-and-white films in which all shades of white are like snow in the sun. But there’s also another type of glow, an invisible aura that surrounds the characters’ words, gestures and relationships: a certain kind of sweetness. Cheesy? Maybe. Sentimental? Sure. But it’s the real deal – honey, not sugar: whilst fully aware of ‘It Happened One Night’’s idealistic view of the world, you’re also rooting for it.

The movie is a dictionary of wisecracking dialogue, but all the sharp, scintillating comebacks have an underlying tenderness. The Depression Era setting adds depth to the story, yet joblessness, poorness, and hunger do not stop the strangers on the night bus to form an ad hoc musical band singing the jolly ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’(76 years later, the band, groupies, and young journalist from ‘Almost Famous’ recreate the scene, intentionally or not, performing Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’ on the tour bus). This is the aura I’m talking about: the firefly-like glow of a sentimentality that belongs to a different era – briefly alive, forever on film.