The classic screwball film It Happened One Night directed by Frank Capra, starring the dashing Clark Gable and stunning Claudette Colbert, is easily one of the best romantic comedies of all time. There’s pouring rain, close embraces, and relentless flirting…all elements of the romantic comedy we have grown to love.
However, I found myself thinking about all of the clichés and cheesy moments I have seen over and over again. I realize that when it was made, It Happened One Night was original. It is the rom-com that started it all. I watched the film from the lens of 2016, when it was meant for audiences in 1934.
It can be hard to push away our modern viewpoints when watching an old film. We see them as cheesy, over-dramatic, and sometimes unoriginal. In reality, the films we have now are the ones that are unoriginal. It Happened One Night is the first film to present the now overdone story of a down to earth man growing fond of a rich, slightly spoiled woman. Roman Holiday (1953), Dirty Dancing (1987), The Notebook (2004) and so many others have taken ideas from that storyline. Mainstream movies still use the idea of two characters going from constant bickering to falling in love.
Watching from a modern viewpoint, people simply see it as a fun, silly film. However, at the time it was released, it was much more than that. The film provided an example to women in the 30’s on how they could be adventurous and take a bit of control in their own life. The movie also presented an idea of escapism for those affected by the Great Depression. The focus on the wealth of Ellie’s family and Peter’s budgeting skills exemplifies the way America felt about finances at the time.1934 was also the year that the Motion Picture Production Code was put into place, limiting what can be shown on film. It Happened One Night plays with this code, most notably in the scene where Peter undresses in front of Ellie. As he’s undressing, which isn’t ideal under the code, he is claiming he doesn’t wish Ellie to see him in the nude.
All of this was new and important in 1934, which is a good thing to know when viewing it from 2016. It Happened One Night is extremely significant to filmmaking and started a long list of romantic comedy standards. Next time you watch your favorite rom-com, take some time to appreciate the older films that came before it.
It Happened One Night is the original film to show “what love looks like when it’s triumphant.”