In 1932 Frank Capra predicted to Variety that “someone is going to evolve a great film out of the Depression” – and promptly created several himself. From the viewpoint of our own rapidly deepening Great Recession, his famously scrappy little 1934 screwball ‘bus picture’ It Happened One Night, which dunks runaway heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and unemployed reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) into America’s everyday hardships, signals an interesting development in that evolution. Though it addresses the Depression indirectly compared to the wealth sharing of Capra’s later Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) or the head-on engagement of American Madness (1932) and Meet John Doe (1941), it crackles with the sound of a society on thin ice, both economically and socially, and of male and female roles stretched to breaking point.
It’s a road-trip masquerade about playing poor, where real life breaks in via road thieves and starving bus passengers, where a dollar has to stretch and shunning a scavenged carrot is a sin. Perhaps it’s the only sin in this movie, which is constantly playing with the idea of transgression in cohabitation or adultery, but which otherwise obeys Capra’s maxim: “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” In fact if anything the film’s sparkling qualities – along with its mythic trappings as the inauspicious Columbia picture that grabbed a groundbreaking five Oscars, and its status as the sacred source of screwball – have kept us from seeing what a tough little cookie it is.
Watching the film again, the pert and appropriately jaundiced romance seems a nod to troubled times rather than the salve of frothy escapism that it’s become in public imagination. Despite the soft-focus interludes and languorous sequences (the haystack sleep-out, Peter’s dreamy outline of his ideal girl) that Capra allows himself, it’s far less sentimental than one remembers. The romance comes late, after real and imagined dupings and betrayals, and the narrative mercilessly mocks the idea of “a perfectly nice married couple” in Peter and Ellie’s shrieking pantomime of white-trash marital bliss, put on to evade her father’s detectives. Screenwriter Robert Riskin serves Gable’s dialogue medium if not hard-boiled – full of grandstanding male pride as well as whip-smart teasing – while Colbert’s is as punchy as it is playful (“I just had the unpleasant sensation of hearing you referred to as my husband”), despite her kittenish delivery.
Then, of course, there’s the disconcerting reek of sex. Any movie whose meet-cute introduction to defend a Greyhound bus seat is “Excuse me lady, but that upon which you sit is mine” is stoking its sexual tension from the get-go. Released only months before the more exacting 1934 Production Code restrictions came into force, It Happened One Night has a pre-censorship sizzle, but also the post-Code smirk, displacing the raunch of early sound cinema into breezily suggestive bedroom encounters. For the well-read viewer these scenes have been so fruitfully pored over – in Cavell’s elegant philosophy, Shumway’s adulterous accusations, feminist insights from Kendall and Mizejewski, readings by Leff, Sklar, Gehring, Harvey et al – that the auto-camp cabin feels as crowded as Groucho’s in A Night at the Opera. Once you’ve shooed the critics out, however, what’s fresh and heady is the sheer exhilarating playfulness of Gable’s chatty striptease, Colbert’s pyjama-clad vulnerability and the joint fantasy about the blanket “Wall of Jericho” – still compelling enough to shock when Ellie subsequently breaches it.
After 76 years, the film’s playfulness is as potent as its toughness is surprising, mostly because play vanished from contemporary romantic comedy when it morphed into the salacious Apatowian bromance or the materialistic chick-flick in which women get the good one-liners and the designer goods. Like the original audience of It Happened One Night, we’re looking for escapist distractions from economic uncertainty. But when Sex and the City 2 had the audacity to feature Colbert’s hitchhiking scene (echoing it with a puerile copy of its own), it only served as a sharp reminder that while the giddy adventures, gender skirmishes and aural seductions of Capra’s masterpiece can still be savoured, they can’t be replicated.