It Happened One Night – merely antiquated, or timelessly great?

Exploring whether this classic film stands the test of time


With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, the peak season for romantic comedies has finally arrived. If you are finding it difficult to choose which film to watch, I invite you to join me on my annual pilgrimage into the world of Frank Capra.

Known for being the first film to win all five major Academy Awards, Capra’s It Happened One Night stars a pre-Gone with the Wind Clark Gable and a winsome Claudette Colbert as a delightfully mismatched pair.

The film follows a spoiled socialite, Ellie Andrews, who flees from her millionaire father to be with her new husband, a fortune hunter of the worst kind.

However, on her way to New York, Ellie has all her money stolen, and so is thrust together, in classic rom-com fashion, with unemployed reporter, Peter Warne, who promises to help her get to her husband in exchange for an exclusive once she arrives.

As they travel cross-country, their initial dislike for one another slowly thaws and their relationship begins to develop.

As one would expect from a film that was made more than eighty years ago, there are several aspects that feel antiquated to a modern audience, perhaps most notably in the film’s portrayal of Ellie.

Throughout the movie, Ellie is very much characterised as a damsel in distress. She requires Peter’s help in almost every aspect of the journey, and has little common sense when it comes to managing her own life. For instance, Peter carries her across a river, prepares her bed, and manages the logistics of the trip.

Surprisingly, even with this dated portrayal of the female main character, the film remains appealing to modern audiences. There is just enough defiance in Ellie to make her an engaging lead. This is perhaps most aptly demonstrated through the famous hitchhiking scene, as she shows Peter once and for all that ‘the limb is mightier than the thumb’, at least when it comes to picking up a ride.

The power of a romantic comedy comes from its characters and its ability to keep the audience invested in the core relationship. The bare synopsis of It Happened One Night does it no justice, as it is the witty dialogue between the two characters that cements this film as a fantastic romantic comedy.

Somehow, through the clever quips and incessant banter, you are left feeling that these two characters will only be able to find their equal in each other.

But perhaps instead of asking ‘What makes It Happened One Night the ideal romantic-comedy?’ you should ask ‘Why you would watch anything other than the original?’

Although it’s by no means the first romantic comedy, almost all subsequent attempts can find some of their ingredients within Capra’s masterpiece. Indeed, the film has been described as a ‘howto guide for countless imitators’ by Criterion.

Regardless, the combination of the striking chemistry between Gable and Colbert, with Frank Capra’s beautiful direction, results in a film beyond compare, full of charm and full of life.

Rarely does a film utilise so perfectly the chemistry of its stars and pair it with an almost flawlessly fitting script, producing something completely enchanting. Whilst there have been a number of fantastic romantic comedies since, there is simply something that sets this one apart.

From legendary camera shots of the bride running away from her wedding to a remarkably Seinfeldian discussion about dunking a donut, everything about the film is just a little bit ahead of its time, a rare creative venture where each element seems to have clicked into place.


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