|'the man with a moustache even good moustaches dream of becoming, Clark Gable twinkles beautifully as down-on-his-luck (though that hardly registers with him at all) reporter Peter'|
One of the launch titles for Criterion's arrival on UK shores, Frank Capra's multi-Oscar winner, It Happened One Night, presents charmingly enough still, even if its premise and much of the story work now painfully operates on a gender politics code which is, at best, hopelessly outdated, at worst, offensive.
The man with a moustache even good moustaches dream of becoming, Clark Gable twinkles beautifully as down-on-his-luck (though that hardly registers with him at all) reporter Peter, who just happens across runaway heiress Ellie (Claudette Colbert), out on a limb with no clue, apparently, of how to budget for or even complete her trip from Florida to New York.
Their relationship is occasionally sweet but from the off also occasionally misjudged. Peter seems one part surrogate father to Ellie, one part abusive partner (she's threatened by him more than once during the journey) and one part the Romantic Comedy lead the character should be. Peter takes it upon himself to tell Ellie where she's going wrong, school her in the 'right' ways of making a fist of it on your own and, along the way, pushing her towards a decision on the men in her life which naturally leads back round towards Peter. Ellie's reward for this schooling? Well, of course, she gets to go to bed with the dashing leading man, come the end of the film.
The odd relationship works only sporadically and century-specific gender values can only be held up as half of an excuse. In 21st century cinema we would talk of Ellie having no agency and that is still true here, whatever the values of the society in which she operates. Her daring escape from her father's boat aside, right at the start of the film, she is consistently led whichever way the shepherd of the story takes her.
Gable's twinkling may tempt to you into forgiving Peter for his rough lecturing of Ellie throughout the trip, but bear in mind that his values too seem more askew than gender imbalance. Peter is a journalist, out to cash a big check on the story of Ellie, hopelessly dashing from her father to the man she eloped to marry. In order to get the story, Peter facilitates Ellie's flight, keeping her on the run so that his column inches can grow as her tachometer does. Of course, given her opulently foul father, introduced to us in the setup, you might say that Peter is doing Ellie a favour, but at the beginning at least his motivation is to manipulate the narrative he will serve to his readers for personal gain.
On an aesthetic level, Capra is twelve years off here from making It's A Wonderful Life, five years away from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and it can show. He's too happy to sit in interiors, often the cramped confines of the bus Peter and Ellie use to escape, when, actually the exteriors boast the best shots of the film. A tracking shot of Ellie walking to find the showers in the motel the couple hole up in is sublime, and reminiscent of It's A Wonderful Life's running scene. Similarly, Gable and Colbert, shot from behind, figuratively making their escape walking up the middle of a road hums with the notions the film wants to throw across to us; escape, freedom, the romance of a road trip. By contrast, the scene of singing on the bus is the only time the film achieves the same level of simple wonder whilst resting in an interior.
The judgements on It Happened One Night then are resolutely fixed in a contextual battle between values now and values in the 1930s, but they also show through with missives on 'what might have been'. If only Ellie had a bit more oomph and agency, if only Capra went outside with his camera a little more, if only the one-liners had more zing. It's charming for a time, but the nearly moments come too frequently.
The Criterion Collection edition of It Happened One Night is available in the UK now.