It Happened One Night Review

Criterion UK day continues.

There was a time that a DVD collection was no such thing without a few Criterion titles. Ever since the days of laserdisc, this specialist US label has been setting the standard for prestige releases which, despite a higher price tag, would sell out quickly and become much sought after. Thanks to the discs being region free the UK was also able to enjoy director approved Silence of the Lambs and Robocop, alongside gorgeous editions of Akira Kurosawa films like Seven Samurai. There was even room for Armageddon. Actually no-one quite understood how Michael Bay made it into Criterion’s exclusive club. No matter, they had a richly deserved reputation for being the must-own label for movie lovers, especially when DVD was a young format.

Blu-Ray was a bittersweet development as Criterion’s US releases were locked to Region A. It was prohibitively expensive to bypass so, for many of us across the pond, that was it. Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (no. 414) was the last one for me. Thankfully the niche has since been filled in superb fashion by Arrow, BFI and Eureka! at least who can all lay claim to the same standards. The specialist market seems sown up, but Criterion are finally joining in with six UK titles being released on April 18th, and more coming in May. Is there still room for them?

If they are all like this wonderful edition of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) then they are very welcome. A film as joyfully watchable as it is historic and important, Criterion’s edition presents the film at its very best. It’s a romantic, opposites attract, road-trip comedy with Claudette Colbert playing a runaway socialite who crosses path with Clark Gable’s world-weary wisecracking reporter. She’s just the story he needs, but maybe he sees something more in her and can’t resist helping her, despite them driving each other crazy.

Widely, if casually, regarded to be the first screwball comedy, It Happened One Night is a perfect example of Hollywood’s golden age; Capra’s sentimental escapism sitting comfortably within the studio system. The film was the first to win the big five Academy Awards and the story would forever become a template for the romantic comedy, even at least as late as Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman. Also consider Preston Sturges’ incredible run in the 40s with films like Sullivan’s Travels (available in a similarly stuffed edition from Arrow).

Robert Riskin’s screenplay is a marvel. It doesn’t hang about and is all lean, no fat. It has a rhythm and crackles with energy. Playing against type even in 1934, Gable has the best lines and every one of his zingers lands, but it would be hard to land them without Colbert. She pulls off a deft performance, both vulnerable and snobbishly ignorant and effectively running rings around the exasperated Gable. The supporting characters are all memorable as well; even a conductor on a bus that pretty much only says, “Oh yeah?”. Maybe it was something about it being an early talkie, but it does seem like the actors all make a mark now they can be heard! Gable’s editor, Colbert’s wealthy father, even a signalman at a railway crossing. All are fun characters and likely to bring a smile to the face, like a live action cartoon.

While it is a brisk pace with no time to linger, Capra still makes the most of sparse sets and makes the film look bigger than it really is. This is only a few years out of the silent era and directors had been crippled by weighty cameras, the film is an utter marvel that it feels so light and breazy. Was it actually intended to be a screwball? Others were released the same year that definitely were and it’s more likely that the brisk pace was dictated by reluctant Claudette Colbert giving them just four-weeks to make the film! Arguably screwball has dated while films like A Philadelphia Story and It Happened One Night are as watchable today as they ever were.

Criterion’s new 4K transfer is excellent and the film looks luminous. The black and white photography crisp and fresh for an 82 year old; there’s something about the depth of field from this era that really makes movies pop. The nature of the film gives a range of scenes; outdoor, indoor, night and day, and the changes in contrast always suit. There are brief scenes in noticeably lower quality though. It’s common to see a shift between edits, but these are longer. The transfer is so good otherwise that it would be churlish to question it as a whole, but it is curious nonetheless.

The work that goes into the extra features on even an average Criterion was extraordinary. Not being promoted by the original studio, they are able to respectfully put the work in context and standard releases can feel sycophantic in comparison. You’ll often hear fans wishing for certain films to be picked up by Criterion, just because there would be a chance of learning the real story. Eureka! et al have picked up this same reputation, but maybe Criterion clearly realise this and so give us a treasure trove.

Screwball Comedy? 39m
If you’re missing a commentary, this detailed conversation between critics Molly Haskell and Philip Lopate might be a more focused alternative anyway. They affectionately question if It Happened One Night really was screwball. They also discuss at length it’s history and themes. It’s a great, casual listen and both Molly and Philip really know their stuff.

Frank Capra Jr. Remembers 11m
This interview from 1999 with Frank Capra Jr. is very entertaining. Basically it’s a grown-up talking about when his dad took him to work, except this dad was a Hollywood master. He has lots of background on the origins of the film and just what a nightmare Colbert clearly was. Only giving them four weeks to make it, she complained every day, called it the worst picture, seeming only to relent when she received the Oscar! Still, that makes her performance more admirable considering the screen chemistry is faultless.

Fulta Fisher’s Boarding House (1921) 12m
Now this is the kind of random content we love Criterion for! Frank Capra’s first film. It’s more of a museum piece, but demonstrates Capra’s eye for building a dynamic scene and telling a story. It proves just how advanced filmmakers were in the 1920s.

Frank Capra’s American Dream 96m
Hosted by Ron Howard, Ken Bowser’s documentary from 1997 looks at the legendary filmmaker and his optimistic storytelling. It includes contributions from many who have been influenced, including Martin Scorcese, Garry Marshall, etc.

American Film Insitute to Capra (1982) 59m
Full of great anecdotes and fun to see now because it’s a generation or two back. We can’t appreciate the celebrity side of old Hollywood quite so much now. James Stewart’s anecdote about agreeing to It’s a Wonderful Life is hilarious.

Jon Meakin

Updated: Apr 18, 2016

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It Happened One Night Review

A joyful slice of Hollywood's Golden Age and a must-have presentation from Criterion.

It Happened One Night Review | The Digital Fix