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It Happened One Night
A genre is born (Oops! All Romcoms: Part 1 of 4)
Romcoms! They've been around forever in some form or another (Adam and Eve: hilarious!), but if we're looking at movies, the prevailing belief is that It Happened One Night (1934) was the first of its kind. Directed by Frank Capra (of It's a Wonderful Life (1946) fame) and starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, the film tells the story of a spoiled heiress and a down-on-his-luck newspaper reporter who fall in love while on a cross-country bus trip. With its snappy, witty dialogue and playful tone, It Happened One Night laid the groundwork for many of the romantic comedies that followed. I won’t get into the plot in any more depth because it’s not about the story: It’s about the chemistry!
One of the elements that set it apart from earlier films that resembled the form of “romantic comedies” was its focus on character development. Rather than relying on gimmicks or contrived situations, the film used the personalities and quirks of its main characters to drive the story forward. Clark Gable's Peter Warne is a rough-edged, street-smart journalist who initially dislikes Colbert's Ellie Andrews, the sheltered and pampered daughter of a wealthy businessman. However, as the two spend more time together on their travels, they appreciate each other's strengths and flaws. This gradual development of their relationship is one of the hallmarks of romcoms, and the movie handles this with subtlety and grace. This cannot be said of many films to follow in its footsteps.
Unlike earlier comedies with a budding relationship at the core, which relied on slapstick or broad physical humor (see Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, etc.), It Happened One Night used witty dialogue and situational comedy to mine laughs. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is the "Walls of Jericho" sequence, in which Peter and Ellie use a blanket hung between their beds to create a makeshift wall for privacy. It sounds like simplicity itself (Julia-Child-Voice) in terms of its staging, but as this month will show, the best romcoms are built around character chemistry.
It Happened One Night also broke new ground in its treatment of gender roles. (Disclaimer: breaking new ground does not mean it didn’t leave plenty of other, still terrible ground right where it found it.) At the time of its release, Hollywood films typically portrayed women as passive objects of desire, waiting to be rescued by a strong male protagonist. In contrast, this film presented Colbert's Ellie as a strong-willed and independent woman who can take care of herself and make her own decisions. Her relationship with Peter is based on mutual respect and admiration. This depiction of women as active participants in their own lives was a significant departure from the norms of the time. It helped pave the way for future films featuring strong, independent female characters.
Perhaps most importantly, It Happened One Night created a blueprint for the romantic comedy as we know it today. The film established many of the genre's fundamental conventions, including the opposites-attract dynamic, the road trip setting, and the gradual development of the central relationship. It helped to establish the idea that a romantic comedy could be both funny and emotionally engaging and that it could tackle serious themes without sacrificing its light-hearted tone.
It Happened One Night
Written by Robert Riskin and Directed by Frank Capra
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
Oops! All romcoms!? That's right; we're doing it. A subject that could easily be at the center (and probably is) of multiple college courses. What makes a good romcom? This month, we’ll get to know the genre better and see if it’s the one. It’s a genre I typically tend to avoid, but as any good filmgoer should, I aspire to one day find a vicarious sympathetic angle from which to view these hallowed films. Maybe one day we’ll connect. Maybe in the third act? Perhaps someday, for me, it won't be ‘Oops, all romcoms,’ but ‘YES, all romcoms!’