(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert are the newlywed couple Gil and Lana Martin. They have migrated from the settled and comfortable area near Albany, New York to settle in the frontier farming community of Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley. But this is during the American revolutionary war and the Mohawk Valley is the scene of conflicts between Americans and their Indian allies versus British troops, loyalist settlers and their Indian allies. The movie starts off with Lana learning to accept the rigors of frontier life after her more affluent existence with her well-to-do family. But once the young couple begin to prosper the attacks begin. The Indians burn down their homestead and they are reduced to living as servants in the house of a rich old woman Sarah McKlennar (played by the irascible Edna May Oliver). Gil is enlisted in the local militia and they participate in the Battle of Oriskany where they are victorious but at a cost of nearly half their men.
Meanwhile Lana gives birth to their daughter and the Martins find a happy life working for McKlennar. But eventually war returns to Deerfield. An overpowering war party of Indians is approaching. The settlers abandon their farms for the relative safety of Fort Schuyler. The settlers resist the attack for as long as their ammunition holds out but eventually Gil is sent out on a desperate mission to get reinforcements from Fort Dayton. Three Indian braves chase him for hours through forests and grasslands until finally he reaches the fort and brings help. Just as the Indians have occupied the stockade and a desperate hand to hand battle is under way, the militia from Fort Dayton arrive to save the settlers. They quickly defeat the enemy and restore order. The commanding officer informs the settlers that the war is now over and the English have surrendered to General Washington. Lana and her child have survived the battle but Mrs. McKlennar was mortally wounded and as she dies, she leaves her farm and money to the Martins.
The movie is a semi-historical account and the action of the story is dramatic enough and the characters interesting enough to keep the viewers’ interest. I found Edna May Oliver’s portrayal of the cantankerous Mrs. McKlennar as probably the dramatic highlight of the movie. Fonda and Colbert do an admirable job as the young couple trying to survive the war and various character actors such as Ward Bond and John Carradine add substantially to the effort. I would rate this movie as a diverting historical adventure story. Perfect for a winter evening when you don’t want to go to sleep too early.
Anyone who has watched TV around Christmas has probably seen a Frank Capra movie because every year they play “It’s a Wonderful Life” non-stop for a week straight. And that’s a really good Capra film. But Capra made a bunch of good films in his day and some of them are among my favorites. And my all-time favorite is “It Happened One Night.” Filmed in 1934, it stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in a screwball comedy that wants us to believe that an heiress on the run from her father would meet up accidentally on a bus with a reporter who needs her runaway story to salvage his newspaper career. Their trek from Florida to New York begins with each despising the other and ends up, of course, with them falling in love. But of course, the course of true love is never smooth and never was that truer than with this goofy tale. The key to the success of this movie, for me, is the chemistry between Gable and Colbert. He is the seemingly self-confident man of the world. He knows it all and claims to be able to write a book about every skill from how to correctly dunk a doughnut, to how to thumb a ride on the highway. She starts out as the arrogant little rich girl. Pretending to need no one’s help and always in charge. Once they broker a deal to travel together to their mutual interests, they proceed to heckle each other and bicker until they pretty convincingly fall in love. My wife and I have always thought of this as a pretty much perfect date movie. It has a little something for both sexes. Gable gets to strut and brag in his king of the jungle act and Colbert is the sarcastic little woman. In one of my favorite scenes Gable is demonstrating his various “foolproof” methods of thumbing a ride. After a string of failures, he dejectedly admits maybe he shouldn’t write that book after all. Colbert says she’ll get a ride and won’t even have to use her thumb at all. Of course, she walks over to the rod, lifts her skirt above her knee and the first passing car slams on the brakes and the emergency brake too. An amused Colbert says to the glum Gable that she had just answered an age-old riddle. He asks what and she replies “that the limb is mightier than the thumb.” And he viciously replies “well why didn’t you just take off all your clothes and you could have gotten a hundred rides?” to which she serenely replies “when we need a hundred rides I will.”
As I mentioned earlier, the couple don’t smoothly move from reluctant partners to sweethearts without obstacles and by the last reel misunderstanding and anger almost conspire to destroy this match made on a Greyhound Bus. But of course, happily ever after is bound to be in a Capra film so the fear of tragedy is never serious.
The movie is full of little details of life in depression era America and the vignettes with the denizens of the bus and other locales add charm to the story. Capra filled his depression era movies with scenes of the common people displaying compassion and camaraderie in the face of adversity. The scene where the bus riders amuse themselves with a relatively untalented singing performance is amusing and appealing if a little contrived.
If you’ve never seen the movie, I unreservedly recommend it. If you don’t like it then I recommend you do not read any more of my reviews. Our points of view on film would be just too far out of synch to allow any value to you. And may God have mercy on your poor shriveled soul.