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.