Friday, November 14, 2014

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT: Blu-ray (Columbia 1934) Criterion Collection

Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) has been called many things. Upon shooting her final scene, Claudette Colbert picked up the telephone to an old friend, mercilessly declaring in front of Capra, “I’ve just made the worst picture of my life!” Neither Colbert, nor co-star Clark Gable thought much of the project, each making it under duress. Colbert had, in fact, been strong-armed by Columbia Studio chief, Harry Cohn, who famously told his temperamental diva she would make It Happened One Nightor else. The ‘or else’ was left open to interpretation. But during the golden era in Hollywood, when stars were indentured to lengthy studio contracts without fail – or question, for that matter – it could have easily meant anything from lousy parts to a forced absence from the screen; allowing for the fatal cooling off of the public’s fascination with one’s career. Colbert was no fool. Neither was Cohn.  But her first picture with Capra (1927’s For the Love of Mike) had been such a disaster Colbert feared she was in for more of the same this time around. Hence, she came to It Happened One Night with an innate and festering prejudice that only seemed to exponentially grow. A tenuous détente was struck between Colbert and Cohn – anything to get Colbert off on her promised vacation to Sun Valley. But Colbert made Capra’s life a living hell for the duration of the shoot; insisting on close-ups shot from only her best side. Frequently they bickered about the way a scene should be played – Capra usually getting his way, though not without a struggle.
On the whole, Clark Gable proved more congenial, though even he had his moments. Gable wasn’t particularly keen on Colbert as his costar. He was used to the glamor gals at Metro. The feeling, it seems, was mutual; Colbert protesting the mild stench from Gable’s dentures during their kissing scenes. He treated her with fairly casual contempt. She dismissed his movie-land/he-man image outright. Over the years rumors have varied as to how Gable came to do It Happened One Night. One goes, Gable had refused a picture at his alma mater – MGM – inciting studio raja, Louis B. Mayer to a show of force. On a good day, Mayer would have not thought twice about the loan out of his numero uno box office stud. After all, Gable was king.  But Gable had caught L.B. on an off day – ripe for the disciplining and forcibly ‘rented’ to Columbia Pictures; then considered little better than a poverty row studio. To come from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the Cartier in the industry – to Columbia (unquestionably, the equivalent of the five and dime) was a smack down for Gable. He took his lumps, but made the best of a bad situation.
There is another rumor to satisfy; namely, that Mayer was paying Gable a respectable salary of $2,000.00 a week – then, a princely sum – whether he worked at MGM or not. To maximize his profits, Mayer loaned Gable to Cohn for $25,000.00 per week, thereby making back $500 on his investment. Whatever the case, when It Happened One Night became the first motion picture to score Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay, both stars were left wondering what all the backstage feuding had been about. Colbert at least had the decency to offer something of a public apology to Capra, during her acceptance speech leaning into the podium, and with gold statuette proudly raised, declaring “I owe all of it to Frank Capra!”  Capra’s reputation at Columbia, already steadily on the ascendance prior to It Happened One Night, experienced a colossal boost immediately thereafter. Indeed, for the rest of the decade, Capra could do no wrong in Cohn’s eyes. He was afforded carte blanche on his pick of projects, the subsequent movies growing more lavish; culminating with a string of sublime super hits and one unfortunate miss: Lost Horizon (1937); today, rightfully viewed as a masterpiece, but so costly it served as a millstone, dragging Columbia’s bottom line back into the red.
It Happened One Night falls into the category of the ‘road picture’ – eloquently scripted by Capra’s long-time collaborator, Robert Riskin and based on Samuel Hopkins Adams minor success, ‘Night Bus’. The formal, in hindsight, seems deceptively simple. Take one pampered runaway heiress, a ‘brass tax’ news hound - out for the scoop of his career, a misguided dalliance in the middle of nowhere, and, the added screwball of both individuals starting out as virulent enemies (but winding up passionate lovers) and voila – you have, It Happened One Night. The film’s enduring success is predicated on a series of engaging mishaps, some occurring behind the scenes. Capra shot the picture in sequence in only 28 days, feverishly shooting, and playing ringmaster to his two tempestuous stars, improvising scenes along the way, and encouraging cinematographer, Joseph Walker not to invest too much time in creating the usual cinema glamor. All of this last minute brouhaha gave It Happened One Night buoyancy and a verisimilitude uncharacteristic of the usual Hollywood product.
The bedroom détente scene, played midway through the story (where Colbert’s stuffy Ellie Andrews reluctantly acquiesces to Gable’s Peter Warne’s refusal to sleep elsewhere; the two stringing a rope across the room with an oversized comforter slung over it to provide an imaginary wall), became iconically romantic; not the least for its suggestive exchange of dialogue. Ellie – who is heart sore and desperately longing for a real man’s touch and Gable’s forthright resistance of Ellie’s charms because, in fact, he has sincerely begun to fall for her, created the sort of elusive cinema magic and romantic electricity it required. The preceding scene, where the couple separately undresses for bed, was cause for minor controversy, however, when Gable revealed a bare torso beneath his outer shirt. Overnight, sales of men’s undershirts plummeted across the United States! Such was Gable’s star drawing power back then.
Because its pieces fit so succinctly together, It Happened One Night looks deceptively simple. Yet, others have long since tried to recapture – or at least, emulate – the ‘formula’ of this road picture and miserably, have failed. It is fairly safe to assume the casting of Gable and Colbert helped boost interest in the movie itself. But Frank Capra was cribbing from an exceptional screenplay too; Robert Riskin’s prose keeping the action lithe and spirited; his dialogue remaining true to the strengths of his stars. There is, in fact, an opportunity for both Gable and Colbert to do what they did best in It Happened One Night; their off screen mutual antagonism boding well for the troubled flirtations ripening throughout the story. Gable’s introduction to Colbert’s spoiled heiress on the night bus is impeccably crafted. Peter Warne informs Ellie Andrews with double entendre, “That upon which you sit is mine.” When she refuses to give up her seat, Gable inquires whether “these seats sit two”. Ward Bond’s caustic bus driver belligerently declares, “Well maybe they don’t and maybe they do!” Peter merely squeezes his way into the seat occupied by Ellie, muttering, “Move over. This is a ‘maybe they do’.”
Nevertheless, Gable’s cock of the walk is repeatedly tested in It Happened One Night. He isn’t this lady’s choice…not by a long shot. Nor, is Ellie without her talents to upstage her he-man. She proves the drawing power of her own sexuality after the two become stranded on the side of the road. Gable’s complex theory of the perfect technique to thumb a free ride falls flat in practice as he proves unable to procure a means of transportation; a series of speeding automobiles passing him by. Observing his chagrined debacle from the sidelines, Colbert’s Ellie declares, “I’ll get us a ride and I won’t use my thumb!” whereupon she merely raises the hem of her skirt, revealing a shapely nylon-stocking limb, and immediately secures a ride from the next available passerby. Gables response registers bewilderment, sheepish dismay, and finally, a genuine admiration for this gal with hidden talents. It’s a delicious moment of proto-feminism; Ellie having grown a woman’s heart in place of the vapid, angry void that caused her to flee her father, millionaire Alexander Andrews (Walter Connelly) yacht in the first place after he gave her a well-deserved slap on the cheek for being insulant.
It Happened One Night toys with the idea of ‘a woman’s place’ in society: Ellie – the haughty and exclusive princess of the manor born refuses to abide by her father’s wishes; that she not marry stuffed shirt and middle-aged bore, King Wesley (Jameson Thomas). He’s a penniless fortune hunter. But Ellie professes to love him. Actually, she’s rebelling against what she perceives as patriarchal intrusion on her private life. She wants to be her own woman; alas, without first actually fully grasping the concept. Nor is Ellie prepared for the various cads preying upon her relative innocence and inexperience in the outside world. What Ellie really needs is not a he-man protector, per say, but a guy’s guy to show her the ropes for getting along in a dishonest world. After all, she’s a fairly quick study. She sees through the insidious boar/travelling salesman, Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) and, too late, clues in to the modus operandi of the seemingly congenial driver, Danker (Alan Hale), who offers Ellie and Peter a lift, but actually manages to lift their luggage and drive off without them. Although she plays helpless, Ellie is really responsible for making up her own mind about things in general and Peter in particular; coming to her senses in the eleventh hour – while strolling down to the makeshift outdoor altar in her wedding dress, no less – before making a sprinted B-line for the nearest exit to be reunited with Peter. It’s unlikely theirs will be a true 50/50 relationship; but at least Peter is able to acknowledge the diamond his own heart has managed to pluck from the rough. Ellie may be a gem. But Pete is going to have his hands full!
It Happened One Night begins with Ellie’s daring escape from her father’s yacht. He attempts to lock her in a cabin below decks when she professes her undying love and desire to marry King Wesley. Father and daughter have words, her razor-sharp and biting diatribe forcing dear ole dad into a bit of paternal discipline. He wallops her across the cheek. It’s such a startle – for Ellie too – that she immediately pushes her way past Alexander and several of the boat’s crew, diving off the top deck and swimming ashore before Alexander can turn his boat around. In the meantime, a very inebriated Peter Warne is sitting inside a terminal waiting for the night bus; prodded by some fair-weather lushes to telephone his managing editor, Joe Gordon (Charles C. Wilson) and offer up a piece of his gin-soaked mind. The insults fly hard and heavy, Gordon hanging up the phone before Peter is finished. To save face, Peter goes on for a few moments more as his cronies listen in; afterwards declaring, “That’s tellin’ him!”
Before long Peter and Ellie have their cute meet on the bus. Ellie falls asleep on Peter’s shoulder, awakening a short while later, still full of her own independence. Peter, however, has recognized Ellie from the local newspaper headline about a runaway heiress, and quietly telephones Gordon to offer him the scoop of the century; an exclusive on what’s become of Ellie Andrews. The night bus makes several stops, one at a roadside outdoor diner where Ellie’s bag is pinched by a thief (Ernie Adams) without her even knowing it. Peter makes chase but is unsuccessful. Penniless and, for the first time, scared to boot, Ellie accepts Peter’s philanthropy. She is not terribly good at managing his money, however; squandering what he gives her on superficialities rather than necessities. When Pete finds out he’s furious.  
From here on in, It Happened One Night steadily evolves into a series of fairly plausible and thoroughly charming misadventures. The couple spends a night in a rented cabin, dividing the room with a clothes line they label ‘the walls of Jericho’. Soon, initial inhibitions and mutual disdain take a backseat to true confessions about the great unhappiness in each of their lives. Whether either chooses to acknowledge it or not, this moment will serve as the foundation to their romantic relationship. Lumping it on foot, Ellie and Peter spend their second evening together, snoozing near some hay stacks. In the morning, Ellie is paralyzed with fear at having been abandoned by Peter. Instead, he arrives with some hand-picked fruit and veggies for breakfast. Exhausted, Ellie demands Peter procure them a ride. His hitchhiker’s technique could use some work. So Ellie raises her skirt and lands them both their first big break. It turns out to be anything but as the driver, Danker, pretends to be their friend, but then drives off with their suitcases in tow.  A short while later Peter exacts his revenge on Danker, stealing his car.
On the last length of their journey, Ellie confesses her love for Peter. He is determined to marry her. But after depositing Ellie inside a cabin and hurrying off to inform Gordon he intends not to write the story about their escapades, Peter returns to the cabin to discover Ellie gone; having been found out by Alexander, rescued back to his estate where the wedding to King Wesley is to take place. Peter arrives at the Andrews’ estate on the afternoon of the wedding; Alexander offering him money in gratitude for Ellie’s safe return. He turns it down. But Ellie is insulted even at the insinuation Peter might have only been interested in her because of her wealth and family name. Peter storms off in a frustrated, masculine huff, leaving Alexander to escort his teary-eyed daughter down the aisle.  Alexander quietly whispers his approval of Peter’s motives and also of the man himself. He informs Ellie that Peter turned down flat his generous offer. It must be love. Armed with this understanding, Ellie breaks free of her father’s arm and scurries past the astonished guests with King Wesley in hot pursuit.
Unable to apprehend his bride, Wesley inquires what could possibly have made her change her mind about their marriage. Alexander plays dumb, but secretly is satisfied his daughter has made the right choice.  Capra cuts to the same cabin the couple shared earlier, the bemused proprietor of the Auto Camp (Harry Holman) informing his wife (Maidel Turner) Peter has requested a toy trumpet, some string and a heavy comforter; symbolic of the ‘walls of Jericho’ that barred the couple from consummating their relationship eariler. The trumpet sounds and the lights in the cabin go out. It’s every man – and every woman, for that matter – for themselves; the honeymoon begun; the show - fini.
It has often been noted that some of the greatest movies ever made were the product of blind chaos and great luck. This was, perhaps, never more astutely observed than in It Happened One Night; deceptively lighter than air. Yet, the paper thin plot and preposterous scenarios come off without a hitch. More than that – the love affair blossoming between Ellie and Peter is wholly believable. Ironically, It Happened One Night was the movie nobody – except Capra – wanted to make. Afterward, it became the movie everyone, including Capra, was trying to beat. Capra’s association at Columbia would prove immensely fruitful. Arguably, he did his best work here during the 1930’s, culminating with 1938’s Oscar-winning You Can’t Take It With You, and his superbly crafted social commentary on American politics; Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939); a clever indictment of graft in Washington’s back-slapping machinery, as seen through the eyes of its ultimate 'every man' and daydreamer, James Stewart. It Happened One Night has the more cynical Gable to recommend it in Stewart’s stead and Gable proves (as though any proof were needed) why he earned the moniker of Hollywood’s ‘king’. There’s an intangible animal magnetism to Gable that cannot be manufactured. He simply was a real man.
It Happened One Night is a movie that could only have been possible in the 1930’s; a decade brimming with wide-eyed optimism about most things; Hollywood thumbing its collective noses at the Great Depression and providing audiences with topflight, class ‘A’ entertainment. While many of the other studios, chiefly MGM, invested heavily in the escapist and otherworldly glamor of fanciful and well-appointed living, Columbia’s budget would not permit Capra such a luxury. It’s just as well. Capra’s yen for telling relatively real stories about the flaws in male/female relationships, struck a more genuine chord on a more restrained outlay of capital. And the profits Columbia and Harry Cohn were to derive from Capra’s ‘corn in totem throughout the 1930’s proved the studio’s salvation; a means by which Cohn built Columbia’s reputation in the industry for quality product, hiring A-list directors and free-agented talent on a picture by picture basis.
In retrospect, It Happened One Night is Capra’s earliest masterpiece in this tenure; blessed with his inimitable light touch and penchant for achieving a level of on-screen intimacy fairly hard to top. The relationship between Ellie and Peter just seems genuine; the morphing of their acrimonious relationship into one of mutual respect and finally, love, taking on a life of its own. Gable and Colbert may have thought they were committing career suicide with It Happened One Night, but time has proven the opposite to be true. While Gable will likely always be associated with Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939), Colbert’s regrettably dwindling repute has been buoyed over the generations almost exclusively by her appearance in this, Frank Capra’s classiest romance.  Arguably, Colbert ought to be remembered for much more; her performance in David O. Selznick’s superbly crafted wartime weepy, Since You Went Away (1944) arguably, her greatest. Gable’s repertoire too is a myriad of treasures yet to be unearthed in hi-def, or even competently given their due on standard DVD. In the final analysis, It Happened One Night represents the best from both actors, despite their misgivings. Arguably, each star would go on to do ‘better’ work elsewhere. But together in It Happened One Night, they’re dynamic, engaging and deliriously in sync with one another, achieving a level of quietly restless passion few stars of any vintage have been able to express with such professionalism, confidence and graceful charm.
Well, it’s about time! Criterion Home Video rectifies many a sin committed on this vintage catalog title over the years. First off, it should be noted that, like a good many Columbia titles from the 1930’s, no original nitrate elements survive. Over the decades, Columbia attempted to do right by what remained; their first attempt on DVD more marginally competent, followed by a disastrous reissue as part of a Frank Capra Collection in which contrast was so severely toggled down it yielded an oppressively dark and poorly contrasted image. Well, prepare to be exceptionally pleased with what’s on this Blu-ray. Not only has contrast been rectified to reveal new and revitalized minute details, but we also get the film’s indigenous grain looking gorgeously thick and natural. Truly, It Happened One Night has never looked this good on home video. The visuals have a subtly nuanced, filmic appearance; fine detail popping as it should; showcasing Joseph Walker’s soft lit, and softly focused cinematography to its best advantage. Better still, age-related dirt and scratches have been eradicated, thanks to a thorough clean-up. We can likely thank Sony Pictures VP Grover Crisp for that. There are still issues of modeling and streaking; unavoidable, given this is an 80 year old film that has suffered greatly over the decades since from improper preservation and storage. But honestly, It Happened One Night in hi-def will be a distinct revelation for most. Get ready for a quality effort put forth with very pleasing results!
Predictably, Criterion has gone the route of another PCM mono audio track, plagued by inherent weaknesses, lovingly preserved for posterity herein. Criterion pads out the extras, including: Screwball Comedy?; a 40 minute conversation between film scholars/critics, Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate. Much too short, though appreciated, is the11-minute interview with Frank Capra Jr., first recorded for the old Columbia Classics DVD release in 1999. We also get Capra’s very first movie, 1921’s Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House, with a new score composed and performed by Donald Sosin. The most comprehensive extras are Frank Capra’s American Dream; Ken Bower’s hour and a half long documentary, hosted by Ron Howard, from 1997, and the complete AFI tribute to Capra. The former features interviews with a litany of Capra collaborators as well as actors and directors from Capra’s vintage. The latter is a star-studded evening, hosted by James Stewart. A few portions of the original broadcast are MIA herein. Aside: I think it astonishing the AFI has never bothered to reissue any of their Lifetime Achievement broadcasts to home video in any sort of meaningful or comprehensive way.  Last, but not least, we get an original theatrical trailer and liner notes from critic, Farran Smith Nehme. Bottom line: It Happened One Night is an American classic. Criterion’s Blu-ray gives the film its due. Enjoy and buy with confidence. One of the best classic releases of 2014!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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