The 1930s; what a decade – the rise of national socialism, continued fallout from the Wall Street Crash & dust storms in the American prairies. Perhaps it’s no wonder than that when confronted with such testing times, one of cinema’s greatest genres flourished: the screwball comedy. In particular, 1934 – the year of Bonnie and Clyde, Teamsters strikes and a reputed plot against President Roosevelt – offered a formidable assembly of films to help cinema audiences banish the blues.
Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night were pivotal moments in screwball’s development: the point where European drawing room farce met American silent movie slapstick. What’s more, Capra’s film found a slyly subversive role for Clark Gable. Gable had only achieved his first ‘starring’ role two years earlier, in Navy drama Hell Divers. He followed these with a versatile succession of performances – the best of which is in Victor Fleming’s Red Dust, the first of six pairings with Jean Harlow – that cumulatively increased his standing as a leading man. Playing hard-drinking reporter Peter Warne in Capra’s film was a tipping point for Gable: he won the Academy Award for Best Actor.
We meet Warne when he has been recently been put out of work. By coincidence – of course – he meets Claudette Colbert’s Ellie Andrews, a spoilt heiress on the run from her wealthy father. The two fall in together and find themselves on the road, in the middle of the Great Depression. Capra easily captures the feisty chemistry between Gable and Colbert – while the screenplay by the director’s long-term collaborator Robert Riskin moves at a formidable clip, stacking up the one-liners but never once at the expense of its innate charm.
The film was the first to win the top five Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adaptation (from a Cosmopolitan story, Night Bus, by Samuel Hopkins Adams). Such a feat wouldn’t be happen again for over 40 years – until One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975.
Criterion Disc Features:
– New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Screwball Comedy?, a new conversation between critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate
– Interview with Frank Capra Jr. from 1999
– Frank Capra’s American Dream, a 1997 feature-length documentary about the director’s life and career
– New digital transfer of Capra’s first film, the 1921 silent short Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House, with a new score composed and performed by Donald Sosin
– American Film Institute tribute to Capra from 1982
– An essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme