Friday, September 6, 2013

Hope springs eternal in "It Happened One Night"

During the first few minutes of this film, I was certain it was going to be no more impressive than Duck Soup, and God help me if I had to sit through that hot mess again.  I wouldn’t have hesitated to shove a fork through my eye; or anyone else’s that happened to be laughing nearby.  Claudette Colbert’s first appearance on screen, with her thirties glamour make-up and affected, over-enunciated Standard American Stage Dialect, reinforced my initial feelings that she was going to be no better an actress than Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup.  Did every single film that came out of this time period produce such indication-driven overacting and barely-believable storylines?

After waiting it out for another ten minutes, I decided: I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Like many others, I was familiar with Clark Gable by reputation as the dashing epitome of the quintessential Hollywood leading man.  I loved his performance in Gone with the Wind, but not enough to become a die-hard fan.  So I wasn’t expecting him to be just so darned good in a romantic comedy.  I think I, along with every other female audience member was in love with him by the end of the movie.

As the film progressed, I’m happy to say that Colbert’s acting seemed to relax—she didn’t force feelings or reactions to situations as she did in the first scenes.  In this regard, I’m guessing that Capra filmed the first few scenes in sequence, which is usually not done in film or episodic television.  (Later, in a scene extra on the DVD, we learn from Frank Capra, Jr., that Colbert had originally considered this film the worst of her career and bitched nearly every day on set about something.  Perhaps in these first few scenes, she wasn’t fully able to keep her private disdain for the project out of her character, but I’m just surmising at this point.)  Perhaps it was that the chemistry between herself and Gable also began to grow, and this relaxed her a bit.  I just know that for me, there was a marked difference between her acting in the first scenes, and her acting in the later scenes in which she and Gable are on the road, running from her father’s henchmen.

So, once her acting improved to the point where it no longer took me out of the story, I began to settle down and enjoy the story and characters.  The idea of a road trip for a story that early in the 1930s was revolutionary, and it was during Capra, Jr.’s interview that we learned why: his father had put this film together from script to editing in just four weeks.  Hotel or Hostel rooms doubled for each other with minor set changes, car rides were nothing more than a half-car on a sound stage with a backdrop, a boat in the beginning, a newspaper room, and a hotel and extravagant yard for the wedding setting at the end.  Even wardrobe was sparse: Colbert had a total of just three costume changes.  I know nothing of movies from the 1930s in general, but even I could tell this was an unusual set-up for a movie at this time.  I knew there had to be a reason why it won five Academy Awards, other than its two major stars.

As I said in my previous review, a strong cast cannot exist apart from an equally-strong ensemble cast, and Capra shined in his casting in that regard.  Each minor character held their own against the film’s two stars, creating believable atmosphere and in some cases, stand-out scenes: I was struck by the scene with Gable on the bus with the ticket agent.  It was the first time I’d ever seen the Rule of Threes used, and to great effect at that.

Another memorable device they used was called the “running gag”.  Gable strung a blanket between beds each time that he and Colbert were in yet another hotel room, and he called it “The walls of Jericho”.  I didn’t expect another device in comedy to be used, referred to as the “call-back”, in which a stand-up comic, who’s usually beat a bit to death by repeating it until the audience slashes his tires in the parking lot, refers back to it one last time at the end of his act, much to the unexpected delight of that same audience (they LOVE it).  In the final scene of the movie, after Colbert and Gable’s characters are finally wed (and they played the constant growing sexual tension to perfection all throughout), they spend their wedding night in one of the run-down hotel rooms similar to the ones already used in the movie.  The aging owner and his wife are standing outside, commenting on why Gable insisted on stringing a blanket between their beds when they were on their Honeymoon, and then the man commented to his wife that he was then instructed to go out and purchase a toy trumpet.  In the final seconds, we see the hotel room from the perspective of the owner and his wife, curtains pulled, but lights on.  Just a second later, the lights go out and we hear a toy trumpet.  Best. gag. ever.

The fact that this whole project was based solely on a short-story surprised me, but also gave me hope.  My own short-stories have been published in national comedy magazines.  And not just for pizza coupons and a cookie: for real money, too.

Perhaps hope does spring eternal, and if one wishes, they, too, can knock down the walls of Jericho.

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