When the Classics Surprise You: It Happened One Night

Years ago – many, many years ago – as I began my odyssey into the world of film, the main thing I did was read.  Back in those days, pre-cable, pre-vcrs, way pre-dvd and streaming, most movies simply weren’t available for viewing.  The best thing you could do if you were a fledgling cinema obsessive was read.  Read general movie history books and bios of directors, interviews and analyses, breakdowns of specific genres and even the occasional book focused solely on a single film, which the “Focus on…” series did and became my introduction to many foreign and classic films I would otherwise have had no way of seeing.  Of course, I wasn’t seeing them, that’s the point, but these books made it feel like I was.  Actually seeing the movies only came when they ran on the late show, PBS, or in a local theater playing an older movie between engagements.  I took every opportunity I could to see whatever I could and to this day, there a handful that despite all my advance knowledge from reading up on them, truly surprised me.  Following is one that did, and when I saw it was showing tonight on TCM, I couldn’t stop thinking about it: It Happened One Night.

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When I say a classic movie surprised me what I mean is simply this: many a classic film I’ve read about will still greatly impress me but I will still feel like I got to know the movie beforehand.  Watching it simply confirmed that it was, indeed, great and everything moved much as I had expected it to.  I won’t say which movies exactly because it includes the majority of what I have seen.  Again, this isn’t some kind of dismissal or criticism of the movie.  These are movies I was absolutely thrilled with, just that, having read up on them a hundred times over, I felt I got what I had expected.  When I finally got around to seeing It Happened One Night, one night, as it were, on PBS, I couldn’t believe how modern, snappily paced, and utterly charming it was.  I had read the story of the movie, read the reviews, knew about all the Oscars it won and figured I’d settle in for a nice movie from 1934 that seemed perfectly fine for its time and, while I would be able to recognize its greatness, would always seem like a movie of the thirties to me.  A good one, but a good movie of the thirties nonetheless.

Keep in mind too that this was a time, long before blogs and hundreds of easily accessible film critics online from all over the world, that movies like It Happened One Night really were relegated to the general history of the movies books.  They would be mentioned, quite approvingly, but the serious talk would center around Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane, and L’Avventura.  Don’t get me wrong, those are all great seminal works of the cinema, it’s just that, I think, one of the reasons I wasn’t prepared for It Happened One Night was because outside of The Gold Rush, The General, and City Lights, comedies didn’t get the kind of serious treatment as other movies.  I mention The Gold Rush, The General, and City Lights because all three had appeared on the famed Sight and Sound poll, started in 1952, and on that one, plus the 1962 and 1972 polls (they are released every ten years) all three movies either made the top ten or were runners up.   For someone like me, relying on these kinds of things as a young kid fascinated by the cinema, it meant those were the great comedies and the rest were just, well, comedies.

It’s a bias that still holds much sway in the world of movies.  Something about making a story humorous that, unless it’s silent, somehow makes it lesser as a work of art.  I couldn’t disagree more strongly with this sentiment (and it’s one that’s gone on so long that by 1940 it was already so well-worn that Preston Sturges fashioned a whole story around it, Sullivan’s Travels) and it was seeing It Happened One Night that really opened my eyes to the size of the problem.  Nowadays, it wouldn’t be hard to find an article or essay on It Happened One Night extolling its greatness but, back then, back in the dark ages, it was a different story.

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When I saw It Happened One Night I immediately thought, having already seen The General and City Lights, and The Gold Rush in its later retooled “sound” version that Chaplin regrettably did, “I like this better than any of those!”  Now, again, I’m not saying those three aren’t great, they are, by miles and miles.  I’m saying I think It Happened One Night is better.  Did then, still do. (But, hey, they’re all masterworks and I don’t blame anyone at all if their mileage varies)  It didn’t just put the road trip movie on the map, it made the best one ever, the one that every other road trip movie must stand against.  It also took the “opposites attract” school of romantic comedy to a level of perfection I don’t think will ever be equaled.   And while Frank Capra, Clark Gable, and Claudette Colbert were all decidedly “on the map” already, this movie put them all dead center in the middle of the superstar section of the map.  That doesn’t make it a great movie, it’s a result of how great the movie was, and how well they all worked together.

A few years back I was asked to take part in a “Greatest Movies of All Time” poll online and submitted a top 25 list as I was asked to do.  I put It Happened One Night in my top ten and I’d probably do it again.  To me, it’s as important and influential as almost any other movie on any “Greatest of All Time” list, maybe more.  Its influence will be felt as long as there are movies about two people who don’t get along and fall in love.  As long as there are movies about road trips.  As long as there are movies about making the audience laugh.  As long as… as long as there are movies, period.  And I didn’t get any of that from a book.  I got it from turning on the television one night, a long time ago, and being utterly surprised.  It really did happen one night after all.

2 Responses When the Classics Surprise You: It Happened One Night
Posted By Mitch Farish : February 5, 2016 3:15 pm

I love It Happened One Night. It deserves all the accolades and Oscars it got, but I can’t watch it anymore; I know it too well. When you get to the point where you can say the lines along with the actors, it’s time to move on to new territory. As far as reading about movies in advance, I think it’s a bad idea. I avoid it whenever possible because I know my opinion will be affected before viewing. It’s something that can’t be helped. Subliminally your feelings about the movie have been preconditioned by someone else’s opinion, usually someone famous who must have better insights than I do, right.

We are now in the “31 Days of Oscar” phase of TCM’s yearly journey, and all the usual suspects are being trotted out, all of Hollywood’s most successful commercial product that has been analyzed to death in print. I think it’s time for an anti-Oscar month when we can see films that were unfairly overlooked by Oscar and were left off of AFI’s lists of mediocrity, movies that haven’t gotten the ink the “important” films have, and that we are not predisposed to think of as great, even though they are.

Posted By Ben Martin : February 5, 2016 4:09 pm

I can easily understand the view that IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is a powerhouse which can be mentioned right along side the best of Chaplin’s classics. It has dated much better than his (Capra’s) other films in my view, and still feels so fresh. It’s interesting too to compare the brutally hectic shooting schedule of IHON to Chaplin’s leisurely, seemingly endless shoot for CITY LIGHTS. Even Capra learned from this – the occasional benefits of deadlines and budgets. (And oh yes, the perfect cast.) If I ran a film class, I think it would be fun to show both IHON and CITY LIGHTS and host discussions afterward.

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