Review: It Happened One Night 1935

It Happened One Night Frank Capra

Review: It Happened One Night

The Nation, April 10, 1935 (Their web site here)

By William Troy

Among the more gratifying phenomena of the current season has been the growing recognition of It Happened One Night, the Frank Capra pr duction of last year, as one of the few potential classics of the recent cinema.

Having been selected as the best American picture of the year by the National Board of Review and other organizations, and having earned for its director and players a handsome collection of gold medals, it is at the moment in its third week of revival at a New York playhouse – a tribute usually reserved for certain films of Chaplin and certain cartoons by Walt Disney. What is perhaps most gratifying about all this is that it has come about without any of the usual ventilation of superlatives which attends the birth of a masterpiece in the American screen world.

Nothing in the subject, the personnel, the surrounding circumstances of this partic- ular film offered the least pretext for the beating of the big drum. There had been a whole succession of pictures based on the picaresque aspects of the cross-country bus; neither Claudette Colbert nor Clark Gable was a reigning favorite with the great popular public; and Frank Capra was merely one of several better than average Hollywood directors. In brief, the wholly spontaneous response with which the picture was received could be traced to no novelty or originality in its component elements. A second viewing of it confirms this truth at the same time that it enforces the realization of how difficult it is, at the present stage of motion picture production and appreciation, to determine what it is precisely which makes a good photoplay.

It is true that the story, which is a mixture of both farcical and realistic situations, is exceptionally well put together from almost every point of view. It is developed with the galloping pace that good farce requires, and the timing of individual scenes is invariably well managed. But it is hard to distinguish between the work of the scriptwriters and the work of the director, who is perhaps even more responsible for maintaining an unerring accuracy of tempo throughout. And is it quite fair to ignore what the players may be contributing to the same effect? Although neither Miss Colbert nor Mr. Gable had demonstrated any particular comic talent before this picture, their playing here is at every step exactly in tune with the mood of the occasion.

As for the content of the film, which may possibly be distinguished from the treatment, one can remark only that it is authentically indigenous without being in any way novel or striking. An honest documentation of familiar American actualities becomes, in a Hollywood film, more absorbing than intrigue in Monte Carlo or pigsticking in Bengal. Also one might point out that the manner in which this material is utilized for comic purposes strikes a nice balance between pure farce and serious social satire. The result of the balance is something less tiresome than the first, and less precarious to the comic intention than the second. But the effort to fix and label the particular quality which separates this film from the dozen or more substantially like it in recent years is bound to end only in an admission of critical humiliation.

A good photoplay, like a good book or a good piece of music, remains always something of a miracle-in the least sentimental sense of that word. Beyond a certain point the mind is forced to bow down before its own inability to unravel and put together again all the parts of the shining and imponderable whole with which it is dealing.

[Our page on It Happened One Night with complete credits is here]

Original page 2007 | Updated April 2013

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