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Currently playing at the AK film club: Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki 1997)

Film Club: It Happened One Night

It Happened One NightFollowing the discussion that our Akira Kurosawa Film Club started last month on One Wonderful Sunday, we will now be moving onto the 1934 Frank Capra film It Happened One Night. This does not mean that discussion of One Wonderful Sunday should end of course, as we have specifically chosen It Happened One Night as a companion piece for the Kurosawa film.

It Happened One Night stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in a screwball comedy about a rich man’s daughter (Colbert) and a handsome, direct but well-meaning reporter (Gable). Although it was initially seen as a failure, the film proved a major sleeper hit, and went on to win five Academy Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adaptation. It was the first ever film to carry home the “Big Five”, and reportedly also the first film to really popularise the screwball comedy genre on the silver screen.

Nevertheless, when you first watch It Happened One Night, you may wonder why on earth it is on our viewing list. This is actually a valid question. The film was chosen based on remarks in Richie and Galbraith, who list it as one of the works that influenced One Wonderful Sunday. (Galbraith, 90; Richie, 45) Yet, while there are certain basic similarities between the two films, it could be argued that they are fundamentally very different works.

The interesting question then is, why It Happened One Night, together with works such as Capra’s Lady for a Day and Mr Deeds Goes to Town or films by F.W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg, Henry Koster or D. W. Griffith have been listed as influential to One Wonderful Sunday. How did they influence One Wonderful Sunday, and perhaps even more interestingly, how have they influenced the way that critics have approached Kurosawa’s film?

This would also be a good place to discuss Kurosawa’s influences in general, and the influence of Frank Capra in particular. Kurosawa’s stock answer for the question about his favourite directors was “Ford, Wyler and Capra” (Richie, 45), although as Richie points out, this answer may especially later on have been used more out of a habit than anything else. Yet, Richie goes on to note that Kurosawa was strongly influenced by Capra at the time of his first postwar films. Where does that influence manifest?

Whatever its connection with One Wonderful Sunday, It Happened One Night is of course an enjoyable film in itself. How do you think it compares with other works of its time, and how has it aged in your eyes?

It Happened One Night should be easy to acquire. Among other places, both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk stock the DVD.

Next month, the Akira Kurosawa Film Club will be moving onto Drunken Angel. For a full schedule, see the film club page.

14 Comments »


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Discussion: 14 Comments »

#1


Ugetsu



I managed to watch this over the weekend, and its terrific! Its very entertaining. So sad that we see so few films like this made nowadays – short, razor sharp and funny, with great technique used for the sake of the story, not to make the film makers look good. Gable was a revelation in it to me, I’ve always thought of him as only playing rich smoothies…. judging from this, he could do a lot more, his comic timing was great.

I think that it stands up very well over time. I remember many years ago having watched one of the Thin Man films wondering why it is that so many of the sophisticated films of the 1930’s can seem so modern and ageless, while much more recent films seem to date horribly just a few years after they were made. I would guess it is related to the need for films like this to use top class dialogue and wit over cinematic technique.

One thing I found interesting about the film was the way it dealt with the poverty of rural America at the time, and how it avoided sentimentalizing it. I’m no expert on screwball comedy, but I think the best of this genre of the time are among the greatest films ever made – a personal favorite of mine is His Girl Friday. I think this film stands up very well to the best of the genre, and I suppose as the ‘original’ screwball comedy, it has to be considered one of the most influential films ever made.

I’m a bit more skeptical though as to whether it really is an influence on Kurosawa, except in the most generic sense. I’ll have a think on this and post something on it later.


 

#2


Vili Maunula



I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed the film, Ugetsu! I saw the film for the first time last month, and was a little worried that it wouldn’t really go down well with the audience here, especially since the Kurosawa connection turned out to be surprisingly weak in the end.

However, just like you, I really enjoyed the film. And I love His Girl Friday. As you say, there is something really magical about some of the films of the time. Their pace, rhythm and wit seem so different from just about anything that is done these days. I wonder why. There is a certain charm, cleverness and faked innocence to these works that could, I think, still work today.


 

#3


lawless



I watched the film twice in the last couple of days, and also liked it, though perhaps not as much as either of you did. For me, The Philadelphia Story is the epitome of screwball romantic comedies, and romantic comedies in general, and watching It Happened One Night hasn’t changed that.

I thought Gable was terrific and a touch more effective in his role than Colbert, who sometimes seemed a bit subdued. How old do you think Ellie was supposed to be? She looked to me like she was in her 30s, especially in the beginning, although I think she was supposed to be in her 20s. (Colbert was 31 when the film came out.) I also wished the character of King Westley had been fleshed out more; he was a cardboard cutout. I guess we were supposed to assume that all the things everyone said of him were true and that Ellie only married him to be free of her father’s restrictions. I also didn’t find him remotely attractive and was taken aback at how much older than Ellie he seemed.

The indirect references to the Depression and economic concerns were refreshing and gave the film a realistic touch unusual in screwball comedies. That comes in second to the cleverness and wit of the dialogue and the absolute commtiment of the actors to their roles as what I liked best about the film. Nevertheless, the film’s actual content is too slight for me to rate it higher than the only other Capra film I’ve seen, It’s a Wonderful Life, which has a darker edge, a more overarching philosophical point, and a more creative story hook.

It Happened One Night also suffers from using tropes that may have been fresh then but aren’t now: the cynical, hard-drinking reporter, the bored, spoiled socialite, the interfering father with a heart of gold and a wallet to match, the gold-digging husband, the crusty editor, and the philanderer, although I have to say that the sequences with Mr. Shapely were absolutely hilarious. The film did a great job of depicting and sending up an archetypal womanizer who tries to seize the main chance but hasn’t the guts for it.

As for the Kurosawa connection: I don’t understand why this movie is cited as an influence on One Wonderful Sunday. There’s a much stronger connection between it and No Regrets For Our Youth, from the fractious relationship between a couple who eventually marry, though we only see one snippet of their sniping and hear about it from another character, to the male lead carrying the female lead across a stream.

The use of newspaper headlines is another similarity, though Capra has the edge here: the montage later on in the movie of papers flying all over superimposed over the printing process far outshines anything similar I’ve seen in Kurosawa’s films. Overall, I think Capra handles the transitions better than Kurosawa did in No Regrets.

In any event, even though No Regrets is a flawed film, it tackles more than It Happened One Night does, and for that reason, I prefer it. As for One Wonderful Sunday, which I like even better than No Regrets, there’s no contest.


 

#4


lawless



Argh! I knew I forgot something, and now it’s too late for me to edit my previous comment.

Vili said, in response to Ugetsu:

As you say, there is something really magical about some of the films of the time. Their pace, rhythm and wit seem so different from just about anything that is done these days. I wonder why. There is a certain charm, cleverness and faked innocence to these works that could, I think, still work today.

I agree with your longing for movies as charming and clever as this. I think it’s the faked innocence that is missing. Innocence is no longer fashionable or believable, and that, along with mistaking edginess for cleverness and wit and, as Ugetsu says, elevating cinematic technique over everything else is what prevents movies like this from being made these days.


 

#5


Ugetsu



Lawless

I thought Gable was terrific and a touch more effective in his role than Colbert, who sometimes seemed a bit subdued. How old do you think Ellie was supposed to be? She looked to me like she was in her 30s, especially in the beginning, although I think she was supposed to be in her 20s. (Colbert was 31 when the film came out.)

There is a bit of confusion over that in the film. I think the script implies that both characters are quite young, especially Ellie, but Colbert in particular is clearly not that young. From what it says on imbd, Capra had a lot of difficulty in casting the parts, and Colbert was apparently notorious for insisting on being shot in a flattering manner. So I think this may well be just a case of an actor being chosen for commercial reasons, not because they physically fit the part. Oddly enough, I raised the same issue in the discussion a few weeks ago on Norwegian Wood, where I felt that Rinko Kikuchi had been cast for commercial reasons, despite being a little old for playing a 20 year old.

I also wished the character of King Westley had been fleshed out more; he was a cardboard cutout. I guess we were supposed to assume that all the things everyone said of him were true and that Ellie only married him to be free of her father’s restrictions. I also didn’t find him remotely attractive and was taken aback at how much older than Ellie he seemed.

I was thinking the same thing – potentially, he could potentially have been a fun character. I suppose he was a stock character at the time – the rich playboy who is far too vain for anyone to have any sympathy for. I wonder if he is the model for all those unfortunate characters in numerous modern RomCom’s who get dumped by the hero/heroine as they find their true love. They are invariably shown as either too shallow to be hurt, or so unsympathetic we (the audience) don’t care about their humiliation.


 

#6


lawless



Another thing I forgot to add which goes along with the discussion of the charm and wit of the film is how wonderful the ending is. No display of skin, no kisses, nothing other than the reference to the walls of Jericho, the trumpet, and the blanket falling, but after the buildup of unresolved sexual tension throughout the movie, that’s all it needs to be. Our imagination can take it the rest of the way. That level of understatedness and subtlety (and cleverness) is absent now; it’d probably be considered quaint and repressed.

While I am grateful for groundbreaking films like Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange, there are times — too many times — when I regret what greater openness about sexuality in film has wrought in the way of stupid vulgarity and pointless sensuality in the name of romance or hotness. Nowadays, no movie is complete, it seems, without an unnecessary sex scene (and too often the woman involved — it’s almost never a lesbian or gay couple — is only eye candy) or sexually based humor. I realize this is an exaggeration, but it’s not far off.

Give me a thousand Seven Samurais and the sensuality of the scene in the bandit’s hideout, Rikichi’s wife in her beautiful kimono, or Shino and Katsushiro. While showing very little — I’d expect Seven Samurai to receive a PG-13 rating as much for the violence as for the implied sex and mature themes — Kurosawa nevertheless manages to convey a lot.


 

#7


Ugetsu



Lawless

Another thing I forgot to add which goes along with the discussion of the charm and wit of the film is how wonderful the ending is. No display of skin, no kisses, nothing other than the reference to the walls of Jericho, the trumpet, and the blanket falling, but after the buildup of unresolved sexual tension throughout the movie, that’s all it needs to be. Our imagination can take it the rest of the way. That level of understatedness and subtlety (and cleverness) is absent now; it’d probably be considered quaint and repressed.

I absolutely agree, its a great ending, and a perfect example of how a film can be sexy and funny without being in any way explicit. Mind you, I was thinking through the film that it was naughtier than I had expected – lots of little double entendres and hints about what might be going on in the characters minds. I think it maybe snucked in just before the Hays Code got really restrictive, which I think was in late 1934.

While I’m no fan of censorship, I think that sometimes external pressures can encourage film makers to be more creative in approaching adult themes, often for the good of the film. Too many films nowadays seem to be transgressive just for the sake of it. I’ve no problems with films that push the limits, or that are extreme in violence or sex – so long as there is a real point to it. The last film I saw in the cinema was a Japanese film called Cold Fish, which was extraordinarily gory and had some sex scenes that I couldn’t imagine in a Hollywood film. They weren’t particularly explicit, but the way in which they suggested a grey area between rape and consent would I think raise too many hackles. But in the context of the film – a sort of allegory of Japanese society – I think they were justified. And the film is quite brilliant in some ways.

Kurosawa of course did push the limits of what was considered acceptable in Yojimbo and other films. If I recall correctly, he was on record as having regretted opening the floodgates to the genre of very violent films that followed on from this. Yojimbo does in fact seem very mild by todays standards. But you are right to say that Kurosawa was a master at suggesting something stronger than was actually shown on the screen, whether that be sexual desire or violence.

On a semi-related point, I’ve been idly wondering lately at why the easy modern availability of pornography on the internet hasn’t had much impact on mainstream film. By which I mean, back in pre-internet, or for that matter, pre-DVD days, the only way for many people to see a little naughtiness on screen was to go see an ‘Art’ film (preferably French) or wait for one of those excruciatingly dull sex scenes that Hollywood did in the 1980s (you know the ones, showing the silhouettes of arching backs to a backdrop of wind blown silk curtains to an awful power pop soundtrack). I remember in my college days in the late 1980’s the one guaranteed way to get queues around the block at my University film club was to show Betty Blue. All for the sake of cinematic art, of course. Now, of course, thats all unnecessary, and seems very innocent compared to what is now easily available. But it still seems that a bit of eroticism does no harm to a low budget films success at the box office, which I suppose goes to show that there is no substitute for the pleasure of the big screen in a cinema, even for sex.


 

#8


Vili Maunula



lawless: I agree with your longing for movies as charming and clever as this. I think it’s the faked innocence that is missing. Innocence is no longer fashionable or believable, and that, along with mistaking edginess for cleverness and wit and, as Ugetsu says, elevating cinematic technique over everything else is what prevents movies like this from being made these days.

That’s probably true! As you go on to discuss later in the thread, the overabundance of sexuality in today’s films has made it quite difficult for the kind of faked romantic innocence to arise which we have in It Happened One Night and other films of the era.

Ugetsu: On a semi-related point, I’ve been idly wondering lately at why the easy modern availability of pornography on the internet hasn’t had much impact on mainstream film. … it still seems that a bit of eroticism does no harm to a low budget films success at the box office, which I suppose goes to show that there is no substitute for the pleasure of the big screen in a cinema, even for sex.

My take on the matter would be that the eroticism in “art” cinema is fundamentally different from plain pornography. When compared to pornographic films, narrative cinema is able to build stories and situations around the eroticism, therefore enhancing the emotional effect of the “naughty bits” from what they would be if we were simply shown the act.


 

#9


lawless



Ugetsu said:

Mind you, I was thinking through the film that it was naughtier than I had expected – lots of little double entendres and hints about what might be going on in the characters minds.

That struck me, too. I guess it’s all part of the faked innocence Vili referenced; nowadays, it wouldn’t generally be considered believable for them not to act on their attraction, and there wouldn’t be much of a need for the whole “married couple” charade.

Ugetsu also said:

While I’m no fan of censorship, I think that sometimes external pressures can encourage film makers to be more creative in approaching adult themes, often for the good of the film. Too many films nowadays seem to be transgressive just for the sake of it. I’ve no problems with films that push the limits, or that are extreme in violence or sex – so long as there is a real point to it.

This. A thousand times this. A lot of films would be better with a fade to black; often, bedroom scenes seem to be there for the sake of it rather than to advance the story or our knowledge of the characters. The same debate also occurs with respect to novels, especially genre romance ones.

Vili said:

My take on the matter would be that the eroticism in “art” cinema is fundamentally different from plain pornography. When compared to pornographic films, narrative cinema is able to build stories and situations around the eroticism, therefore enhancing the emotional effect of the “naughty bits” from what they would be if we were simply shown the act

I agree. Today’s movies either veer toward soft-core porn or are using sexual situations for crude humor. They don’t contain much in the way of UST (unresolved sexual tension) or eroticism, and thus often aren’t very sexy. Even Fellini, whose films were pretty advanced for their time, teased his audience with eroticism and used symbolism and dream-like states rather than pornographic images.


 

#10


Ugetsu



Lawless

I guess it’s all part of the faked innocence Vili referenced; nowadays, it wouldn’t generally be considered believable for them not to act on their attraction, and there wouldn’t be much of a need for the whole “married couple” charade.

I thought the purpose of the charade was to help hide her identity? i.e., everyone was looking out for a woman on the run, they would have been less suspicious of a married couple.

What I found interesting about the film (in terms of its insights into Depression America) was that there was an assumption of this mobile, semi-criminal population, lots of sub-Bonnie and Clyde couples or individuals going around, skipping out on bills, ripping off hitch hikers, etc. It felt quite accurate and real. Its a strong contrast I think to modern romcoms which always seem to be set in an idealized world, even the poverty is idealized (yes, I admit to having seen Sex and the City II, I was given no choice I was outnumbered by the females in the house at the time).


 

#11


Ugetsu



Lawless

As you go on to discuss later in the thread, the overabundance of sexuality in today’s films has made it quite difficult for the kind of faked romantic innocence to arise which we have in It Happened One Night and other films of the era.

The ironic thing is that according to the latest research… it doesn’t actually help at the box office.


 

#12


Vili Maunula



Ugetsu: according to the latest research… it doesn’t actually help at the box office.

Here’s my refutal. :wink:


 

#13


lawless



Ugetsu – There’s poverty in Sex in the City II? Argh, that was a TV series I had no patience for, in large part because of the high degree of materialism than ran through it, but also because it, and by extension its characters, seemed so superficial and self-absorbed. The sex angle turned me off because of that.

Helping Ellie hide her identity was part and parcel of Pete helping her get to New York so he could get his story. Pretending to be married was (an unexpected, I think) part and parcel of that, but it was mostly necessary because they couldn’t have shared a room otherwise. And the movie would have had less UST and double entendres without it. So I see it as having a dual purpose.

It’s too bad that it’s not possible to see the study without purchasing it. I have the feeling, though, that the authors had an agenda that may have biased their methodology and results; I’m also not sure how you’d control for other variables in order to be able to come to a conclusion. For one thing, lower-rated films automatically have a larger potential audience which gives them a larger potential box-office.

Vili is using the success of a movie described as soft-core porn, which isn’t really the same as a mainstream R-rated movie, as rebuttal. It doesn’t much matter what really sells or not, though; what matters is what kinds of movies moviemakers make. While violence may be more de rigueur in Hollywood films than sex, they’re still both more important factors these days than they used to be and are both used in mostly superficial ways.


 

#14


Ugetsu



Lawless

There’s poverty in Sex in the City II? Argh, that was a TV series I had no patience for, in large part because of the high degree of materialism than ran through it, but also because it, and by extension its characters, seemed so superficial and self-absorbed. The sex angle turned me off because of that.

I used to get in trouble with friends of mine who are fans for my inability to watch Sex and the City without making grumpy comments. The original TV series was funny at times (I never watched it much though, I haven’t owned a TV for nearly 10 years), but I just couldn’t get over my revulsion at the materialism. The second movie takes that to an appalling extreme, and doesn’t even have the merit of a funny script. I found it hard to watch, but there was a spectacularly patronizing sub-plot of Carrie being touched by the honesty and openness of an Indian servant in her ultra expensive Dubai hotel and eventually giving him money to fly home to see his wife.

I’m also not sure how you’d control for other variables in order to be able to come to a conclusion. For one thing, lower-rated films automatically have a larger potential audience which gives them a larger potential box-office.

True, it would maybe be more accurate to look at European films, where the child-restriction limits aren’t such ‘absolutes’ so it might give a better overview of what does or does not sell.

As for that Chinese 3D sex film – I’ve always found it interesting how different cultures react to different things in the cinema. Outside of Japan and Korea, it seems that many Asian film industries are quite shy about anything sexual, all the while showing a very high level of violence without any particular problem. I always remember going to see Wallace & Gromits The Curse of the Were Rabbit in a Bangkok cinema. It was packed with kids, both Thai and with lots of English expat families there. Before the film they showed a spectacularly gory and violent trailer for what I assume was a domestic Thai slasher movie (it was so detailed and long there really wasn’t any need to see the film). The Thai kids and families took it in their stride, while the English parents were horrified, and lots of their children looked quite traumatised! It certainly quietened them down a lot which suited me.


 

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