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Yesterday Turner Classic Movies dropped a small bomb on the film world: a list of fifteen of the ‘most influential’ classic movies. Discussions inspired by the list kicked into gear pretty fast (you can get a taste of it on our boards) and, surprisingly, there’s more actual discussion than ire. That ‘most influential’ definition leaves people a lot of room to talk.
All the movies on the list are great picks for various reasons, and one film less seen by younger film fans is It Happened One Night. It’s a massively influential movie — Frank Capra, Robert Riskin, Clark Gable and Caludette Colbert basically created the screwball comedy, drew a big red arrow pointing at the modern romantic comedy, directly led to the creation of Bugs Bunny and put undershirts out of fashion. There’s no question that it belongs on TCM’s list.
The short recap: Colbert is an heiress running away from her rich, overbearing father, supposedly to be at the side of the husband with whom she recently eloped. Gable is a drunk, recently unemployed newspaperman, a real heel. They end up on a road trip together. He helps her learn the ropes in an unfamiliar peon’s world, and gets her story in exchange.
Oddly, watching it now, I only really deeply enjoy a few segments. But those are gold. Like when Gable and Colbert pretend to be married in a motel to throw off detectives busy trying to bring Colbert back to daddy, and end up getting into a bitterly heated argument while in character. “I told you they were a perfectly nice married couple!” cries the motel clerk as Colbert bawls in the background. Then Gable pretends he’s going to kidnap and kill Colbert when a nosy passenger tries to cut in on his action. And Gable’s “Oh, yeah?” confrontation with a loutish bus driver is one of the early great smart guy / dumb guy arguments.
Yeah, OK, it’s a damn good movie. One of the best. Did it deserve to win the first Academy Award grand slam? (Actor, actress, writer, director, picture.) It’s easier to make the argument for all the awards now, with hindsight, but Capra’s instincts definitely helped the film endure.
I’d swear that Hulu had this one a week or two ago, but now you can still see the film on Netflix’s streaming service. The print isn’t gorgeous, but it’s more than good enough to see how one of our enduring comedy forms got started.