One of the first reviews I ever wrote was of Gareth Edward’s 2010 low budget monster-come-road movie Monsters; in this review I wrote how it took inspiration from the 1934 romantic comedy It Happened One Night by legendary director Frank Capra. I now concede that at the point of writing I had not in fact viewed It Happened One Night, yet I felt soundly confident in citing the film –purely due to the legendary status of Capra’s classic. A film so engrained in the cultural lexicon of a (overly) cine-literate individual such as myself that I thought myself familiar with many of the tropes involved. Another example of the status that this film holds can be seen through the legend that leading man Clark Gable struggled with the dual task of delivering a monologue whilst simultaneously undressing. To make things easier for him, he was permitted to forego the undershirt and the subsequent sight of Gable’s bare chest caused the general sales of undershirts to plummet across America (or so it goes). Whether or not this legend is true, the essence of its viability lies in the feeling one gets upon actually viewing Capra’s movie; that he, Gable and leading lady Claudette Colbert created something with this movie. They created the prototypical Romantic Comedy, that most hallowed of genres.
The plot is simple (as is often the case with true classics) but the characters are complex and intriguing. Colbert’s Ellie is the daughter of a millionaire who has married without her father’s approval and is subsequently running from him while heading to her new beau aboard an overnight bus to New York. Peter, played by Gable, is a struggling reporter who also boards the same bus and quickly sees the exclusive journalistic opportunity Ellie presents. The outcome is clear from the go; these two are going to fall in love, but Gable and Colbert charge their characters with such energetic and infinitely watchable stubbornness that it is a joy to await their moments of self-realisation. It is surprising that the actors fill the roles with this vigour, contextually considering the reluctance that they both had towards the movie. Gable being forced as some sort of penance for demanding pay rises and specific roles, while Colbert merely taking it because she had a few weeks off. Perhaps it is a testament to the original short story ‘Night Bus’ by Samuel Hopkins Adams, perhaps the film’s charm stems from the affectionate working relationship between the leads or even through the positive atmosphere that Capra supposedly created on set.
Its legacy can be felt anywhere that the ‘opposites attract’ idiom is used as a plot mechanic, bringing two romantic leads into the same screen whilst still creating tension. The audience is encouraged to celebrate their kiss at the dénouement whilst also permitted that satisfactory ‘I-knew-it-all-along’ feeling (although the trumpet sounding the collapse of ‘The Walls of Jericho’ is surprisingly unique and affecting as a final image). One of the charms that modern day ‘RomComs’ seem to have forsaken is simplicity. Capra keeps the film focused on Gable’s Peter and Colbert’s Ellie almost entirely- the camera acting as self-absorbed as the characters. Every beat that the story takes is decided by those characters, the actions of Ellie’s father and Peter’s editor acting only as preludes to our (their) story. Even in the most literal way, they depart from the bus in order to forge their own path- alone, together. Every filmmaker and actor wishing to create comedy of romances should look to the way that this film takes the classic antagonistic romance of a couple like Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and translates it for the cinematic era. This broad template can be used to create something as obvious (yet enjoyably celebratory) as the Coen brother’s ‘screwball comedy’ pastiche ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ or to distract the audience from the limited budget of an independent Science Fiction film- such as Gareth Edward’s Monsters.
Messrs Gable, Colbert and Capra are all owed a huge debt in the pantheon of popular cinema.