It Happened One Night (1934): Carrots and The Walls of Jericho

it happened one night 1934

When I was growing up we had a VHS of Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons and like any lad my age, he was an immediate sensation. Casual, mischievous, and yet generally good-natured and out-and-out hilarious. I had no concept of cartoon logic and what made him so memorable as a cartoon character; you didn’t have to tell me. I knew he was because he made me laugh.

Well, it turns out I must attribute some of this childhood entertainment to It Happened One Night because, without the inspiration of its own fanciful whimsy, Bugs Bunny as we know him might never have been born.

But let us rewind for a moment. The movie itself is conceived with one of the great screwball openings as spoiled Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) quarrels with her protective father (Walter Connolly) about being held against her will on his yacht. Not to be outdone, she dives off the side of the boat and swims away ready to join her suitor.

Meanwhile, Clark Gable is Peter Warne, a man of the people — drunkards, vagabonds, and newspapermen — recently fired from his paper and looking for a way to get back in his editor’s good graces.

There’s a sense he would not have gotten this kind of rounded, contoured part at MGM, which was more intent on casting him as their ever-reliable, hard-edged he-man keeping all the hearts of their leading ladies palpating. It has to do with audience supply and demand. It Happened One Night allows him to live a little — to burst out of the mold created for him at his home studio — and the results are a divine departure.

Today the night bus circuit feels like an antiquated or at least a bygone segment of society. Not that Greyhounds don’t exist, but the world’s been proliferated with commercial air travel made available to the economy classes over the past 80 years.

In It Happened One Night, it’s a convenience only to be utilized by those affluent enough to afford such luxury. Hence, the reason Ellie’s father goes searching for her by aeroplane.

What the road trip becomes is a kind of universal equalizer where everyone is on the same playing field, low on money and just getting by. As an audience, for the majority of time, we are resigned to view life from the cheap seats with everyone else. It breeds this kind of communal rapport that only builds over time. Because, of course, two of our co-passengers wind up being Colbert and Gable.

So we have an element of class injected into the action as Ellie is forced off her high-horse. She gets a reality check of how real people live and what life’s like with moderate inconveniences and discomforts. These are sensations she has never experienced. They are foreign to her world. She’s also an easy target getting her suitcase swiped from under her nose.

Being on the lam, it’s not like she can wire dear old dad for more funds. Likewise, lowlifes like the skeezy Roscoe Karns, one-on-the-side Shapely, with an accent on fun, are on the prowl for a pretty dame to annoy. However, it’s Karns portrayal giving the world one of its other foremost cultural icons. That’s right, doc. Bug Bunny!

In the end, Gable dreams up a farfetched gangster plot to keep him quiet sending the spineless sot fleeing for his life. Because this is the role of Peter. He’s a real person; he’s seen the world and knows how to take care of himself. So despite their initial antagonism, Ellie sheds her ignorance and grows to appreciate the man’s watchful eye verging on moments of brusque thoughtfulness.

He sets them up with two separate beds at Dyke’s auto camp when they are forced to take a rainy evening detour. For Ellie, she has the unpleasant sensation of playing his wife, and it adds the tension to the preempted romance.

Gable dominates the evening when he strips down to his bare chest and supposedly helped increase the mortality rates of male undershirts all across the country. You can’t say people didn’t notice, Ellie included. So she joins the Israelites on the other side of “The Walls of Jericho,” the blanket keeping them at a respectable distance.

This scene is a lynchpin moment based on what happens the following morning. Ellie wakes up, and it’s like a switch has gone off. She meets the day disgustingly cheerful as if a screwball dame has replaced her formerly socialite self. We’ve entered the role reversal.

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At first, it’s all fun and games as we witness the utter lunacy of their escapades, maintaining the charade for a couple of detectives nosing around for dear old dad. Peter teaches his travel companion about a real piggyback ride — a pastime for the humble and the poor. Low on money, they hitchhike and gnaw on raw carrots by the roadside (like a certain looney tune).

It turns into the Indianapolis speedway as he attempts unsuccessfully to hail a ride. His thumb proves ineffective. Claudette Colbert has a far more viable solution. It’s yet another turn in the story — from helpless waif to resourceful daytripper.

The joy of the movie is how there is a pace to it because we all know intuitively we need to get to New York with Claudette. Capra mimics the continual movement of the film from town to town with his camera set on a crane to follow his couple on their road together. And yet as she begins to soften and warm to her co-companion, some of the urgency is lost but not the delight of the film.

Because we’ve already had time to grow with the characters, appreciate what they’ve drummed up together, and desire to spend the rest of our time with them. Anything else would feel like an early and highly disagreeable end to our time together. What’s marvelous is how Claudette doesn’t want it to end either. The three hours to New York never felt more infinitesimal.

Peter’s exclusive story feels immaterial; he’s certainly not taking any notes to develop copy, and the nightly rituals, The Walls of Jericho et al. feel rote at this point. Where might they go from here? It calls for some kind of emotional response.

Colbert obliges. The love is there. He just needs to respond — to understand there really is something fundamentally different about who she is as a person. Still, fate gets in the way as it always has a habit of doing in rom-coms. There would be no final act otherwise.

The most glorious discovery is not solely our leads but Walter Connolly who is granted a change of heart, one that the final act requires, I might add. Suddenly, we have a new screwball wrinkle: a father who is benevolent and understanding nudging his daughter on to ditch convention and the foregone wedding march for someone she really loves.

Why does this change happen you ask? Much like Colbert’s evolution, I’m not sure we can pinpoint it specifically, nor do we care. The only thing that matters is the inevitable: The Walls of Jericho come tumbling down. Ellie and Peter are finally allowed to know one another in the Biblical sense.

5/5 Stars

Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) Starring Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss

MansfavoritesportposterMan’s Favorite Sport was meant to be a Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn reunion that never materialized. Because, of course, put together with Howard Hawks that only means one film — the most outrageous, cockamamie, frenzied escapade ever captured on celluloid — Bringing up Baby (1938).

Rock Hudson and Maria Perschy (I still don’t understand the necessity of her character) even do a reenactment of the famous restaurant wardrobe malfunction scene. The whole thing is unfair really. It’s not so much that Hudson’s not capable in his own right but Cary came first and so we’ll ever be comparing him. It’s best to drop that right from the beginning.

Obviously, the Grant-Hepburn movie never came into being as Hepburn never got involved and Grant, now at the tail-end of his career was hesitant about such a youthful leading lady. He chose to do a rom-com thriller called Charade (1963) instead and faced similar concerns opposite the other famous Hepburn, Audrey that is.

But back to Rock Hudson and what we got instead. When put toe-to-toe with the Doris Day comedies, it mostly holds its own given Howard Hawks’ own long affiliation with the screwiest brand of romantic comedies. From Twentieth Century (1934) all the down to I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952), and of course, Man’s Favorite Sport.

Paula Prentiss, husky-voiced and armed with rapid-fire ammunition of the Katharine Hepburn persuasion, does a fine job riddling Rock Hudson with her incessant craziness. So much so that her male counterpart can’t get anything in edgewise, constantly harried and exasperated in every conceivable way. It all signals an imminent love story in their future.

Whereas Day was usually dismayed by some aspect of Hudson’s behavior, it’s Prentiss who holds the prodding role and therefore the most license to cause chaos. She had recently graduated from a plethora of pictures pairing her with Jim Hutton, including such enjoyable trifles as Where The Boys Are (1960) and The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962).

As far as their support, John McGiver has a thatched roof that’s constantly shifting tectonically. It’s gotten to the point that he doesn’t care much. He’s the one who decides his ace employee, Roger Willoughby (Hudson) of Abercrombie and Fitch will join a fishing competition for positive publicity.

It was all dreamed up by a dynamo of a public relations lady Abigail Page (Prentiss). But the catch is the famed fishing expert has never been in a lake before, much less touched a fish in his life. He can’t fish. He can’t even swim. So when Abigail finds out she has even more leverage and agrees to teach him everything he needs to know. We already foresee that turning out just marvelously.

Then, there are two quibbling old-timers who are also contending for the laurels of the fishing tournament. After all these years, it’s a joy to see Roscoe Karns and Regis Toomey still have it like the old days. Even if they’re probably a little slower and grayer around the edges, the charming witticisms are still there. Best remembered for Hawk’s El Dorado (1966), Charlene Holt has a small part as the put-upon girlfriend who constantly has the utter misfortune of seeing her man in the most compromising situations with other women.

Because in some form Man’s Favorite Sport? is a rom-com of emasculation as Willoughby is constantly overwhelmed by Ms. Page from the very first beat. Even unwittingly, she holds the power in the dynamic as he’s plagued by her craziness and inadvertently comically harrassed around each turn. Every moment, from her initial stealing of his parking spot to criticizing his kisses, sends him reeling.

Although overlong, the picture continually saunters along, highlighted time and again by a substantial number of splashes and pratfalls. Mirroring William Powell’s fishing escapades in Libeled Lady (1936), Hudson finds his line and himself dragged along by a major catch. In another instance, he’s falling out of a tree only to land a whopper. We have black bears on road bikes, inflatable dungarees, and water-bed hijinks. In fact, he’s unwittingly leading the competition, exceeding his own expectations, though, he still has Abigail Page to contend with.

It’s like two locomotives colliding head-on — as much as a neo-screwball romantic comedy about a fishing expert who knows nothing about fishing and must learn from a woman who constantly antagonizes him can possibly be. That’s exactly what it is. At least if the locomotives can kiss and make up in the end. Man’s Favorite Sport? Sure. Rock Hudson’s not any good at fishing anyway so it suits him just fine.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: His Girl Friday (1940)

25148-hisgirl1It all happened in the “Dark Ages” of the newspaper game — When to a reporter “Getting that story” justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.”

Hildy Johnson (aka His Girl Friday) is making her return to the Morning Post but not to get her old job back. She came to pay a visit to her former husband (and paper editor) who she divorced because she is newly engaged and wants to break everything off for good. It means she can go off into the sunset with her new beau, but it also means no more paper. She drops the news and it turns out the wedding is set for the next day so Walter has very little time to go to work. He soon begins a sly barrage of subtle and not so subtle jabs, ridicules, and put downs aimed at the easy target Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter cuts him off, plays dumb, and is in general condescending and conniving. Hildy sees it all unfolding and half watches with bemusement, while also trying to stop Walter from causing any major trouble.

You see he’s a wonderful fellow in a loathsome sort of way, but you cannot help but like him. Because as Hildy notes he comes by charm naturally since “his grandfather was a snake.” These are the kinds of barbs and witty put downs we deal with the entire film. Besides being good fun, it also is quite extraordinary, since they never stop coming. It’s also fascinating to simply watch the many expressions of Cary Grant, whether it is a smirk or straight face, it always has a tinge of mischief which suits his character just fine. He seems more like a little boy at times, trying to win back his girl, and in many ways, that’s what he’s trying to do. But back to the action.

Hildy unwittingly falls into Walter’s trap, and from that point on there’s no stopping her, or Walter’s scheme for that matter. When the wheels of journalism start turning there’s no stopping someone like Hildy with newsprint in her blood. Walter lets her catch wind of a man who pleads innocence though he is to be hung for shooting a black policeman. Hildy puts up a fight, but she doesn’t last very long.

Soon she’s gotten into talk to the nervous prisoner Earl and gets his point of view on the whole messy ordeal. The other newsboys are callous to the world, and as the gallows goes up outside their window, all they can do is play cards and think about the best scoop. Hildy is a little different but she’s still leaving…or is she?

Next, Williams escapes and the mad search for the fugitive is on as the newsroom goes into an uproar. The mayor and sheriff are in a tizzy and then a reprieve for Williams comes, but they ignore it because they need this hanging in order to get re-elected. By a stroke of luck, Hildy finds Williams and stashes him away in a desk. Now she is hooked, and when Walter hears about her stroke of luck, everything begins again like old times. Bruce and his mother are soon disregarded as Hildy types feverishly, and Walter wheels and deals on the telephone. Then, the sheriff and mayor burst in with the rest of the boys. Williams’ hiding place is uncovered and the two reconciled lovebirds look like they might wind up with a jail sentence. But the honorable air-head Mr. Pettibone saves the day. All that’s left to do is depart on a two-week honeymoon to Niagara Falls or maybe a workers riot in Albany. All is right with the world again. Walter’s got His Girl Friday, and she’s got her lovable wiseguy husband back.

I’m not quite sure why I am so often drawn to this movie because it is more than it being readily available in the public domain. The dynamic of Grant and Russell is certainly superb. Walter can be an absolute cad, but Grant’s charm makes him bearable to the end. Russell is the true star of this film and she deals the punches with the rest of the boys. It really is the perfect role for her. The film is blessed with the great supporting cast including Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Gene Lockhart, Billy Gilbert and a host of others who populate the film with colorful faces and voices.

After seeing Nothing Sacred (1937) it was also interesting to see another script from Ben Hecht about journalism. Again, it might be a screwball comedy but there are also political undertones. Most blatantly about journalism itself, but also about corrupt leaders (like the mayor and sheriff), the Red Scare, gender roles, capital punishment, and even WWII.

Of course, it must also be noted that this is a film directed by the great Howard Hawks. I have always had difficulty pinpointing his trademarks, because the reality is, he was so versatile, trying his hand at so many different genres. All I know is that I more often than not enjoy his work behind the camera because it is seamless and it feels quintessentially American. His Girl Friday is no different. Although, this one is just a tad faster than most. It’s sure to raise your blood pressure so be warned.

5/5 Stars

 

It Happened One Night (1934) – Updated

Hopefully no one holds this against me, but I have never been a big fan of Claudette Colbert. However, I will say that I am a Capra aficionado and Clark Gable is certainly a classic Hollywood star who is dynamic in this film. Thus, despite my hangups with Colbert, I can still thoroughly enjoy this romantic comedy, the so-called original screwball. It helps to have such comedic fellows as Roscoe Karns, Alan Hale Sr. (father of The Skipper) and Walter Connolly.

Peter Warne is the down on his luck newspaper man and Ellen Andrews is a socialite who feels trapped between her suffocating father and an upcoming marriage. Does this formula sound familiar? It undoubtedly is, but this was the original, all those following were impostors.

The unlikely pair begin a cross country trek towards the destination of New York. It includes uncomfortable bus rides, awkward overnight stays, a bit of hitchhiking, and eating carrots to survive.

Only in the movies could such a scenario play out and yet that is the fun because anything can happen one night or another. In this case all the caterwauling and antics lead to a happy ending. To think many people thought this film would not be very good! That was obviously proved wrong by numerous accolades. Just think this film came out 80 years ago and we are still watching it today! That is amazing. That is the power of the movies.

Peter Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Alexander Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter Warne: Yes! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!

5/5 Stars