If the words "romance" and "Clark Gable" are ever read in the same sentence, the phrase "Gone With the Wind" is almost sure to follow.
See? I just did it again. But there is a Gable movie every bit as romantic, in which the screen icon is just as dashing, and blessed with snappier dialogue. The film is "It Happened One Night," the romantic comedy that all others draw from, few imitate effectively, and none have been able to replicate.
The base story - bickering man and woman fall in love over cross-country journey - has become a cliché, but seven decades after it was made the film still bounds with a freshness and levity that make most of its modern descendants seem stale by comparison.
Gable, the troubled star who was able to sign onto the picture only because an MGM executive took the fall for the actor after he killed a woman in a drunk driving accident, rampages throughout the film with his cynical sense of humor. He plays unemployed newspaperman Peter Wayne, who stumbles upon feisty heiress Ellie Andrews, the Paris Hilton of 1934. In those days, you got back at your wealthy father by eloping instead of clubbing and starring in Internet sex videos.
Ellie (Claudette Colbert), having left her father in Miami in a huff to join her husband in New York, meets Peter on a train. The duo doesn't exactly hit it off. She steals his seat, and he comes off as a self-obsessed clod. Peter, who works out the details of a prospective front-page story on the phone with his shouting, desk-pounding editor, tells her he thinks of her as "nothing but a headline," and insists she stick with him because otherwise she's a sheltered babe in the woods with no chance of making it to New York. Besides, if she refuses to allow him to come along, he'll tattle to her dad.
Peter, a former-day Seinfeld, is a know-it-all who's obsessed with minutiae such as the proper doughnut-dunking technique. He tries to smooth things over with a little charm, but charm is not one of his strong suits. He disgusts Ellie, though their mutual attraction is obvious. They engage in a running argument to camouflage their flirtation. The decades have only added an esoteric charm to the dialogue. Peter tells her to "shut up," and Ellie is quick with her own comebacks. "Your ego is absolutely colossal," she shoots.
The scenes of contention are balanced with moments of tenderness, as when a sleeping Ellie leans on Peter's shoulder, and he opens his eyes and reveals the tiniest smile.
Colbert, who favored her left side, is almost always framed in profile from that direction. With Gable on the left half of the screen, the stars' eyes lock in subtle foreplay throughout the film, directed by Frank Capra.
One of the film's trademark scenes has Peter and Ellie stuck without transportation. Peter jumps into one of his hyper-analytical rants about the proper techniques to thumb a ride, but no car stops for him. Ellie one-ups him by slinking to the roadside and lifting up her dress to show a little leg, causing the next car to screech to a halt.
"Why didn't you take off all your clothes?" Peter quips. "You could have stopped 40 cars."
Ellie: "I'll remember that when we need 40 cars."
Look at the more recent romantic comedy landmarks, and you'll notice parallels and outright lifts from the film. "When Harry Met Sally. . ." substitutes the train trip for a bickering car ride, and "Pretty Woman" replicates the egocentric man softened by a sharp-witted foil.
The comedic fun reaches a high point during another bus ride, in which Peter and Ellie look on in amusement as the passengers join in an impromptu singing of "The Man on the Flying Trapeze." A flamboyant sailor, who bobs his head in the background through the first verse, takes over for the second, and emphasizes the lyrics by grabbing onto the rails and kicking his feet back and forth. It's one of the funniest scenes I've ever seen.
"It Happened One Night" emerged from 12 nominees to not only win best picture, but plow through the director, actor and actress categories. It marked the first sweep in Oscar's young history, dominance since matched only by "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991).
Capra's win in particular helped erase a painful embarrassment from the year before, when Will Rogers, announcing the best director prize, said, "Come and get it, Frank!" Capra was halfway down the aisle before Rogers clarified that it was Frank Lloyd who was the winner for "Cavalcade."
The moment of victory was a vindication for Capra, whose films were dubbed "Capra-corn" by critics of his day, only to be appreciated by later audiences. The director's greatest film, "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), originally was seen as an overly sentimental travesty, and nearly ruined his career. "It Happened One Night," which has proved to be timeless, was one of Capra's few films to click with his contemporaries, and continues to register today. It's a slice of cinematic heaven set apart from time.
It Happened One Night
● (1934). Not rated. Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Directed by Frank Capra. 105 minutes. Available on DVD and VHS.