"It Happened One Night" (1934), Blu-Ray. A Criterion release from 2014.
Video on this one is 1080p/24, Black & White, 4:3 (embedded). Audio is LPCM Mono 48 kHz.
HD Extras include the original Theatrical Trailer; a 60 minute TV program showing Frank Capra receiving the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute; a 96 minute documentary by Ken Bowser on the life and work of Frank Capra; a 13 minute silent short from 1921 (Capra's first film); a 39 minute discussion between film critics on what makes for a "screwball comedy"; and a 12 minute interview with Frank Capra, Jr., on the development of his father's film. The Ken Bowser documentary is by far the best of the bunch.
SWEPT the Oscars!
What is widely considered the first ever "screwball comedy" -- and still one of the best -- was made by Frank Capra for Harry Cohn's "Poverty Row" studio, Columbia Pictures.
MGM had loaned Clark Gable for the film -- pocketing a neat $500/week profit over his contract salary of $2,000/week. When several actresses turned down the female lead (partly due to the script at the time making the character less sympathetic), Cohn suggested Claudette Colbert. Colbert had made a previous film with Capra which turned out poorly. And besides she had a long planned vacation scheduled to start -- just weeks away. So she told Cohn and Capra she'd only take the part if they paid DOUBLE her normal salary *AND* could complete her shooting in just 4 weeks . NOT a 4 week shoot beginning some time in the future, but 4 weeks from THAT VERY DAY! Keep in mind this was at a point when costumes and sets had yet to be created!
Cohn somehow got Capra to agree he could pull it off, and closed the deal. The resulting film cost $325K to make -- $50K of which went to Colbert's salary. Capra used minimal sets and gave Colbert only 4 costumes to wear for the entire film -- one of which was a pair of men's pajamas. Needless to say, neither Gable nor Colbert were in particularly good humor at the start. And Colbert in particular only got sourer as the shoot progressed. At the end of filming she told a friend she had just completed the worst film she'd ever made!
What she could not have known, of course, was what this film would ACTUALLY turn into once that lightning quick shoot was finally edited together! In particular, she couldn't have known Capra's uncanny Directing, and the subsequent editing, would turn the good natured, "we're all in this disaster together", relationship between her and Gable on set into that most bankable of all things Hollywood -- Screen Chemistry!
The film's release had a rocky start, yielding only middling reviews, and decidedly poor box office in the prestige, first run theaters. Cohn got worried and hurried the film into secondary theaters while there was still SOME chance to get an audience for it.
And then word of mouth took hold. And the film just TOOK OFF!
In the end, "It Happened One Night" turned its $325K budget into $2.5M box office -- by far the biggest hit Columbia had had to date. Indeed it did SO well, it was a key factor in changing Columbia from Poverty Row status into a "Major".
When awards season came around, still more surprises! The film got Oscar Nominations in all 5 major categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay! This would have been astounding for ANY film of the day, but PARTICULARLY so coming from a mere, COLUMBIA flick!
The first film EVER to sweep the major categories! A feat not repeated for another 40 years!
The film's cachet is actually enhanced by the fact it was made the very year the censorship "Production Code" dropped with a dull thud, throwing a wet blanket over the whole concept of Romantic Comedies. To modern eyes, there's nothing in the LEAST shocking in it, but its sophisticated implications of sexual tension would soon be banned from films; indeed even from films made just months later!
This makes its Academy Awards sweep even more remarkable. Academy members were voting for a type of filmmaking now no longer allowed!
Ellie (Colbert) is an unhappy heiress, chafing under the close eye of her wealthy father. In an act of desperation, as much as rebellion, she has arranged to be married in civil ceremony to one King Westley (Jameson Thomas) -- an oily, society-hound and aviator. Her father's detectives capture her just too late to prevent that, but bring her to her father's yacht in Miami, where he intends to keep her cooped up while he works out how to annul the marriage.
Ellie escapes by diving overboard and swimming ashore. She is determined to get to New York and set up married life with Westley. She knows her father's men will be watching the planes and trains, and so she decides to slum it by taking the night bus from Miami to New York.
On the bus she is thrown together with Peter (Gable), a brash newspaper man who's just been fired by phone from his New York paper. To make the story work, Ellie now has her money stolen -- just about the time Peter recognizes her for who she really is. He makes a deal with her: He will get her to New York -- without revealing her location to her father -- so long as he gets to make a news story out of it!
The problem is, they are BOTH out of cash, so they have to suffer the travails of bus travel (including annoying fellow passengers), hitch hiking, sleeping in tourist motor park camps, and even sleeping in open fields. At one point they are left with nothing to eat but raw carrots.
TRIVIA: The creators of Bugs Bunny credited the nonchalant way Gable quipped while eating carrots to that aspect of Bugs' character.
TRIVIA: At one point in the film, Gable has to undress in front of Colbert -- daring her to stay present when he gets down to taking his pants off. The timing of the dialog just didn't work if Gable had to remove both his shirt and his undershirt. So he and Capra decided to lose the undershirt to speed things up! (A daring decision, as an undershirt was very much required clothing for men of the day.) The subsequent popularity of the film -- and Gable's natural good looks -- were credited with starting a new fad of men NOT wearing undershirts. A fad which developed such steam, some undershirt companies actually ended up trying to sue Columbia!
Of course the fact Peter thinks Ellie is a spoiled brat -- and Ellie thinks Peter is a brash know-it-all -- means they HAVE TO fall in love. The beauty of the film is the way Capra presents this transition. For example at one point, the tourist camp they are stuck in gets invaded by detectives, sent by Ellie's father. They are checking out all the women in the camp trying to find her. Caught in their cabin with no escape possible, Peter improvises a married couple's argument -- with Ellie soon joining in -- which sends the embarrassed detectives scampering! At which point the two of them fall into laughter; for the first time having discovered something (i.e., quick wit) to respect in each other. It's scenes like this which absolutely MAKE the film!
The PROBLEM of course is if they are successful, Peter is going to end up delivering Ellie to her oily husband. How THAT gets resolved is not as clever as the rest of the film, but still results in the requisite, happy ending.
This Criterion, Blu-ray transfer is the result of a full, 4K restoration, and the PQ is excellent for the vintage. Black levels are solid, gray scale uniformity is consistent between scenes, and almost all signs of physical damage have been expunged. (There are a few brief scenes where contrast variation due to friction thinning remains.)
AQ is similarly clean of age damage, but remains rather thin, and without dynamics -- i.e., it is true to the sound recording of its era.
Given the production constraints, and what COULD have been a disastrous case of moping by his two stars, the fact Capra pulled this film out of a hat is truly remarkable -- a clear indication of his full genius to come.
It is also just a flat out FUN film!