It’s easy to reduce Frank Capra to a series of benighted adjectives of excessive sentimentality, markers of his supposedly clueless optimism in the face of pressing danger. But it’s wilder still to witness the willful disobedience of his early films, to evoke their blithe defiance of the dejected spirit of their times. While other directors were content to apply the “sound” eruption as a buttress to the burgeoning demand for cinematic “realism”, Capra’s spirit was to laugh in the face of crushing reality, to play within the confines of poverty and, in doing so, to trace the contours of not only national desperation but the everyday performers and players who resist it. In 1934, on the eve of his rise to gargantuan fame overnight, this meant upending the laissez-faire classism and degradation of opportunity in society, expelling a spitfire, screw-loose comedy that made mincemeat out of America’s aristocracy and paid homage to the zealous can-do Americana he fell in love with.
A fantasy Americana, admittedly, one that is less radical – in any political sense – than it is empathetic and humanistic, but a fantasia captured with a reflexive playfulness and an earnest, raffish cadence by Capra and his longtime screenwriter Robert Riskin. And at least their shared vision of entrepreneurial know-how isn’t purely, or even primarily, economic and capitalistic. Early on, the common person is enshrined with a wink and a nod when reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) reprimands his boss only to face the brunt of his employer’s firing gun. The screenplay positively tips its hat to Warne and his drunken, everyday comrades when they prance off, nominating him as the king, if only for a moment, not because of his obsequious subservience to his boss but because of his dogged, anarchic smack to his higher-up. Say what you will about Capra’s conservatism, but at least his brand of individualism is whole hog; it encompasses anti-corporate acts more readily than the actions of those that pray to the servile gods that forced America into the mess of the ’30s in the first place.
At its heart, this love story about Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) running away from the wealth she was born into and stumbling into the quick-talking ingenuity of Warne’s reportorial charisma is a tough-luck dissection of American community in a time of crisis. Although not foregrounded, Capra and Riskin delight in peeks behind the curtains of the working class, who in this screenplay, encompass the wild card ingenuity and flexible lifeblood of American energy that courses within each and every soul but is found most vividly in the heart not of the individual but of a community coping with depression the only way they knew how: the momentous, precipitous joy of reveling in the sharp twists of chance and chaos.
For Capra, it’s this chaos, the bedlam and pandemonium of everyday life, that exorcises the spirit of essential identities and revels, instead, in fluxional anti-essentialism. But, more than that, it brings people together, radiating the unique and pragmatic ability to renegotiate identity on a moment’s notice. Or better yet, this energy conspires to have people pass by one another and flutter with the timely zest of momentary public interaction, reconstituting identities both individual and collective and spaces private and public on the fly.
Refusing the tyranny of prefabricated categories, these aren’t people who know one another, but in recognizing each other, only for a moment, they dance a thudding pound of temporal collectivity that is all the more powerful for how fleeting and inconsequential it initially seems. For how each human can reveal, hidden within them, a dancer or a prankster or a clown, an America, to quote Ralph Ellison, of “masking jokers” figuring out their identities over-time, mutably, on-the-fly. A ringing conflagration of performance as a salve for anxiety persists throughout It Happened One Night, not only when watching Warne and Andrews go toe-to-toe to throw off the cops or Warne play a tough-talking gangster on a spur of the moment escapade but in the glimmers of collective song, dance, and public theater that acclimatize us to our performative identities in everyday life. A bus, a functionary mode of public transport, can be warped – but not statically sanctified – into a beacon of social, democratic theater.
Missing in the Frank Capra “Capra-corn” discussion is not only the ribald tone of his early films but his closeted mastery of screen real estate and tempo. His boundless charisma as a director is buttressed by his careful calibration of the screen’s visual energy to dynamically reorient the flow of the dialogue and emblazon the momentous movement of the characters with a quick-witted, fleet-foot kinesis. The emotional and mental clutter of the characters manifests in a prickly, physical mania that is inscribed in the editing mechanics, emphasizing shifts in pace and character direction. The editing of the film practically rolls off the dialogue itself, lending the clipped verbal barbs a visual fidelity in the very architectural structure of the film. It’s so elegant it almost feels jejune today, but the lightning-scribed success is all splayed out on the screen.
His off-hand, un-showy technical mastery is beyond reproach, but it’s Capra’s roguish humanism that elevates It Happened One Night to the highest echelon of cinema. Much like the films of Chaplin or Keaton, Capra’s It Happened One Night is an ode to these roles we adopt on the stage of life, as well as a strapping escape to the realm of tonal imbalance and unshakable instability of everyday existence, an ode to accident and happenstance concocting possibility out of thin air. Tumult and surprise are catalysts for the magic hour in It Happened One Night, and in this regard, the film became something of an embodiment of its own worldview. With a fortuitous name that may have been more of a premonition than initially expected, It Happened One Night might refer to February 27, 1935, when the film emerged against all odds to outpace dramatic heavy hitters to win the Big Five Academy Awards while causing a nation on the brink to fall in love with each other, if only for a moment. As a film, it feels not planned so much as improvised, or plucked out of thin air, in between a dream and a denial, as so many of the film’s characters live their lives: in the moment, on the spot, with a gun pointed at its back and giving us its best yarn just to escape by the hair of its neck. Surrounded by lead-footed historical waxwork displays heavily lined, planned, ossified, and regimented to within inches of their lives, It Happened One Night feels like a whiff of circumstance.