'It Happened One Night' Might Be a Film Classic, But Is It Actually Good?

I’m far from a movie buff, but I’d love to become one. So my strategy, for better or worse, is to watch every Best Picture winner. A daunting task for someone who hasn't even seen Jaws. To save you a ton of time, I’ll document my adventure here, and we can become movie buffs together.

If we’re delving into big-time Oscar winners, 1934’s It Happened One Night is the best next choice. It was the first film to sweep the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Only One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs can boast the same.

Having no idea what kind of film this is, I turn to Wikipedia for some basics. It’s a “screwball comedy” staring silver screen legends Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. Now, full disclosure, I’ve seen Gone With the Wind and Clarke Gable is THE MAN, so no surprise he picked up some hardware. Let’s see how the other four Oscars pan out.

It Happened One Night is about a rich, socialite, Kardashian-of-the-30s named Ellie whose rich father won’t loosen the reins and just let Ellie do Ellie. To get back at her overbearing dad, she flees Miami by bus to marry a male gold-digger in New York named Westley. More naïve and helpless then she’d ever admit, she meets a confident, if somewhat down-on-his-luck Clark Gable who becomes her de facto travel companion to NYC. It's a Depression-era clash of classes that audiences of the day couldn't get enough of.

The plot drags a bit at first, but I have to give it up for Gable and Colbert, these two have some serious swagger. Clark Gable delivers every line like it’s going to become part of cinema lore. Colbert is equally as sassy. As a rich girl out to prove she can handle the world on her own, she’s all attitude. I’d be terrified to hit on her.

During one of my favorite scenes, Gable tries to show Colbert how to hitchhike. He’s got a of variety thumb gestures with all kinds of implied meanings — “The short jerky motions shows you’ve got money in your pockets!” After a series of unsuccessful attempts, Colbert gives it a shot — “I’ll stop a car … and I won’t use my thumb.” Going borderline 1930s porn, she hikes her skirt up mid-thigh. The next driver slams the breaks and picks up the little tart and her humbled tagalong. Beyond being funny, the dialog is razor sharp and the two are charmingly self-assured.

It was around here that I had a sudden realization — this movie is cute but not that funny. It’s supposed to be a “screwball comedy” right? Where are the hijinks and shenanigans? It dawns on me that I might have no idea what a “screwball comedy” is. Google time.

Apparently a “screwball comedy” is basically sharp, witty dialog, often with the female character in control. Has the definition of “screwball” changed over the last 80 years? I expected obvious, borderline sophomoric humor. I got subtle zingers. It’s actually widely regarded as the first of its genre, more influential than I realized.

Now fully enlightened, I’m starting to appreciate this all way more, especially Gable. His lines couldn’t slip through that pencil thin mustache any smoother. His cockiness actually borders on douchebag, and I wonder if the way he acts is how every douchebag thinks they’re acting. With the heavy reliance on dialog, did this film and others like it change how people communicate … forever? It’s possible that all the witty banter we expect, in life and movies, has its roots in a movie genre I didn’t know existed just days ago.

Another theme emerged in this 1934 vs. 2013 comparison. A lot goes wrong for Colbert on this journey that gives Gable ample opportunity to swoop in. Today, technology like smartphones and affordable air travel has made the world too streamlined and convenient for chance encounters. On Gable and Colbert’s bus trip, everyone sings songs and makes conversation. Today, it’s all earbuds and eBooks. We do our people-meeting at bars and online. Anyone mixing that up is often greeted with apprehension. Not that one is better than the other, but it’s interesting to think about.

As their journey continues, they break through each other’s façade and, as expected, fall in love. In another now-classic scene, Gable meets Colbert’s father, who asks him if he loves her. After dodging the question with some scathing remarks, he finally shouts, “Yes! Now don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!”

There were a handful of comically outdated moments I have to share:

A serious, detailed convo about how to dunk a donut. I’ve been to many Dunkin’ Donuts, and despite the name, I’ve never seen anyone dunk a donut.

The phrase “Holy jumping catfish!” used with an absolute straight face. Runner up, “What a yarn!” in reference to an exciting story. This is a Montgomery Burns goldmine.

The two wind up on their own one night and sleep in a pile of hay like it’s no big deal. Gable actually fluffs it as if it's not his first time.

Does it hold up? It’s got charm for days, but whereas Wings had a great story held back by its silent film-ness, It Happened One Night has genre-defining acting and dialog that’s dragged down by a plotline that seems played out today. With the various predicaments they encounter during their travel (stolen luggage, bus driving into a pond, hitchhiking, weird motels), it’s basically a less funny Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Maybe I’m being harsh on a classic film, but while Gone With the Wind would still win Best Picture today, It Happened One Night might feel too romcom to get nominated for the non-acting Oscars it scooped up in 1934.