[1934] It Happened One Night

One of the stranger, maybe unintentional consequences of the 1930s’ Hays Code was an industry-wide move to hush-hush the unacceptable and repackage it into media moste moral.

Euphemism became a stalwart technique, if it wasn’t already before. Filmmakers and studio executives didn’t invent it, didn’t perfect it, and lost its thread when the Code was lifted in the late 1960s, ushering a golden age of filmmaking. With one fewer (granted, huge) constraint lifted, morality became a function of what studios were willing to produce and what audiences were willing to watch. It was a huge change from “what a governing body was willing to allow.” Freedom of expression brought us movies like Midnight Cowboy in 1969, which, just two years earlier would have been Midday Cowboy, and been about an actual cowboy.

Of course, these rules only applied to films made in America, so it would seem that France and Italy, certainly, exhausted the need to explore sex (pro tip: they didn’t) and violence with a 40 year head start. It’s not true, but America does sill have a tenuous Puritanical relationship with sex and sexuality in a way more liberated countries don’t. There’s less of a fine line between art and pornography in the United States, and the moste modern moral types still seek to protect young people from (female, or female-presenting) breasts, but will happily allow a child to witness gruesome death and produce a Happy Meal about it.

Almost like repressing healthy sexual (and non-sexual!) relationships, packaging them as euphemism for decades, and classifying them as pornography if not perfectly saintlike has had at least some effect on the content American audiences expect. Sex is still shocking; it’s still mostly banned on commercial television and nudity will earn lots of movies a revenue-dampening R, or revenue-killing NC-17 rating from the latest iteration of the Hays Code, the MPAA (but that’s for another discussion). Euphemism, however, will often drag ratings down to PG-13 levels, where it’s safe to say a few swear words and pan out from what the audience “knows” to be a sexual encounter. So it helps at the box office, too.

That said, there’s a scene about halfway through It Happened One Night where Clark Gable’s Peter hangs a blanket across the middle of the shared hotel room he and Claudette Colbert’s Ellie are sharing out of happenstance. It’s extremely obvious from the circumstance that under no circumstances there was to be sex for him (or for her) as the entirety of their relationship had thus far been transactional. It’s a fair trope, one dictated by story rather than code (It Happened One Night happened to be on the cusp of the “authorities” stepping in), and we see the blanket as a leitmotif for “opposites attracting.” But before the attracting, Frank Capra, delightful as ever, must set up the physical means for opposition, balancing the characters’ war of words and attitudes presented in the film’s first half.  It makes for effective visual comedy: the blanket is a perfect representation of a barrier for the budding relationship, as we see later on in the movie, where the motif returns, except this time for the blanket to come down as the film fades to black.

It’s likely that It Happened One Night is the first romantic comedy, at least by modern standards, and it’s likely every romantic comedy, which made a massive resurgence in popularity toward the end of the 1980s owes its structure to Capra’s masterpiece. The beauty of a romantic comedy is in its simplicity, often telling via a sight gag or humorous/unexpected interaction, but the power of a romcom is in what the story doesn’t tell. Modern euphemism has been rebranded as restraint, and the master of restraint was the late Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail). Her work can trace its subtlety and grandiosity to Capra’s, and especially to It Happened One Night.

It Happened One Night is one of three movies to sweep the “Big Five” categories at the Oscars–the others being One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs. The Oscars, as we’ve discussed, have changed dramatically in scope since the 7th Awards that celebrated 1934 in film. Not only were there twelve(!) nominees for Best Picture, likely none of the other nominees showed as much depth and advanced technique as It Happened One Night. This is especially true for One Night of Love and Viva Villa!, which are less “good” movies and more stage adaptations or experiments in storytelling. We can be glad they exist, but certainly can be sure Capra’s genius has made a lasting impression, over 80 years later.

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