The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a new series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
The birth of tropes and clichés is fascinating to think about. How was it that somebody wrote down a piece of plotting or directed it in such a way for a movie that it then went on to define the genre that it was helping to create?
For anyone watching It Happened One Night today, the film might come across as obvious and cliched, filled with tropes and predictable storytelling. Yet, it’s very much an early example of those ideas and tropes being applied, helping to birth a genre that would come to define cinema and pop culture for generations after, and possibly becoming one of the most crowd-pleasing forms of storytelling on our screens.
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There were films before It Happened One Night that could be classified as romantic comedies, but there is something about Frank Capra’s film that feels like a year zero for the genre going forward from its 1934 release date. There’s a meet-cute in which the characters don’t like each other at first, there are misunderstandings that potentially put our lead characters’ future happiness together at stake, and a mad dash of sorts at the end – although we’d have to wait several decades for those to be through the terminals of so many airports.
The combination of romance and comedy has its genesis in Shakespeare, and not for nothing have there been two prominent big-screen adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing (a lavish production from Kenneth Branagh, the other a smaller scale one from Joss Whedon).
Three years before Clark Gable’s attempts at hitchhiking goes awry, and Claudette Colbert’s bare legs get the attention they need, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights was awash with the possibilities of romance. But there’s something about It Happened One Night that always feels like a yardstick by which future generations of meet-cutes are measured, and from which undeniable movie star chemistry gets its inspiration.
In terms of mainstream cinema, it always feels like the on-screen chemistry between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert is the best place to start. The best picture winner of 1934, and directed by Frank Capra, the film could even be seen a type of screwball comedy, although it has a more laid back way of telling its story in comparison to the rat-a-tat overlapping dialogue and pace that Howard Hawks would bring to the following year’s His Girl Friday.
Its 1930s setting, crisp black and white photography and pre-Hays code approach to its central relationship gives it a lovely vintage feel, although as is always the case with films from bygone eras, there are moments that cannot help but make you wince in this day and age. Can you imagine one half of the main couple in today’s romantic comedies threatening to break the other’s neck if they got out of line? The film’s plot is even somewhat spurred on by the father of Colbert’s character slapping her in the face.
The fact that it was released pre-Code means that there is a strong undercurrent of sex that runs throughout, even though, amazingly, both leads are never seen to kiss and we’re never privy to the reunion between the two in the film’s final act that it feels like it’s been building up to. Can you imagine if Pretty Woman ended with Laura San Giacomo’s character telling someone that Julia Roberts and Richard Gere ended up together instead of seeing it portrayed on screen?
This was a film that Gable, on loan from MGM where he was under contract, and Colbert were not keen on starring in, and yet their chemistry is evident, and even has a charge in the bedroom scenes where they are never seen to have sex and yet their interactions have a frisson to them that feels electrifying for a film from the ’30s. Gable getting undressed in front of her is funny, and yet for the time shocking given that he wasn’t wearing a vest under his shirt. This wasn’t some quest for masculinity by the actor, or an attempt to get a movie heartthrob to bare some skin, it was simply to make his removal of his clothing and delivery of the lines easier, and yet urban legend has it that sales of men’s vests plummeted after the release of the film.
Being pre-Code also means that the film was not infected by any insistence that there were to be no sexual relations outside of marriage or that infidelity was not to be shown unless punished. After all Colbert’s character, Ellie, is recently married as the story begins, and her escape from her father’s clutches and eventual road trip where she meets Clark Gable’s Peter is an attempt to get back to her new husband, ‘King’ Westley (Jameson Thomas).
Yet, even with the film’s famous ‘Wall of Jericho’ (a curtain separating the hotel room that both characters are staying in, as a means of hiding their modesty shall we say) just the possibility of anything happening gives their scenes an undeniable charge. The first time the film uses that visual it is funny and light. Later it’s more sedate, not to mention darkly lit; the interaction between Ellie and Peter now aching with the possibility of a love that may never come.
Love does win out at the end of the day because this is a romance and a comedy and it’s Hollywood. The film went on to win all five of the main Academy Awards, one of only three films to do so. For a genre that is so often ridiculed or easily criticised by mainstream critics, it’s amazing to think that a high watermark of the genre, on top of being part of The Criterion Collection, is in a tiny ranking of films that also includes The Silence of the Lambs and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.