I have been reading a lot about Frank Capra recently, which naturally makes me want to go back and see some of his films again and dig up the ones I have never gotten around to seeing. Since Capra’s retirement from film and his later death, it has become commonplace to lump all of his films together in a way that highlights his sentimentalism and optimism, of which It’s a Wonderful Life is the most famous example, a feel good atmosphere that has been labeled with the derisive term “Capra-corn.”
But Capra was, as Billy Wilder would be a generation later, a director who could jump from style to style, making films that are some of the best examples of each genre. Lost Horizon (1937) is an adventure classic to which later films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark are greatly indebted. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is probably still one of the best films made about American politics, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is a classic chamber comedy, and perhaps one of the first comedy/horror films, and of course It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is the definitive Christmas movie.
With It Happened One Night, Capra made one of the first romantic comedies, which still stands as one of the best examples of the genre. There had been earlier films that could be called romantic comedies, such as Chaplin’s City Lights. Many of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton’s silent films could also be broadly labeled as such. But Capra basically invented the screwball comedy, which would be one of the most popular genres in American film throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. The basic story line of two people who have nothing in common, but are thrown together in an untenable and wind up falling in love was committed to film for the first time by Capra, and would go on to be repeated and recycled endless until this day.
In fact, It Happened One Night was so new at the time, that those most closely involved with its production couldn’t even recognize what a good thing they had. The role of Peter Warne was originally offered to Robert Montgomery, who was not interested. Clark Gable was lent by MGM only because they didn’t have anything better to put him in. Miriam Hopkins, Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy and Loretta Young all turned down the role that went to Claudette Colbert. Bette Davis was interested, but Jack Warner, thinking the film would not amount to anything, refused to loan her out to Columbia. Colbert also initially turned the role down, having vowed never to make another film with Capra after her very first appearance, in the Capra-directed For the Love of Mike (1927), was a failure. Gable and Colbert were both in a bad humor when production started, unhappy with the script. After filming wrapped, Colbert told a friend, “I just finished the worst picture in the world.” Capra himself was worried after initial reviews where indifferent.
Then It Happened One Night, as It’s a Wonderful Life would do decades later, took on a life of its own. Ticket sales picked up and Columbia realized they had their biggest hit to date. The big surprise came on February 27, 1935 at the Biltmore Hotel, where the film that no one had been interested in became the first film to sweep the Oscars. Colbert was so sure she wouldn’t win that she was sitting on a train, ready to depart on a vacation, when she was pulled off and taken to the ceremony. That the film came back from the brink of obscurity can be attributed to the charming performances by Gable and Colbert, but also, like the later popularity of It’s a Wonderful Life, can be written down to what Capra put into all of his greatest films, a sense of humanism.