Saturday, February 22, 2014

This Day in Film History (‘It Happened One Night’ Gives Rise to Screwball Genre)

February 22, 1934—When MGM and Paramount Pictures loaned Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert to Columbia Pictures for a single movie, nobody expected much to come from the results, especially the reluctant stars. But It Happened One Night—which premiered at Radio City Music Hall on this date—became a box-office hit, a multi-Oscar smash, and one of the most influential and beloved movies of all time.

Initial reaction to the film (which I touched on briefly in a prior post) was mixed: its run was not extended beyond its first week at Radio City, and a number of critics were quick to carp that this was the third movie in quick succession about a bus trip. Ultimately, of course, once word of mouth spread in the first month after its release, the film’s success triggered an entirely different trend, one of the most glorious genres in cinema history: the screwball comedy, often featuring a runaway/madcap heiress, with a plot that takes off in unexpected directions, and, above all, in what James Harvey, in his 1987 history of the genre, Romantic Comedy, calls "some new kind of energy": "slangy, combative, humorous, unsentimental--and powerfully romantic."

During its initial run, the movie made more than six times what it cost to produce, confirming that director Frank Capra, who had made it his special project, had his pulse on the audience. Its triumph at the Academy Awards the following year was even more resounding, as it became the first picture to sweep all the major categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. (In the eight decades since, only two other movies have matched that feat: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.)  

You would think that every major star in Hollywood would do anything to appear in such a hot property, including (but hardly limited to) willingness to beg, borrow, steal, take a salary cut, murder, or sleep with the producer. You would also be wrong.

Robert Montgomery, a talented actor with some flair for comedy, turned down the male lead before the script made its way to Gable. The only reason he took it was because MGM head Louis B. Mayer wanted to teach lessons in humility and obedience to the box-office star well on his way to becoming known as “The King of Hollywood.” Gable’s rejection of a script triggered a reaction from Mayer that was swift, decisive and self-defeating: If that’s what you want, fine—but I’m lending you out to Columbia Pictures.  

In late 1933, that was far, far worse than it sounds now. MGM had the reputation as the “prestige” studio, largely due to its unparalleled group of stars and production head Irving Thalberg; Warner Brothers, as a scrappy, ripped-from-the-headlines outfit specializing in gangster and socially conscious films; and Paramount, where Cecil B. DeMille, Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch operated with comparatively little executive interference, as a “director’s studio.” On the other hand, Columbia, headed by obstreperous, penny-pinching Harry Cohn, still had not overcome its origins on “Poverty Row,” a row of offices specializing in cheap productions. Columbia had few if any A-list actors of its own, and the only way it could acquire any was if (as in Gable’s case) a star at another studio had demanded one raise or script-approval request too many.

According to Capra's marvelous and indispensable memoir, The Name Above the Title, Gable showed up at Capra’s office unshaven, drunk, and abusive enough to tell the director, in no uncertain terms, what he could do with himself and this project. Colbert, while more polite, was equally reluctant. She had not liked the results of their first collaboration several years before, and when Capra showed up on her doorstep, she announced that she would only make the movie if a) it could be completed in four weeks, in time for her planned Christmas vacation in Sun Valley, and b) her salary would be $50,000—double her normal amount at Paramount. Capra got Cohn to agree to the terms, and a visit that had begun on a rough note (Colbert’s dog had bitten Capra in the rear end) ended up better than expected.

You have to ask why the stars were so reluctant to shoot the film, aside from the fact that the initial title, Night Bus, was an unpleasant reminder of two prior box-office bombs. But other actors were equally reluctant to take on the job, particularly for Colbert’s role, the runaway heiress Ellie Andrews, which Myrna Loy, Constance Bennett, Margaret Sullavan, and Miriam Hopkins had all rejected. 

These women were not really acting like divas. In the original script, Ellie had simply been a spoiled brat—the Depression version of Kim Kardashian. At the suggestion of Capra’s friend, producer-screenwriter Myles Connolly, Ellie was rewritten not so much as a bratty heiress but as one bored by her stultifying lifestyle, a princess ready to flee from routine—sort of like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday two decades later. The resulting rewrite, completed by Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin within a week, went a long way toward making her more sympathetic to Depression audiences.

The evolution of Ellie—crucial not just to the success of the film, but to the creation of the whole screwball comedy genre—also owed something to a change in the depiction of female sexuality as a result of Hollywood’s newly enforced list of censorship norms, the Production Code. In the early 1930s, films had often featured what were deemed women of loose morals—if not outright hookers (Joan Crawford, in Rain), then kept women who had slept their way to the top or forced by circumstance into cohabitating with an exploiter (Capra’s own Bitter Tea of General Yen). All of that went by the wayside with the Production Code. Now, a madcap heiress—willful and rebellious against Daddy, like Ellie, but not promiscuous—would allow filmmakers to obey the dictates of the Production Code while still winking broadly at them.

And so occurred several of the more widely discussed elements in the movie: the glimpse of leg Ellie permits, immediately besting Gable’s Peter Warne in a hitchhiking bid; the makeshift “Walls of Jericho,” or clothesline erected by Warne in a motel room so Ellie need not fear “the big bad wolf” (i.e., him); and the naked torso revealed by Gable in the same scene. (The latter was an improvisation when Gable was having trouble maintaining the energy of the scene while removing his undershirt.)

As happens in Hollywood to this day, It Happened One Night spawned countless imitations, in an attempt to cash in on a good thing--some decidedly "B" level (The Golden Arrow), others top grade (My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby). None, however (including the 1950s musical adaptation, You Can’t Run Away From It, starring Jack Lemmon and June Allyson) worked as well as the original. 

It all went back to the film's ineffable charm. Capra might have shot the film fast, but he really wasn’t interested in cutting its running time. In fact, he indulged here one of the tricks he would use repeatedly over the next dozen years of his prime: stage a scene that does not advance the plot, but makes you care about the characters. A prime example comes when the fired working-class reporter Warne teaches high-class Ellie the fine art of donut dunking.

Colbert refused to believe the film would work, even by the end of shooting (“Am I glad to get here,” she’s supposed to have told her Sun Valley friends. “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world.”) She was initially a no-show at the Oscars, having to be called while waiting for a train to pick up her award.

A daffy, happy ending, featuring a lovely heroine who’s a bit of a bill. Not unlike the whole screwball genre itself.

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