Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
Director:  Frank Capra
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  105 Minutes
Release Date:  December 28, 1999

Film ***1/2

You’ve got to love what you can learn from watching DVD!  For example, I never knew that Frank Capra’s classic comedy It Happened One Night was filmed in only four weeks…that’s amazing, and also quite unheard of for a major Hollywood studio film.  Turns out the reason for it was that the movie was made during Claudette Colbert’s vacation, for which she was compensated with double her usual salary for a picture.  Apparently, she complained throughout the entire shoot, and once filming had wrapped, reportedly even told her closest friends that it was the worst film she had ever made.  One can only assume that, when less than a year later the movie brought her a Best Actress Oscar, as well as became the first picture to sweep the top five categories (picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay), she re-evaluated her position.

One thing seems apparent…the criticality of the shooting schedule seems to have infused It Happened One Night with an energy level not often seen in early talkies.  There is a wonderful sense of urgency about the picture above and beyond the funny story or the terrific performances by Gable and Colbert.  It brought out the best in the film’s comic potential.

The story wastes little time in getting started:  though not delving too deeply into backgrounds, we are introduced to Ellie (Colbert), the daughter of one of Wall Street’s most prolific and wealthy investors, defies her father by secretly marrying a playboy aviator.  When her father intends to annul the marriage and stop them being together, she dives off the yacht in Miami, and prepares to make her way north to New York, and her new husband, by hook or by crook.  It won’t be easy, considering that dear old dad has everybody in the country looking for her.

We also meet Peter Warne (Gable), a newspaper man who has just lost his job and is on his way back to New York to do…well, whatever he can do.  When he finds himself thrown together with the spoiled and stubborn Ellie, the equally stubborn Peter soon concocts a plan:  he will help her reach her destination and escape her father’s detectives, provided she give him the exclusive story on her escape.

This scenario sets up a world of wonderfully comedic moments, as the two travelers, with hardly a dime to their names, are forced to scrounge and work together, and even share rooms with a blanket dividing them (the “walls of Jericho”, Peter calls them).  And as you might expect, they eventually start to warm to one another, and even fall in love, which is a rather unfortunate development, considering Ellie is technically already married.

Does it all work out in the end?  I wouldn’t dream of denying you the pleasure of taking the journey with Ellie and Peter and finding out for yourself.  Although if you’ve noticed the name Frank Capra above the title, you’ll probably figure out the answer ahead of time.

This movie was largely panned by critics when it first hit the screen, but the audience responded it to it heartily, making it a huge success and forcing those who dismissed it to take another look and realize just what a gem it really was.  It also provided a very specific formula for romantic comedies that continues to be followed to this day.  Boy meets girl, they hate each other, they are forced upon each other, they fall in love.  How many times have you seen it?  But rarely are the results as charming and satisfying as they are in this picture.

Here is the only complaint I have about this movie:  when the characters reach their destination together, it’s time to resolve the story and wrap up the movie.  But instead, it lingers on for an addition 15-20 minutes, taking its time getting to where its going.  In other pictures, this might not have been a distraction, but given how this movie created and maintained a good pace right from the beginning, the denouement seemed a bit lackadaisical.  But that’s only a small point when compared to the overall joy of the movie’s experience.

Video ***

Considering the film’s age, this is a remarkable transfer from Columbia Tri Star.  For the most part, the black and white picture is excellent, with sharp images, good detail, and a wide range of grayscale.  There are a few inconsistencies worth noting though, as certain stretched of film seem a bit more ravaged by time than others, with more marks, spots, and scratches.  A few darker scenes exhibit some grain and flicker.  Still, suffice to say, I doubt that a 65 plus year old movie will ever look better than this, and it’s a given that no previous release of this film looked as good. 

Audio ***

The Dolby mono soundtrack is also very clear, with very little in the way of distracting noises or hiss.  Dialogue is well rendered, and being that it's a character oriented film, there's naturally not very much in the way of dynamic range or punch.  Again, given the film's age, I think fans will be pleased with CST's work here.

Features ****

Columbia packaged this classic right.  It includes a commentary track with Frank Capra Jr., and a short documentary featuring his recollections of the movie, an hour long radio broadcast featuring both Gable and Colbert, talent files, a collection of advertising items, and three trailers.


It Happened One Night is a light, breezy romantic comedy powered by appealing stars, a funny story, and an energy level that makes the film more memorable than others of the same time period.  It simply enchants from beginning to end.  Oh, yes, and you’ll also learn the proper way to hail a car, courtesy of Ms. Colbert.