Not many movies can claim to have started a durable trend in movie making. The Jazz Singer heralded the arrival of sound films. Bonnie and Clyde, which we covered recently, kicked off the grittier New Hollywood movies that dominated the 1970s. Jaws ushered in the age of summer blockbusters. Of course, each of these movies had antecedents, but they were the ones that brought all the pieces together and convinced the world that it wanted more. It Happened One Night can also claim membership in this rarified club. This film, both a critical and financial success in its day, set in motion a nearly decade long run of screwball comedies which, in turn, went on to influence romantic comedies to this day. Watching It Happened One Night, more than eighty years after its release, it’s remarkable how many of the themes and tropes introduced in the film were repeated over and over again in subsequent movies. It’s take on romance, class, and humor all served as templates specifically for screwball comedies, but also for the broader class of romantic comedies.
Anyone who’s watched a romantic comedy will immediately see how It Happened One Night continues to influence movies even today. The arc of the romance, for example, has been repeated ad nauseum. Two opposites, who could never possibly fall in love eventually fall in love. Forces conspire to keep them apart, but they end up together and live happily ever after. In this case the central couple is comprised of Peter [Clark Gabel], a hardened newspaper man, and Ellie [Claudette Colbert], an heiress on the run. At other times, we’ve seen Alfred and Klara from The Shop Around the Corner or Melvin and Carol in As Good as It Gets. Of course, It Happened One Night is far from the first comedy that used this structure. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing came hundreds of years earlier, after all. Still, It Happened One Night might lay claim to being the first film to effectively adapt this story to the relatively new medium of film. In fact, Shakespeare influences It Happened One Night not only in the structure of its plot, but also in the characterization of its heroine and her relationships. For example, Ellie, much like Katerina from The Taming of the Shrew, is an assertive and willful young woman who sets the plot in motion through her stubborn desire to live the life she wants. This idea of the strong woman is one of the most salient characteristics of screwball comedy in general, although in later roles, these characters increase in quirkiness. By the time that screwball comedy matured as a genre shortly after It Happened One Night, the films often featured a goofy strong-willed woman drawing a hapless straight-laced man into a series of misadventures. While Peter doesn’t fit the mold of the future leading men of screwball comedies, Ellie and her relationship to Peter most certainly do.
Speaking of Ellie and Peter’s relationship, the verbal dexterity displayed by both Gabel and Colbert is nothing short of mesmerizing. The duo banter back and forth in a fashion that is, at once highly artificial, and immensely entertaining. This quick-witted bickering, too, became a hallmark of screwball comedies. It was, perhaps, taken to its limit in His Girl Friday, where Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant rattle off their lines at speeds up to 240 words per minute [normal people are said to speak at below 160 words per minute]. The effect, when successful, is a back and forth that’s at once hilarious and hypnotic. The verbal fireworks can even distract from a plot that’s dragging. Not that these films are slow. They’re often characterized by one goofy set-piece after another. Take, for example, the scene in It Happened One Night where Peter and Ellie are trying to evade detectives by pretending to engage in a marital spat. This scene serves almost as a comic sketch within the overarching narrative of the movie. Later on, with movies like Bringing Up Baby, this kind of goofy set-piece would anchor the entire film.
While screwball comedies have a reputation for this kind of lightweight entertainment, they often featured a commentary on wealth and status. In the depths of the Great Depression, these films often focused on pairing a wealthy person with a regular one. It’s not hard to imagine why this type of entertainment might have been popular when the country was suffering through double digit unemployment. Many films, like It Happened One Night, feature a wealthy person learning about life through interactions with a commoner. It Happened One Night is full of scenes where Peter helps a bumbling Ellie navigate the world outside the confines of her mansions yachts. In another film, My Man Godfrey, a dysfunctional, wealthy family learns about life through their interactions with a man who lives at the trash dump they’ve hired as a butler. In this way, many screwball comedies served as a piece of fantasy for people worried about their livelihoods. Romantic comedy couples with at least part of this dynamic are still common today. Pull up a list of modern romantic comedies and you’ll instantly see movies like Pretty Woman and Maid in Manhattan that feature a similar dynamic.
As with any genealogy, when referring to It Happened One Night as a progenitor of screwball comedies and rom-coms is easy to dispute. All you have to do is go one generation further back in time to find even earlier influences. Still, the remarkable thing about It Happened One Night is how clearly we can see it reflected in all the movies it would come to influence. While there are older influences for both screwball comedy and rom-coms, it’s hard to dispute that It Happened One Night brought everything together in a singular package that was oft replicated but rarely surpassed thereafter.