Ah, the romantic comedy. Once a person begins to self-identify as a film enthusiast or a cinephile, one is supposed to turn down his or her nose at the modern entries in the genre. And let's face it: the romantic comedy of today is quite often a pale and weak imitation of the great romantic comedies of the past. Whether it's Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, or any of the other stellar picks from the 1930s and 1940s, there's one romantic comedy for everyone that more or less forever ruins the genre. The king of them all, the one that ushered in the screwball comedy and the modern romantic comedy, is It Happened One Night.
Starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, it follows the story of Ellie Andrews, a young, spoiled woman who, in a fit of rebellion, marries fortune hunter Westley King. Her father collects her before the marriage can be consummated only to have her run away once again. On board a bus to New York City, she happens upon one Mr. Peter Warne. Turns out he's a down-on-his-luck reporter in need of a good story, so he blackmails her: either she gives him an exclusive, or he'll rat her out to her father (and collect a handsome reward for it, too). Not a complete cad, he does offer to help reunite her with her beloved quasi-husband (readers love a happy ending).
Now, because the story arc of 90 percent of romantic comedies to follow used this one as a template, we can guess what happens. They hate each other at first, but she's a little charmed by him, and he's a little amused by her. Charm and amusement turn to affection, and all of a sudden it's "Westley who?" Of course, there's confusion and misunderstanding that leads to Boy Losing Girl, only to prove his worth and eventually get her back.
Along with the now-familiar storyline, we also get now-familiar comedic set pieces. The Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better Moment, for instance, features Gable's Peter trying to flag down a car, claiming to be an expert at hitchhiking. He must fail so that Ellie can hike up her skirt, show a little leg, and convince the very next car (screeching tries and all) that he needs to offer this woman a ride. There's also the Forced Into Close Quarters bit, where Peter and Ellie are forced to pretend to be man and wife to hide her identity. This means they have to share a motel room, of course, though the morals of the time demanded separate beds and a curtain strung up between them for propriety's sake. And the ever-important I'm Not The Man She Thinks I Am moment, where Peter takes the high road by not accepting the cash reward for returning her to her father because he's fallen in love with her.
The difference between this film and the cookie-cutter romantic comedies that follow is that, even now, the film has a certain energy you can't quite describe. It feels fresh, even though we've seen it hundreds of times over. Every once in a while, a romantic comedy captures some of that same spark, even if just for a moment. And I think that's why we keep coming back, hoping for the best from the genre, even when we're not supposed to. We're waiting for that moment when the romantic comedy can prove its worth, regain its honor, and recapture those magical moments we experienced in the past together with films like It Happened One Night. The truth is, when romantic comedy is at its best, the genre contains some of the greatest films and film moments in history.
Legend tells us that, after finishing, Colbert complained to a friend that she'd just completed "the worst picture in the world" — funny considering the film went on to win the Big Five Oscars, including a Best Actress statue for Colbert herself. Perhaps a more accurate lament would have been that she'd just cemented the rise of the genre that created some of the worst pictures in the world — but also some of the best.