It Happened One Night one afternoon at BAMPFA

Almost every Wednesday afternoon at 3:10, BAMPFA screens a film with a lecture or discussion in one of their In Focus series. This Wednesday, I finally got to one.

Perhaps that’s because they were screening Frank Capra’s 1934 classic It Happened One Night. But also because I believe that screenwriters don’t get enough credit, and this screening was part of a series called In Focus: Writing for Cinema.

It Happened One Night‘s huge commercial success rocketed Columbia Pictures from poverty row to the big leagues. It made Capra one of the most popular directors of the 1930s.

The film only got made because MGM President Louis B. Mayer was angry with Clark Gable. He loaned Gable to low-class Columbia to punish him. Gable ended up winning an Oscar for the role (some punishment). Night became the first film to win the top five Oscars: Actor, Actress (Claudette Colbert), Screenwriter (Robert Riskin), Director (Capra), and Best Picture. Only two other films made that sweep since: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.

Before the screening, Victoria Riskin and film historian Joseph McBride discussed the film and the Capra/Riskin collaboration (they made nine films together). Victoria also hawked her new book about her parents, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir.

They talked about Riskin’s letters and the importance of musical interludes. They discussed the long Capra/Riskin collaboration, and the political separation within it, with Riskin leaning left and Capra right. They agreed that the term Capraesqe should be Riskinesque. Victoria Riskin told us that she changed careers from psychiatrist to TV writer; “I went from treating the mentally ill to working with the mentally ill.”

Before Wednesday afternoon, I had not seen It Happened One Night since the late 1980s, and that was on VHS. I think I saw it once before that. In a sense, I was seeing it with new eyes.

It Happened One Night foreshadowed the screwball comedies of the late 30s and 40s. Like them, it’s a romantic comedy that crosses class lines–in this case a heiress falling in love with a newspaper reporter. And as one would expect from a Hollywood movie made in 1933 (and released early in ’34), it takes poverty seriously. People are desperate and often hungry. It lacks the fast pace and over-the-top comedy of the screwballs to come, but it has a warmth and humanity that they lacked.

Gable and Colbert make great chemistry together. The supporting cast, all familiar faces to movie lovers of the day, add their own touches. I give the movie an A-.

After the screening, McBride and Riskin answered questions from the audience. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • Did Riskin really drop a sheaf of blank paper on Capra’s desk and say “Try to put the Capra Touch on that!” Virginia said her uncle swore that it happened. But she also said that if it’s true, her father would have done so in a calm and friendly manner.
  • On having a likeable Wall St. tycoon in a depression movie: It wasn’t in my father’s nature to paint people in black and white. Even in Lady for a Day the gangsters weren’t entirely bad.
  • Riskin identified with the workers. Capra identified with the wealthy.
  • Capra provided the schmaltz. Riskin provided the acid.