It Happened One Night

AFI Rank: #35
Year Released: 1934
Director: Frank Capra
Actors: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert

Labelled as a "screwball comedy", It Happened One Night actually happens over several nights and stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Filmed at a time of economic hardship (1934) the movie still has Claudette Colbert as an extremely wealthy heiress who lives on a yacht or mansion - or both. Sick of being told what to do by her father, she literally jumps overboard and runs off to be with the less-than-trustable gold-digger she's hooked her sights on.

Instead she runs into Clark Gable, an out of work newspaper reporter who quickly decides this is the story of the century. All he has to do is get her to New York City, and he'll make a lot of money.

Of course what happens is they fall in love. He introduces her to the normal reality of life - eating carrots pulled right from the ground and sleeping on hay. She introduces him to ... what? It seems like the vast majority of the time he's complaining about how bratty she is. How little experience she has. How annoying she is. Even near the end, when she professes her love, his fairly harsh comment is to go away. She is sobbing alone in bed and he seems to care little. It's only after giving it some thought that he decides that yes, maybe it'd be OK to marry this multi-millionaire.

Both actors have said they didn't want to make the movie. Neither one thought it was a good movie when they were done with it. They were surprised it did well in the oscars. That gives me some pause.

The one female lead is pretty much the only woman in the entire film. The movie is about men all acting on her. Her father bosses her around. Her husband-to-be treats her like a bank. And Clark Gable is routinely nasty to her. He spanks her! A strange guy, just decides to whallop her on the rear! And she's barely surprised, because earlier on her father slapped her across the face. This is how a grown woman is apparently supposed to be treated. The men in her life just hit her if they want her to do something different. And she doesn't even complain. She just takes it.

I would hope desperately that this was a sign of 1934 - but we clearly see this kind of behavior in modern times too. People think it's delightfully fun when a man hits a woman. "No issue there" they apparently think. She's just a woman, after all. Physical abuse is just what's needed to keep her in line.

Grant even says, to her father, "She needs a guy that'd sock her once a day whether it's coming to her or not. If you were wiser, you'd have done it yourself long ago."

I appreciate the must-imitated "stick out a leg to get a ride" scene - but to me that's just not enough to carry a movie that's primarily about how a woman needs a man to live and how the men are then justified in hitting her to keep her behaving in a way they feel is proper.

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The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100