It’s Valentine’s weekend and we take a romantic trip to The Electric Cinema to see It Happened One Night, Frank Capra’s 1934 romantic comedy that is one of only three films to win all Big Five Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay). As usual, Mike hasn’t seen it before, while José’s seen it plenty. Does it hold up?
José talks of its democratic appeal, set largely in the American South during the lowest point of the Great Depression and showing people coming together despite hardship, lack of work and even fainting from hunger. We discuss the development of the relationship between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, including the wisdom of sharing a motel room with a man you just met, the propriety depicted (such as forgoing a lucrative reward, instead only claiming your expenses), and of course, the madness of Alan Hale’s singing.
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Seeing that extraordinary close-up of Joan Crawford being swayed by John Garfield’s music in Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, USA, 1946) reminded me that Joan Crawford’s stardom had begun in the silent era. Rifling through my file on Crawford films, I noticed that I had never seen Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (Harry Edwards, USA, 1926). Now Joan Crawford in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp would be one thing but sadly it turned out to be Harry Langdon in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, which has quite different connotations. Though second-billed, Crawford’s role is really merely that of ‘the girl’ and could have probably been played by almost any attractive actress of the period.
The plot is basic. Burton shoes is running a huge nationwide campaign, and the face of Burton shoes in posters across America is Betty (Joan Crawford), the boss’s daughter, inviting everyone in America to ‘walk with her’ wearing the ‘sole of the nation’. The campaign is so successful it’s wiping out smaller shoe shops like Amos Vogel and Son. The son is Harry (Harry Langdon), so besotted with the image of Betty that he splashes the walls of his bedroom with it and even brings it/her to bed. When their landlord gives them three months to find money for rent, Harry joins the Burton contest to walk across America. Whoever gets there first will win 25,000. Intriguingly, though nothing much is made of it in the film, the nasty landlord is one of the contestants. Needless to say, Harry wins the contest, gets the girl, and even gives himself a little number as his and Betty’s son being just as inept as the father in a crib at the end of the film.
Frank Capra ostensible wrote the film and co-directed it with Edwards, though the credits of the print I saw give no evidence of this. It’s an interesting example of the rise of advertising in America and its effects on mass culture, an issue so live in the twenties that it was already drawing debate by leading American thinkers (one thinks of the work of Walter Lippman). Harry Langdon’s charms are lost on me but the film has several imaginative set-pieces (Harry hanging from a cliff, nailing his sweater to a wooden fence and sliding down the hill on the fence; Harry in a prison work-gang; Harry in the middle of a cyclone, first losing all his clothes while attempting to take a bath, then defeating it with rocks like David and Goliath – they’re all very well-done).
What interested me most was Crawford, whose image is already presented as one evoking dreams and desire across America, and a charming little vignette of Harry’s father going to the pictures and seeing his son on screen (see clip above), which evokes something of what going to the cinema in a small town must have been like in the 1920s.
James Stewart is so great in It’s a Wonderful Life: the repressed fury, frustration, the dashed hopes sometimes relieved by an evident yearning, the bitterness, all dazzlingly displayed by the actor and sometimes captured by Capra in a sweeping extreme close-up that swoops up on that anguished face and confronts the audience with it. A marvel of a performance, beautifully directed.
The film’s a holiday staple, and everyone’s seen it several times, but it’s much darker than one remembers; George Bailey is after all a man driven to suicide at Christmas. The warm feelings the memory of the film gives rise to seem due to the beginning (the view of community communicated through the idealised Bedford Falls), and then the very last scene (the utopian view of friends and family at Christmas), and one forgets most of what leads up to it.
It is after all the story of a man whose every hope is thwarted: he doesn’t get to go to college, he doesn’t get to travel around the world, he doesn’t even get to go on a honeymoon. Duty, obligation, responsibility, the need and well-being of others, all take precedence over his own wishes and thwart him at every turn.
The only desire he manages to achieve is that for his wife, and even that seems to catch him by surprise (and Capra’s staging of this, in close-up, whilst they seem to be talking about everything else but, manages to somehow indicate that desire growing off-screen as a both a physical manifestation and as a dawning of feeling – a tour de force of staging). As my friend Nicky Smith observed, one is reminded of the episode of Friends where Phoebe says it ought to be called ‘It’s a Sucky Life’.
It’s a crime that the film has been colourised as the black and white cinematography by Joseph Walker in the original is so beautiful. It’s really shot as a noir and even Sunny Bedford Falls is enmeshed in shadows. But it’s no surprise that dramatically the film works even when in colour. It’s a marvel of story-telling: the prayers going up to the heavens, the Heavenly spirits being made aware of the happenings of those normally too insignificant to bother with; the setting forth of a life, the way the story arrests time, speeds it up; the creation of an alternate universe; the ability to identify with George even as he looks forth on his own life and on a world without him in it. In telling us the story, the film also seems to be saying, ‘this is what cinema can be. It can do anything. Isn’t it in itself heavenly’?
It’s a film full of delights: the set-piece of the opening dance where they all end up in the swimming pool; the scene where Donna Reed loses her robe; the run on the bank; the camera rushing alongside George running through Bedford Falls and through Pottersville; Thomas Mitchell’s wonderful characterization of George’s uncle; Gloria Grahame’s even more delightful characterization of the hottest girl in town (‘this ole thing. I only wear it when I don’t care what I look like’).
Seeing it recently on a big screen,I liked it more than I ever have and found it better than I remembered though one has to accept some things being what they are (bits of capracorn, the sexism, the tinge of racism — all no worse than in any other film of the period — but there nonetheless). There are problems with the film: Did Capra really believe that being an old maid librarian is the worst thing that could befall a woman outside of becoming a prostitute?; doesn’t Pottersville look a lot more fun than Bedford Falls? But what are these next to James Stewart’s towering performance, surely one of the very greatest in the history of cinema, and next to the dazzling display of filmic story-telling that Capra and Co put on display?
Addendum: In his recent How to Watch a Movie (London: Profile Books, 2015), David Thomson intriguingly writes that ‘in the decades since its first showing, it has grown easier for audiences to imagine a question mark in the title and to realize that the idyllic Bedford Falls of 1947 has turned into Pottersville, the drab plan of heartless capitalism pursued by the town’s tycoon (played by Lionel Barrymore)..think of that story shifted to the era of 2008 and the anxieties of middle-class existence. Once upon a time It’s a Wonderful Life was a Christmas staple, but try showing the picture to a modern young audience without rueful irony crushing nostalgia.’ I wonder if he’s right.
Addendum 2: According to Nicky Smith: ‘It’s a fascinating experience at the cinema. Middle aged blokes absolutely love it. And listen for the rustle around the auditorium as people gradually realise that George ‘s best friends are called Bert and Ernie’.