Capra's America: Smiling through

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (dir. Frank Capra, 1934).

The sentimentality of Capra can be hard to swallow—especially in swill like You Can’t Take It With You (1938)—but it goes down easy in It Happened One Night (1934), a film whose charms are still going strong eighty-plus years on.  It’s the kind of universally appealing comedy in front of which nearly anyone could be sat down and made to have a good time.  A lot of that has to do with the easy chemistry between Gable and Colbert.  It also has to do with Capra’s populism as a filmmaker.  His comedies don’t have the insane, giddy weirdness of, say, Preston Sturges’; they’re humble and sweet, and only ever take shots at easy targets like snobby/evil rich people.  A harder-hearted critic would dismiss them for being too safe.  But the humble charms of It Happened One Night are pure, innocent, and irresistible.  It’s a film that’s almost impossible to dislike, even when an entire busful of people launch into an impromptu sing-a-long to “The Man on the Flying Trapeze." It's to Capra's credit that, almost against our will, we respond to such a moment with a grin instead of an eyeroll. 

Capra’s vision of America in It Happened One Night is also, somehow, irresistible in its purity and innocence.  This is a Depression-era U.S. in which even the hobos riding the rails meet Gable's salutations with smiles and waves, and the railway crossing guard smiles as he admonishes Gable for impatiently honking his car horn.  America is perpetually smiling in Capra, even sometimes through tears.  That’s the essence of screwball comedy as shared by Hawks and Sturges—smiling in the face of pain—but in Capra it’s never offset by bitterness or snark.  There’s not a cynical bone in the body of this film; for better or worse, you never doubt for a second that Capra believes in every last one of those smiles.     

America smiling.

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