It Happened One Night Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: The Original Runaway Bride

Frank Capra's romantic comedy classic shines in new Criterion release.
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It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time in cinematic history when romantic comedies were extremely rare. That all started to change, for better or worse, with the 1934 release of this Frank Capra gem. The film went on to sweep the five major Oscar categories, netting statues for stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, director Capra, and screenwriter Robert Riskin, cementing its status as a Hollywood classic. That classic is now 80 years old and was showing its age, so its recent meticulous restoration and new release on Blu-ray offers a completely refreshed take on the film.

Colbert plays a spoiled rich girl named Ellie intent on defying her father’s wishes by marrying the man she had already eloped with against daddy’s will. She sets out from Florida intent on traveling to New York by herself without being intercepted by anyone on her dad’s payroll, an impossible quest considering her lack of personal resources and street smarts. Meanwhile, a washed-up newspaper reporter named Peter (Gable) winds up on the same bus as her and agrees to help her reach her destination, all while secretly planning to write a juicy story about his newsworthy traveling companion. Unsurprisingly, they end up falling for each other during their trip, with each misadventure generating further endearment rather than exasperation. If only there wasn’t that seemingly unsolvable problem of Ellie’s existing husband.

The story holds up remarkably well after all of this time, with a few questionable items. In Gable’s first scene his character is clearly heavily intoxicated, and yet within seconds is charming Ellie while appearing stone cold sober for the remainder of their encounter. Later, the newly acquainted Peter and Ellie find themselves stranded for the night after their bus breaks down, leading Peter to book one cabin at a motor lodge for them and leading broke Ellie to shack up with this stranger she barely met. Surely nothing could go wrong in that scenario, right?The biggest issue is during Peter’s initial meeting with Ellie’s father, where he denounces Ellie’s soft husband and angrily says entitled Ellie needs the kind of guy who will basically slap her around every day to keep her in line. Ahh, the good old days, where dad greets this aggressive statement with bemused agreement rather than scornful outrage and a call to the cops. It’s hard to muster much support for the romance after this stark admission, making it crucial to keep in mind the differing social mores of the time.

Aside from his character’s misogynistic streak, Gable is remarkably charming in his role, with an ever-present twinkle in his eye and dimples in his cheeks ready to disarm the most unwilling of participants. Colbert is ok, but frankly brings nothing special to the role and could have easily been replaced with anyone else. Capra still makes a go of the casting, bringing his directorial magic to bear in the creation of a lasting legend.

The film’s 4K digital restoration is spectacular on Blu-ray, revealing far more detail than previously available. The picture has been polished to perfection, with no debris or scratches and with improved and consistent contrast that make even the darkest night scenes easily decipherable. Only a couple of instances of soft focus are evident, while everywhere else the film is snapped into precise and highly defined focus. Likewise, the film’s uncompressed monaural soundtrack is so devoid of crackle, hiss, or waver that it sounds like we’re listening in on the original soundstage.

Bonus features are plentiful, but mostly aligned with a Capra career retrospective rather than film-exclusive items. The longest is a feature-length documentary on Capra hosted by Ron Howard, which reveals the trials and tribulations of his immigrant life story that contributed to his feature film career. There’s also an hour-long 1982 American Film Institute tribute to Capra, a boozy ballroom affair populated by his elderly contemporaries such as Colbert and James Stewart offering their respects to the master. Bette Davis makes a funny comment when she approaches the podium, instantly dating the TV special when she reminds the crowd that she’s “an actress, not a song”. To further the Capra fan fest, the disc also includes his first-ever directorial effort, a 12-minute silent short from 1921 entitled Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House based on a work by Rudyard Kipling. Even that rough first effort reveals some measure of his talent via inspired staging. The features are rounded out with a nonessential interview with Capra’s son about the film and a conversation between critics on the topic of screwball comedy.

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