It would be very easy to see It Happened One Night only through the spectacles of conventional gender theory (yawn). This kind of interpretation would blab about male superiority, female submission, male power, and female sexuality. Interpretations of this sort, it must be admitted, have been done here. Unfortunately, one such boring reading was applied to Gilda, a film that deserves so very much more. It Happened One Night is another movie in that vein, broadly speaking. The back of the disc case says that this film “launched the screwball genre.” If that’s true, then Frank Capra did so in a most palatable fashion. This is no His Girl Friday, where “screwball” gets exaggerated to a new status quo six years later. Like His Girl Friday would later do, It Happened One Night incorporates those Hollywood Golden Age tropes of newspaper and reporters, allowing for a fast-paced story with incessant chatter but ultimately with nothing great at stake.
But back to Gilda: It Happened One Night shares with that classic an element that is severely lacking in the cinematic world today: sass. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert may not have had quite the spiciness that Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford did, but their slightly less overt characters allowed a cohesion with the narrative that wasn’t fully necessary in Gilda. That is to say, one can miss the story of Gilda and it doesn’t fundamentally matter; it’s about the character chemistry. Clark and Claudette mesh, complement, interlace with the story of It Happened One Night as only happens in the great old Hollywood films, particularly those by Frank Capra – think It’s A Wonderful Life or Arsenic and Old Lace. (The latter is as screwball as they come, but the story keeps up with Cary Grant’s zaniness.) The sass factor is still present in It Happened One Night, in both the male and female protagonists. Nowadays, it’s more en vogue for the woman to out-sass the man. People have forgotten that a woman’s sass is only as sassy as the man opposite her. Gable’s man’s man character strikes the ideal balance between aloofness toward and desperation for Colbert. It’s precisely this dialectic of his personality that provides the major point of plot conflict, when Colbert wakes up and believes that he has abandoned her…when in fact he has succumbed to his need for her and is off preparing to propose. It makes what has become a very formulaic plot device completely natural and believable, since it is organically driven. Colbert’s stubbornness, making its first appearance in the film practically before she does, takes over at this stage and she returns to her father and “King Westley.” Eventually, Colbert may leave one man for another, but Gable leaves his autonomy and self-assurance for a woman. And if “the walls of Jericho” signify the male-female hierarchy, then when the walls come tumbling down at the film’s end, so does Gable’s ego. But in this pre-code (or at least pre-enforced-code) movie, the walls stand for more than merely that.