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It Happened One Night: The gin and tonic of a romance
It was 1934. The world was uneasy with the Great Depression. Hitler's Nazi fanaticism was growing stronger with every sunrise, and the deepening gloom of an impending war was casting terrifying shadows. There was trouble and turmoil.
It was in times such as these, "It Happened One Night". And almost 67 years later, it happens every time one watches Frank Capra's delightfully captivating film, whose comic romance stays etched forever in one's memory. Yet, the mind craves for more, and as the frames flash past us, they leave behind a wonderful
feeling that grows sweeter with time.
"It Happened One Night" may not have been the movie that turned Capra's ( who came to America from Sicily when he was just six) life around, but it made him a sort of pioneer. It won five top Oscars -- Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert) and Best Screenplay -- a feat of sorts not duplicated more than a few times since then. "The Silence of the Lambs" did it in 1992.
Would you then blame India's Mahesh Bhatt when he went and copied the film, virtually reel by reel in his early 1990s "Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin". There was not even an acknowledgement. Aamir Khan played Gable, Pooja Bhatt Colbert !
The story was nothing novel or spectacular: a rich heiress runs away from her father and fiance, meets an errant reporter on the bus, who promises to escort her from Florida to New York (I forget the cities in the Hindi version.) in exchange for her story that he hopes will make him a celebrity. The most inevitable thing which can possibly happen between a man and woman strikes Gable and Colbert: they fall in love.
There are some stunning moments on the screen; they are sometimes hilarious, sometimes plain sweet or simply provocative but in an endearing way. Examples: when Gable hangs his blanket on a rope to create a wall between the two before they hit the bed or when he undresses or when she returns the favour in the famous hitchhiking scene or when the two roll on the hay -- thus
firmly establishing their talents which seemed to mix, as someone said, like gin and tonic.
This magnetic chemistry -- the most important reason for the movie's success -- might, come to think of it, never have happened. Gable was in it only because he had offended Louis B. Mayer at the MGM, and was loaned to Columbia (which produced "It Happened One Night") as a punishment. Those were the days of the studios, and actors or actresses were on their payrolls earning weekly wages.
But the Capra movie changed this, at least partially. When the director failed to attract a big star -- not very surprising, given the slender plot line --he offered the female lead to Colbert as a vacation job and at much more than her usual fee. And when she clinched an Oscar, she won the right to revise her contract with Paramount. It allowed her to accept outside offers.
That "It Happened One Night" lingered and endured long after the players themselves faded away is a tale that very few talkies can talk about.
(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated February 2 2001)