"It Happened One Night"

On a glorious transfer of the great screwball comedy, every little detail comes into focus -- even Claudette Colbert's dark, hazy nipples.

Published March 14, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"It Happened One Night"
Directed by Frank Capra
Starring Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
Columbia; full-screen (original 1.33:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Featurette, audio commentary with Frank Capra Jr., original live radio broadcast, more

Before Frank Capra was kidnapped by aliens and reconditioned to make programmatic paper-doll humanitarian fare like "It's a Wonderful Life," he spent four weeks making an imperfectly perfect little movie called "It Happened One Night." Claudette Colbert is a runaway heiress; Clark Gable is a recently fired newspaperman hoping to get his job back. They hook up one night on a bus from Florida to New York, take an instant dislike to one another and, of course, fall deeply in love by the time they reach their destination.

If it sounds formulaic, it isn't, if only because "It Happened One Night" was made in 1934, in the years before there was such a thing as screwball romantic-comedy formula. It's among the first of its kind, and it's one of the greatest.

Audiences responded at the time (the picture was a huge hit), and today "It Happened One Night" still feels unbeatably fresh and shiveringly touching. It's partly in the way Gable, with his whip-smart devilishness, softens just enough to reach out to meet Colbert, saucily innocent yet nobody's fool, more than halfway. And Colbert, with her wisenheimer smirk and stylishly trim frame, represents cultured coolness that's as far as you can get from coldness: When she thinks Gable has turned against her, the soft tear that glimmers in her eye (without doing anything so gauche as actually rolling down her cheek) is like a miniature novel encompassing a world of restraint, longing and fear of loss.

The DVD is lavishly appointed with extras, including both a commentary by Frank Capra Jr. and a featurette in which he outlines the story of how "It Happened One Night" came to be. If you're already an "It Happened One Night" aficionado, the featurette won't tell you anything you don't already know. (One notable tidbit: The film's total budget was just $325,000, and $50,000 of that went to Colbert, who commanded a relatively high salary because of her star power.) And the commentary rambles on interminably: At one point, Capra Jr. notes that the picture moves at "an undeniably fast pace," when in reality, many of scenes are almost languorously paced. The picture only appears to move fast because the interplay between the characters is so engaging.

The real reason to buy "It Happened One Night" on DVD is for the gorgeous transfer. In its sharp and silvery state on DVD, the movie is as crisp and clean as it must have looked to audiences in 1934. Although it seems prurient to mention it, there's something wondrous about the sight of Claudette Colbert's dark, hazy nipples peeping out from beneath the lace of her camisole in the movie's famous "Walls of Jericho" sequence, in which Colbert and Gable share a room divided by a hanging blanket. ("It Happened One Night" was released the same year the Hays Office began to significantly enforce the Production Code, but the movie may have slipped through just under the wire.)

Those nipples represent a detail that you never would have seen in the picture's previously muddy state, and aside from the fact that they're beautiful in their own right, they're also symbolic of the ways DVDs have contributed to the preservation of movie history. Like all great movies, "It Happened One Night" should ideally be enjoyed on the big screen. But to see it so pristine and glowing on the small one is still a pleasure, and no less an honor than it deserves.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------