Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The first great 'talkie,' It Happened One Night is a gem.

Its funny how when you begin to write reviews, you get plagued by cliche. Overused sayings just pop into your head of their own accord and you find yourself saying things like "this was a gem of a movie" or it was like "a breath of fresh air" before you know what you're doing. So, in that vein, last night's entry in the film fest, "It Happened One Night," was a little burst of fresh gemmy air - if you'll forgive the expression.

I always knew it was a good idea to work forward in time through classic movies, but now, excuse my vanity, I really see the genius behind the plan. Watching "It Happened One Night" after several weeks of experience with earlier films just blew us away . . . the way it should have. I can fully appreciate why this movie swept the Academy Awards and has gone down in history as the classic romantic comedy of all time, the first screwball comedy, a Frank Capra masterpiece and yet -- simultaneously had been the film NO ONE expected to succeed.

Most involved in the project seemed to think it was a crummy waste of time (Claudette Colbert, at the end of filming, famously told a friend: "I just finished the worst picture of my life;" Clark Gable was given the assignment as punishment). To explain the paradox, you have to set yourself in 1934 when movies just weren't like this. People couldn't easily see the value of doing something like watching two people travel along the countryside taking little quips at each other and falling in love. It must have been hard to picture, until it all came together.

Of course I realize that I'm not in a position to declare outright that 'nothing like this had ever been done before,' but I'll do it anyway. Feeling like an expert with over 20 titles prior to 1934's IHON under my belt, I can attest to this being a major leap forward in cinematic style. At this time in history the talkies were really just beginning to seize control of themselves. Prior to this, they were still heady with flagrantly flaunting the fact that they had sound, and hadn't quite figured out how to make the most of it. Many still moved and seemed like silent pictures - often bad ones - done out loud. It took a bit more evolution before movie makers could just work with sound, instead of struggle to make it work.

I'm certain to mess up the details here, so take this with a grain of salt, but early cinematic sound movies (starting with The Jazz Singer and others that came out in the next couple of years) used a phonograph process to separately capture the audio and a standard film camera to capture the video. The two were then linked together so they would play back in sync (a huge breakthrough for commercial viability). There were still many problems including the very loud motion picture cameras that had to be closed off in a soundproof box so that the sound recording wouldn't be fouled, to the fact that many theaters weren't "wired for sound," to the problems of skipping and syncing during playback, to wiring actors or locating them near large microphones that restricted their freedom of movement. And the problems led to reduced film picture quality. All adding up to these movies just not being up to snuff - artistically. It wasn't until the sound-on-film technology (in which the sound and pictures were simultaneously recorded, together -- and yes I realize that's redundant) that the art form could take off. Advances in all aspects of sound recording seemed to reinvent the medium and free up filmakers to think about making movies again and not just think about working with the new technology.

Back to IHON - here is a film that is perfectly positioned to swoop in with total understanding of the beauties of dialog, but not forgetting motion either. It is extremely effective at telling a story fully. Its silly, smart, well-acted, and seamlessly audible. It takes advantage of the full range of cinematic storytelling and probably had a huge effect on everything that came after. It "feels" noticeably more modern in its pace and themes than other movies we've watched. It had to have struck a perfect chord with audiences and critics.

Gable, in an atypical role, and Colbert have wonderful chemistry. Their chemistry and dialog carry the film. The cinematography is wonderful too -- lovingly portraying mostly exterior location shots (in great measure as a means of saving money on sets). The only time the movie slows down is near the end when a misunderstanding separates our leads and we lose their combined charm. Although the film is regarded as the genesis of the "screwball" style of comedy, other films that came later are more screwbally and probably better examples; this one may be better heralded as the birth of romantic comedy. One reviewer on IMDB made a point of noting that this is romantic comedy well before the genre became synonymous with "chick flick". Definitely not a chick flick, IHON relies on the talents of Gable --who is unquestionably a guy's guy -- to keep the film rougher and and just a bit gritty, very appealing to men. I can attest that all of the men at my house loved this film.

Now that we've entered the golden age of Hollywood cinema, I can't wait to see what the next one brings. Keep watching this space :)

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