The Art of Almost: Frank Capra’s Proto-Sex Comedy
“I just finished making the worst picture I’ve ever made,” Claudette Colbert is reported to have said at the wrap of Frank Capra’s Academy Award winning film, It Happened One Night. With a contemporary eye, this statement and rumors of both Colbert and Clark Gable dismissing the screenplay as garbage seem outlandish. The film is a classic, the rapport razor sharp, the acting, by both leads and supporting characters, is spectacularly charismatic, and Capra is at the top of his game. The problem could only have been one thing: Sex.
It Happened One Night may be the most risqué film to have hit the mainstream market in the 1930s. Sneaking in just before the strict enforcement of the Hays Code, Capra’s story of a socialite, Ellie (Colbert), and a washed up reporter, Peter (Gable), has its mind seeped in the proverbial gutter from word one. The slang “it,” having evolved etymologically from defining a sexual quality in a woman (see Clara Bow in 1927’s It) to sex in the general sense gives the title its only justifiable meaning. The movie, as plainly seen, takes place over several nights, but the “it” event, the consummation of Ellie and Peter’s wedding, visualized by the removal of a blanket between the lover’s separate beds, happens only once, at the film’s very end.
The prospect of sex is brilliantly teased throughout, however, and Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin, turn the comedy’s road trip narrative into a succession of “will they/won’t they?” moments. A nighttime farm scene, in which Ellie and Peter almost kiss, sparks the first definite hint of sex, though the characters’ destination, New York City, synonymous with seedy tomfoolery of all stripes, solidifies sex not only as a major motif, but as the characters’ final goal. For Ellie, NYC means freedom, from her restrictive father, as well as the freedom to marry, and have sex with, whomever she wants. She might as well be John Cusack road tripping to A Sure Thing, or Jason Biggs and his cohorts racing the clock of prom night in American Pie. “What are you thinking about?” Ellie, supine in a bed of hay, asks Peter after their near-kiss. Her voice is throaty and confident. She has answered her own question.
The next morning, Ellie hikes her skirt over her leg in order to get a lift from a passing car. Colbert apparently balked at the scene’s forthright sexual innuendo (that for socialite women, sex equals mobility), and the part of the leg nearly went to an anonymous chorus girl. Later, when Ellie crosses the blanket boundary between her and Peter’s beds in their motel, verbally confessing her love to the reporter, her physical transcendence of the imposed boundary becomes a nonverbal sexual proposition.
In the film’s final minutes, Ellie abandons the man she plans to marry, a man destined to offer more of the dull, sexless life she’d been living previously, and gets her Peter (oh, you don’t think that was a thing back then? That was a thing!). The blankets, or as Peter has been wont to call them, the walls of Jericho, collapse to the floor, and the lights go out in the lover’s motel room, with a climactic burst from Peter’s trumpet. The applause from the American critics was deafening. “More sex, please” they said in the form of five Academy Awards. “I don’t think so,” said the Hays Code, and for a twenty-five year cinematic dry spell, no one was happy.
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And now, two more personal top 10 lists by Ill Stills readers:
21stcenturysins asked you:
I’m a freakin list junky so I’ve got to get on this trend. My top ten (unranked): -The 400 Blows -There Will Be Blood -8 1/2 -Sweet Smell Of Success -Dazed & Confused -Dr. Strangelove -Annie Hall -Goodfellas -Modern Times -The Tree of Life
Oooh! I’ve seen all but one movie (Sweet Smell of Success) on your list, and the rest of your choices are fantastic. I’ve previously written about my love for 8 ½, and during Oscar week, touched on the transformative power of The Tree of Life, but a favorite of mine that I’ve never addressed is Dazed & Confused, a flawed masterpiece. The amateur cast, especially Wiggins, but including McConaughey, can be a bit grating, but no other high school period film has captured the very real feeling of nostalgia that goes beyond, “hey, we sure listened to some great music and smoked some killer dope back then,” though there’s that, too. Dazed and Confused is funny, endlessly quotable, and, for those who have had the chance to watch the film both in high school and well after, poignant. A fine choice for a top ten list indeed.
Scott’s top 10
In order of when they were added to my list: Terminator 2, Running on Empty, Contact, Titantic, Cruel Intentions, Requiem for a Dream, Life As a House, Black Hawk Down, There Will Be Blood, and Midnight in Paris.
This is the top ten list my older brother, Scott, sent me, and I’d first like to say that Scott is one of the big reasons I got into movies in the first place. I used to root through his VHS collection (often when he wasn’t home) to find flicks he’d taped off HBO or Cinemax free previews, and Terminator 2 was a movie we’d never tire of watching together. I give Scott a lot of credit for sticking with his convictions on Titanic, long after everyone else, including myself, turned their backs on it. There really is a lot to offer in those 90s Cameron blockbusters, as far as technique and spectacle go, though I think the director’s true triumphs are the original Terminator and Aliens, two darker films that rely heavily on stop motion and miniatures, giving them a much grimier aesthetic. Midnight in Paris made my top ten list for 2011, and it’s one of the finest recent films from Allen, who in my opinion is one of the greatest directors living today, and whose work Ill Stills will be exploring in a new podcast at the end of the week.