Boston’s Brattle Theatre screened a new restoration of the Frank Capra classic It Happened One Night this past weekend, fittingly coming on the eve of the 87th Academy Awards — Night was the first film to win Oscar’s Big Five, taking Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay in the face of strong competition from the likes of The Thin Man. The restoration improved the quality of the original not by colorizing it or replacing the deleted scene where Clark Gable’s Peter discovers a magical portal to the planet Zaferonz (you didn’t hear about that?), but simply by touching up the considerable damage to the original print.
Scripts from this era of American film are always fascinating, mostly because they’re so different from today’s scripts. It Happened One Night falls only a handful of years after talkies came about, but the ensuing decade would typify a dedication to screenwriting that’s much rarer these days. It’s why I adore films like The Big Sleep, and it’s largely why It Happened One Night remains such an endearing version of a very familiar story.
But the most striking aspect of this particular viewing wasn’t how great the dialogue was, but rather how engaging some of the scenes were without any dialogue at all. Much of It Happened One Night takes place on a bus, but the confines of the vehicle don’t seem constricting in the least. On the contrary, Capra manages to draw a great amount of action out of the Greyhound scenes, action that’s highly interdependent with the lines of dialogue in that polished script.
Consider how contingent each of these little movements is on the preceding development, and how it influences what follows:
-Having encountered each other before boarding, Peter takes up a free two-seater in the last row and places his jacket in the empty chair. Ellie boards the bus and heads toward the back.
-Peter moves his jacket so she can sit, but she snarls at him and grabs up another in the middle of the bus. He rolls his eyes, puts his jacket back on the free seat, and lifts his feet up onto the jacket; it’s what he wanted all along. Maybe.
-A large man falls asleep on Ellie. From the back of the bus, Peter laughs until she turns around. He pretends to also be fast asleep.
-Ellie slides out from under the large man. Peter lets his arm stray into the empty seat so she has to move it if she wants to sit. She does, and Peter uses the disruption to rise from his pretend slumber and look her square in the eye. The winning smile ensues.
-Ellie eventually falls asleep on his arm. When the bus stops for breakfast Peter remains seated, willing to skip a meal to let her sleep.
This continues on and on, but the point is that an entire story is there in the action alone and that it exceeds the boundaries of the vehicle. An ensuing scene where the entire bus (driver included) breaks into joyful song accomplishes the same thing, somehow bursting out of that supposedly small space and making the bus seem the size of a ballroom. Some lines of dialogue bolster the game of musical chairs that Peter and Ellie play (Peter’s “Remember me? I’m the fella you slept on last night!”; Shapely’s snidely-phrased “You’ve got to be extra careful who you sit with…and you can’t be too particular neither”).
The strength of the script might overshadow the fact that the visual beats of the film are every bit as well-crafted. Arguably Frank Capra’s first flat-out classic, It Happened One Night‘s restoration serves as a reminder of the beauty in finding excitement anywhere. And everywhere.