The good news here is this is a Clark Gable double bill. Look! He did stuff that wasn’t GONE WITH THE WIND! And most worthy offerings, too.
It Happened One Night (Best Picture, 1934)
This wonderfully quirky screwball comedy is the first Best Picture that I can enthusiastically recommend to others because I like it. Claudette Colbert is an heiress who married a man her father doesn’t like, and in the process of trying to escape her father and return to her husband, ends up on an overnight bus from Miami to New York. Clark Gable is a journalist whose working relationships are… well… let’s say “strained.” Naturally he takes a fancy to Colbert, who begins by disliking him heartily, probably because he’s just the littlest bit condescending and mocking. Gable quickly figures out the identity of his traveling companion, and decides to help her in exchange for the story. Zany adventures ensue, and of course they end up falling in love.
I can count on one hand the number of Best Picture winners which have also won the major acting, directing, and writing awards. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is one of them, though apparently this particular path was not expected. It is Hollywood legend that Gable was loaned to Columbia (a minor studio at the time) as a punishment for not meeting the obligations of his contract, and Colbert was something like the sixth major actress approached for the role of Ellen. The loan story is a good one, though subsequent reliable sources have disputed it. It is true, however, that neither Gable nor Colbert were happy on set. Colbert apparently complained daily and announced afterwards to her friend that she had just completed the worst movie she ever filmed. The trivia section on IMDB for this film claims that Gable was kept in reasonably good spirits by allowing him to play practical jokes on his costar. The reasons for the unhappiness seem to be rooted in the belief that the script was weak and the story one that had already been done, badly, several times before. It seems they all believed they were on a doomed voyage (so one wonders why anyone agreed to the picture in the first place.)
However, the film did not flop, and it is one of the greatest screwball comedies of the 1930s. We also must thank it for inspiring the creator of another cultural icon. Friz Freleng, animator extraordinaire, loved the film and was so inspired by Gable’s performance (especially a scene in which he talks rapidly, mouth full of raw carrot, to Colbert) that he created a character that is a sly wink to that performance. Most of us today would not recognize anything of Clark Gable in Bugs Bunny, but 1930s audiences might have understood the joke. It’s a rather good one.
Mutiny on the Bounty (Best Picture, 1935)
I can’t recommend this one with the same genuine enthusiasm. While it is a gripping story that is remarkably well done (special props to the film editors – scene breaks are getting smoother and smoother), the violence in it is so relentless that the experience of watching it is unusually stressful.
MUTINY is based loosely on a true story of HMS Bounty and the infamous mutiny against Captain Bligh. The story has been Hollywood-ized to a remarkable degree, making Bligh into a truly sadistic tyrant and taking Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutiny, to the other extreme of virtuous hero. The story, as it goes, is thus: HMS Bounty, under the command of Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton), is to go to Tahiti and obtain breadfruit trees to transport to the West Indies as a cheap food source for the slaves there. During the course of the trip, Bligh repeatedly demonstrates the violence of his temper and his determination to not just punish the men but truly break their spirits. Flogging, keel-hauling, reduced rations, and other unreasonable punishments drive the men to the edge, finally resulting in Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), the Master’s Mate and apparently second-in-command on the Bounty, leading a mutiny against the Captain. Bligh and many of his supporters are put to sea in rowboats stocked with some food and water, and the Bounty returns to Tahiti. Eventually it becomes clear that Bligh has survived when he shows up in Tahiti as captain of another ship and he takes several of the Englishmen on Tahiti captive as mutineers, returning to England with them as prisoners to stand trial at a court-martial. In a moment of rather repulsive class-ism, the one officer standing trial, Midshipman Byam (Franchot Tone), is pardoned, while the pressed men and regular sailors are condemned to death. However, in the course of the trial, Byam has spoken out against Bligh, not to condone the mutineers but to condemn the treatment that drove them to rebel. Meanwhile, Christian and his supporters (and Tahitian wives) have found an uninhabited island in the Pacific, burned the Bounty, and settled down to create a community.
I generally think of modern movies as being far more unpleasantly violent than older films, but I think I need to revise this simple statement. Modern movies are more graphic in their violence than older films – today the films actually show the deaths, the blood, the abuse, and all aftermath, while films in the 1930s are more likely to hint at it or symbolize it, letting the imagination go to that place without showing it on screen. I am not sure whether the extent to which that is due to the implementation of the Hays Code in the early 30s, that notorious censorship authority that enforced morality on screen – everything from married couples not sharing beds to violence and bad language. It was adopted in 1930 but not enforced till 1934, which means this film would have been in the early days of the Code. But the violence in this film – floggings and keel-haulings are shown, certainly, and the black and white medium makes the imagery less shocking than it would have been in color. However, it is utterly relentless. This is not to say that the film could do with less. What is present is necessary to make the audience totally identify with the desperation of the mutineers and the tension of the ship’s company, but it is relentless and deeply upsetting. This is a film worth seeing, but it is not one that will leave the audience relaxed and cheerful. It is a thought-provoker, for one cannot help but consider how men can be reduced to such desperation so quickly.
Up Next: The Great Ziegfeld (Best Picture, 1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (Best Picture, 1937)
Two biopics, eh?