Monday, April 27, 2015
1934: Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night
It's kind of ridiculous that this movie won so many awards because no one wanted to make it. Apparently, five actresses turned down the part of Ellie before Colbert finally accepted it, which she only did because the director, Frank Capra, promised to double her salary and finish filming in only four weeks. She complained the whole time, and apparently thought that it was the worst movie she'd ever made. When the Best Actress nominations were announced, a lot of people were very upset that Bette Davis wasn't nominated for Of Human Bondage, so the rules were changed to allow write-in votes. Colbert was so convinced that Davis would win that she originally didn't show up for the ceremony, and had to be summoned from a train station to accept her award, which probably explains why she's holding her coat. Over eighty years later, It Happened One Night is considered one of the best films ever made, and Colbert's one of the best comedic performances ever given.
I think part of the reason no one thought this film would be successful is no one had ever made anything like it before. It's now considered the first true screwball comedy, a genre that's difficult to precisely define, but which I think can be best described as the earliest form of what eventually evolved into the modern romantic comedy. Prior to this, romantic leads were hired to be attractive and dramatic. Any comedy that existed in romantic films was almost exclusively contributed by supporting character actors. The leading man and woman might have a few witty lines or funny moments, but their general purpose was not to elicit laughs. Similarly, comedies seldom involved romance, and when they did, it wasn't to be taken too seriously. This movie changed that forever. Colbert and Gable proved that being comedic and falling deeply in love were not mutually exclusive. And audiences loved it.
Nowadays, people don't tend to think of rom-coms and Oscars in the same sentence. Actresses certainly don't expect to win Best Actress for starring in a romantic comedy, and, with few exceptions, they generally haven't. In that respect, modern audiences would probably think it odd that Colbert won for this movie. Her performance is good and quite entertaining, but it's similar to a lot of other non-nominated performances, some of which are probably even better. But the thing about those other similar performances is they all came after this one. Colbert set the tone for funny, strong, romantic leading ladies. If she hadn't pulled it off as well as she did, we might not have that type of character in films today, or if we did, it wouldn't be quite the same. So regardless of how you feel about romantic comedies, you have to admit that with this performance Claudette Colbert broadened the range of roles available to actresses. That, in my humble opinion at least, makes it Oscar-worthy.
This was Colbert's only Academy Award, but she was nominated for Best Actress again the following year for Private Worlds, and once more for 1944's Since You Went Away. After that she made a few more films, but then switched to work primarily in television and on the stage.
Next year's winner was Bette Davis, perhaps to make up for her lack of an official nomination this year, or perhaps because she gave a fabulous performance. I'll let you know what I think when I've seen it.