AFI Top 100: It Happened One Night

In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is It Happened One Night (1934), #46 on the list.

It Happened One Night set the template for nearly a century of romantic comedies to come: a man and a woman cross paths, and despite initially resenting one another’s company, they begin to fall in love as their circumstances force them to work together. In Frank Capra’s classic, we follow a journalist (Clark Gable) as he chases a huge story: the daughter (Claudette Colbert) of a wealthy man is on the run to meet with her new husband of whomich her father disapproves. Their mutual compromise: he’ll help on her journey to reunite with her lover if she’ll give him exclusive rights to her story. It’s a perfect set-up for screwball hijinks and it stands to reason that this formula has been reconfigured for decades, but it’s the execution that makes the progenitor stand out even against some of the more refined efforts since. The writing is full of snappy dialogue, and Gable and Colbert make a perfect match, with her high-class socialite standing in stark contrast to his fast-talking reporter. The difference in personalities is in some ways heightened by their apparent off-screen discord, though their on-screen chemistry isn’t hurt one bit.

Does It Belong on the List?

It pains me to say it, but no. It may be the source of inspiration for decades of great romantic comedies, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best. There are quite a few on the list (The Apartment, Annie Hall) and plenty bizarre omissions (His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings) that outshine it.

AFI Top 100

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