When I was in film school, my advisor, Vojtech Jasny, encouraged us to carry a camera and shoot something every day so that we could “train our eye.” That’s one of the great things about film; it borrows from so many genres that it gives us an excuse to consume art in all its forms. In order to be a complete filmmaker you have to appreciate photography, painting, sculpture, music, hell, even dance. All art forms feed each other, of course, but film has a little bit of everything.
Today is Clark Gable’s 112th birthday. Let’s celebrate it by talking about one of his most famous films, It Happened One Night. One of the best known romantic comedies of all time was scripted by Robert Riskin whose successful collaborations with Frank Capra produced many great films.
If you haven’t ever watched this 1938 gem, I recommend you stream it. The story is simple: Ellie (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled and sheltered heiress who runs away in order to marry someone her Dad disapproves of. Newspaperman Pete (Gable) spots her on a Greyhound bus and, “rescues” her with the intent of landing a great story. Instead, they both fall for each other. Predictable and silly? Maybe.
But unlike many other movies of the era, it holds up remarkably well, due in large part to the carefully crafted characterization of the two lead roles. It’s become a classic because, simply put, Riskin and Capra created two believably complicated characters and carefully constructed a story in which the audience sees how these two fall for each other. In fact, I would say that what makes this movie a must see for any writer is that it is a great character study of two flawed, yet likable individuals. Unlike a lot of modern romcoms, they’re not shoehorned into falling in love; their romance doesn’t happen because “it’s what’s supposed to happen.”
Ellie is headstrong and sheltered. Like someone with her background, she has a sense of entitlement but she is also adventurous and adaptable enough to go with the flow. She might not be street smart, but she is not too spoiled to refuse to sleep on a pile of hay under the stars. She’s a good sport in spite of it all and is willing to play along with whatever risky stunt Pete cooks up. In short, she’s terrific fun and when’s the last time you saw a modern female being portrayed as fun onscreen without her devolving into a manic pixie?
Pete in the meantime is calculating and hardbitten, but he is also genuinely caring and resourceful. He might act rough, but he is genuinely considerate. Man, he even cooks for her. Obviously, he has to, because she’s used to being served, right? But nevertheless, there’s a sweetness to his character that clearly tugs at Ellie’s (and any female in the audience’s) heart. At different moments in the movie, the audience gets to see each being vulnerable.
The beauty of the script, the reason it still works in the 21st Century, is that here’s a pair that definitely adds up to more than the sum of their parts. The trip is a metaphor for life and each is allowed to come up with solutions to solve whatever obstacles they’re thrown. Theirs is a collaboration, in a way. Their chemistry is not just a function of good casting; it’s also written into every one of their onscreen interaction. This considered structure has the emotional payoff of completely engaging the audience; the audience very badly wants them to end up together. We don’t want them to end up together because they’re young and hot. We want them to end up together because Capra and Riskin have shown us that these two are terrific together. Tell me honestly: When’s the last time you watched a love story in which you felt this way about the two leads?
Many years ago, I remember reading in one of Natalie Goldberg’s books that writing gives you magic powers. I happen to believe this is true, but even if you’re not into the woo-woo, exercising a creative skill does give you many tools for facing life’s obstacles. The strange thing is that we rarely think of transferring our creative skills to solving life’s dilemmas.
So here are some creative habits that have helped me become a stronger person in general.
As far as I’m concerned, a chilly Sunday is the perfect day to stay indoors for a movie-marathon session while drinking hot chocolate. (Return to your workout tomorrow.) What better way to immerse yourself in a master filmmaker’s work? Today I suggest the sumptuously gorgeous movies of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, aka The Archers.
Together Powell and Pressburger wrote, directed and produced 19 movies, of which many are considered masterpieces and influenced many great filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese.[*] Their films are characterized by a masterful use of color that heightens the story’s emotional thrust. There’s a dreamy, surrealistic quality to their work and the effect verges on the hallucinatory, especially when viewed on the big screen. If you’re looking for quiet, understated filmmaking, you’ve got the wrong team. This is melodrama at its most emotionally satisfying. As a woman, I also find the main characters in I Know Where I’m Going!, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus interesting and compelling studies of women’s complex emotional world.
Continue reading Marathon Movie-Viewing: Powell and Pressburger