After shooting wrapped on this movie, Claudette Colbert told a friend, "I just finished the worst picture in the world." Five actresses had rejected her role before Colbert reluctantly accepted it, on condition that her salary be doubled and that she'd only have to work for four weeks. When Clark Gable showed up for his first day's shooting, he apparently said grimly, "Let's get this over with."
It won all five major Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay) and did so well at the box office that it lifted Columbia Pictures out of being a Poverty Row studio. Until then, MGM and Warner Brothers had used to lend temperamental stars to Columbia as a way of knocking them down a peg or two.
It's sort of a screwball comedy. In fact, it's often called the first screwball comedy. Clark Gable is a smart-alec journalist whom we first see on the phone, drunk and getting fired. However he's also witty. Meanwhile Colbert is a spoiled brat of an heiress who's married a fortune hunter against the wishes of her insanely wealthy father. He's keeping her prisoner on his yacht until she decides not to be so silly. She jumps into the sea. The movie's plot involves Colbert trying to evade her father's dragnet of detectives and newspaper headlines to get to New York and meet up with her new husband, under the often acidic protection of Gable. They met on a bus. He thinks she's clueless. It's a sparky relationship.
The plot's fairly throwaway. It's what you think it's going to be, but simpler. Admittedly the last twenty minutes turn things upside-down, but you'll be able to see where that's going too. Think of it as a 1934 version of Plains, Trains and Automobiles.
No, what's great about it is the fun and the wit. Gable and Colbert are a joy to watch. Colbert occasionally lacks some detail, but she's got plenty of fire and she has great chemistry with Gable. The film's first half is fun, then about halfway through it I suddenly found myself laughing almost non-stop. It couldn't keep that up, naturally, but there are so many scenes here that are wonderful. Gable's stripping had me in stitches, even if I didn't quite buy Colbert just standing there and watching him. His hitch-hiking routine is funny enough to be parodied a few years later by Laurel and Hardy in Way Out West. Gable talks rot and it's always a joy. "Abraham Lincoln was a great piggybacker."
We also see Colbert's nipples through her top when she's getting ready for bed. This was one of the last romantic comedies before the Hays Code.
They meet gloriously annoying weirdos. Shapely is a wonderful creation and I particularly love the scene where Gable finally gets rid of him, while I also love the Singing Tonsil Man.
However at the same time, it's a film that believes fiercely in what's right. That, to me, felt very Capra. Note the scene where they give all their money to that small boy, for instance. Gable's character has a moral code like steel, making him at times an endearing weirdo. He's as temperamental as Colbert and they're both capable of extreme ups and downs, which means that even though they're basically fond of each other, half the time one's justifiably annoyed with the other and Colbert's capable of jumping to extreme misreadings of the situation. This sets up the twenty minutes, in which the film manages to pull off a potentially ludicrous plot situation that required both Gable and Colbert to be lunatics. This should have broken the film, but it doesn't. They make it work. It's the movie-making equivalent of turning lead into gold and Colbert deserves more credit than anyone for selling that particular impossibility.
I have a theory that Gable's character in this film is gay. In real life people called him things like "as masculine as any man I've ever known", but here he's just a little bit camp and delicate. He's more protective of Colbert's honour than she is and the "have you ever been in love?" discussion tells us that he's never had a sweetheart. "Sure, I've thought about it." Note also that the romantic ending doesn't show us the happy couple. Instead it's all implied and second-hand.
Yes, I know I'm cutting against the intention of the film with this suggestion. I still think it's a defensible reading, though.
It's perhaps a shame about the Biblical reference they end on. I don't know if my sister is sufficiently familiar with the story of the walls of Jericho to get that, but it also doesn't matter. This is a lovely, breezy, charming film. It's lightweight, but it bubbles along effortlessly on charisma and its stars. There's not much to the story, really, but Gable and Colbert make it great. It's since been remade in America (four times), India (twice), Germany, Hungary and the Philippines. It turbo-charged the careers of pretty much everyone involved, especially Capra, and apparently its fans included both Stalin and Hitler. Don't hold that against it, though.
"Well, I like privacy when I retire. Yes, I'm very delicate in that respect. Prying eyes annoy me."