IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) – Hitch a ride on this fabulous movie

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Movie legend has it that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, as punishment from their studios’ bosses, were forced into doing It Happened One Night (1934). All movie stars should be punished so rewardingly.

Colbert plays Ellie, a rich kid on the run from her father, who is trying to prevent her from a disastrous marriage to a similarly well-off snob. En route in Miami, she runs into Peter (Gable), an out-of-work reporter who immediately recognizes her as the wanted rich fugitive. Peter blackmails Ellie into staying with him so that he can turn her in and get the scoop of a lifetime. No prizes for guessing whether this odd couple will eventually get under each other’s skin.

From such simple stuff are movie legends made. This winning romantic comedy is practically a blueprint for decades of movie romances to follow, from Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (also starring Colbert) to 1990’s Pretty Woman. Gable and Colbert seem to be having a rollicking good time. The PC police will sneer at the scene where Ellie eventually begs Peter to stay with her; the rest of the audience will be sniffling in their hankies.

This is also a movie that often ends the sentence “This is the movie where…” First, there’s the iconic scene where Ellie hitches a ride for her and Peter by uncovering a well-turned leg (shown below). There’s the famous “Wall of Jericho” bedtime scene where Clark Gable takes off his shirt, displays nothing underneath, and immediately sends national sales of T-shirts plummeting. Lastly, there’s the fact that It Happened One Night was the first (and for four decades, the only) movie to sweep all five major Oscars — Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, and Director (a guy named Frank Capra).

Alternately hilarious and touching, It Happened One Night hasn’t dated a bit in 80 years.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) – Murderous farce goes down surprisingly smoothly

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Frank Capra has become hallowed in film history as the director of films that champion the average American and the common cause. Of course, that’s only if you haven’t seen his film version of the Broadway black-comedy hit Arsenic and Old Lace, one of the funniest farces ever.

Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who’s newly married after having lived with his doting aunts all of his life. At first glance, this family seems as sunny as any in a Capra comedy. Mortimer’s eccentric uncle has delusions of being Teddy Roosevelt, and there are references to Mortimer’s long-lost brother Jonathan. But his aunts are as doting as aunts can be. And Mortimer, newly married, is preparing to go on a Niagara Falls honeymoon with his loving wife Elaine (Priscilla Lane).

This happy domesticity unravels the moment Mortimer happens to open his aunts’ wooden chest and sees a corpse inhabiting it. At first, Mortimer jumps to the logical conclusion that crazy Teddy has committed the murder. Then he discovers that his sweet aunts were responsible for that corpse and 11 others who are buried in the cellar.

The aunts regard their work as mercy killings. After all, they poison only lonely old men whose lives have no meaning — unlike Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who heartlessly kills anyone who gets in his way and who happens to pay a return visit to his old home on the same night that Mortimer uncovers the unwelcome houseguests.

As with most farces, Arsenic and Old Lace requires a certain suspension of disbelief. In particular, this story is quite obviously a remnant of the 1940’s, when mental illness was a lot more frivolously regarded. And the ever-opening door, a staple of farces, seems awfully overused — especially when Jonathan, a convicted murderer, seems rather unconcerned about so many people (including cops) traipsing in and out of the house.

If there’s any glue that keeps the story together, it’s Cary Grant. Just watching him do wacko double-takes or muttering under his breath like Popeye the Sailor is worth the watching. There’s a great moment when he and Massey try to protect their secrets at the same time, and then some major plot points play across Grant’s wondrous face for about ten seconds. It’s far funnier and more effective than a page of expository dialogue could be.

Besides enjoying the movie as a major black comedy, film aficionados can only wonder how a comedy about murderers (a) became such a hit during World War II and (b) how it ever made it past movie censors intact.