Frank Capra reenters the Criterion Collection with a new Blu-ray edition of It Happened One Night, presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition digital transfer was created from a new 4K scan of a 35mm safety composite fine-grain constructed from a couple of sources: the original nitrate negative and a 35mm nitrate print.
As a whole the image is very pleasing, but itís recognizable when the film switches between sources. For most of the film the image is surprisingly stable, free of any serious damage (thereís some marks and minor scratches, but thatís about it) and while there can a bit of haze around everything and the image isnít probably as sharp as many would hope, I still found detail and textures strong. Contrast levels are strong, with fairly rich blacks and smooth shifts in the gray levels, and it never really looks blown out.
But there are moments where the quality level of the print drops noticeably, more than likely because of an inferior source. The image becomes much grainier and can look a little blown out. Detail levels drop and portions of the frame can look a bit smudgy. Some transitions between shots can looks this way as well but once the transition finishes the image corrects itself. These moments can be fairly jarring because a good chunk of the film looks pretty good, but thankfully these less than stellar moments are brief distractions. Iím assuming these are the best surviving elements.
As to the digital transfer itself itís exceptional. It renders film grain naturally, even when it gets really heavy here and there, and it is sharp, crisp, and stable; tinkering looks to have been kept to a minimum and because of that we get a very natural looking image. Aside from what are mostly age related issues this presentation is wonderful, the best the film has looked in a long time. 7/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterionís Blu-ray edition presents a decent number of supplements starting with a 1999 interview with Frank Capra, Jr., who basically gives a general overview of the production. As weíll find out in other features it was a production that was quickly put together and gained a tighter shooting schedule after securing Claudette Colbert, who had a condition that the film be finished before her ski vacation in a few weeks (she also got $50,000 for the role, taking up a good chunk of the $350,000 budget). Amusingly, after filming she told everyone she had just completed the ďworst filmĒ she had ever been in. Because of the tight schedule there were a lot of short cuts, reuse of sets, changed the script around to film outside more, and so on. Itís amazing the film turned out as coherent and effortless as it is, and it was of course a huge surprise to everyone when it cleaned up the Oscars. A lot of this gets covered in other supplements (and the included insert) but itís a good summarization of the production and a decent intro to the extras. It runs about 11-minutes.
Screwball Comedy? is a 39-minute discussion between scholars Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate about the validity to the claim the film is the first ďscrewball comedyĒ. They question this label since it doesnít have a lot of the classic elements of the sub-genre: it lacks the rapid fire dialogue, the rapid pace, physical comedy elements, and so on, but like a lot of screwball comedies it is a film about sex missing the actual sex. They make comparisons to Lubitsch and talk about the popularity of ďbusĒ films at the time (films that take place primarily on a bus) and the road movie, plus how the film has served as the basis of most romantic comedies since. They talk about the more common Capra elements and the elements missing that would become more prominent in later films (politics specifically, though there is representation for what was going on during the Depression). They also look at some of the filmís cinematography, specifically the first night in the hotel room. The two are very passionate about the film and Capraís work so it makes it the conversation a fairly breezy one, even at 39-minutes.
Criterion next includes Capraís first film, Fultah Fisherís Boarding House, a 1921 silent film featuring a new score by composer Donald Sosin. Based on Rudyard Kiplingís short story it focuses on a boarding house that serves sailors (a visually interesting assortment of them) and one of the local girls, Anne of Austria, who frequents the establishment. Capra apparently made the film just for a paycheck, hoping to take the money and leave town, but he had a knack for it (and obviously he took a liking to it since he stuck around) despite a heavy dependence on the storyís text flashing on the screen. Surprisingly the film is presented in high-definition (1080p/24hz) and looks shockingly good for its age.
Since this is Criterionís first Capra release on DVD/Blu-ray (they did release a few titles on LaserDisc, including Itís a Wonderful Life and Arsenic and Old Lace) itís unsurprising that the next feature is a documentary about Capra. Made in 1997 and hosted by Ron Howard, Frank Capraís American Dream looks at Capraís life, from first landing at Ellis Island to his falling into filmmaking. He would be one of the first directors at Columbia Pictures and he would become the biggest director at the studio after a string of hits, including It Happened One Night, and then looks at his failures (including the big budget Lost Horizon) and his eventual move to Warner Bros., who gave him free reign early on. It tries to cover a lot of ground and feels too quick, even at 96-minutes, but itís still a surprisingly good overview of his career, and even includes interviews with number of filmmakers, actors, critics, and colleagues, including (but not limited to) Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Bill Duke, Amy Heckerling, Edward Zwick, Arthur Hiller, Peter Falk, Angela Lansbury, John Milius, and many more.
Also from the archives is the coverage of the AFIís Life Achievement Award given to Frank Capra in 1982 and hosted by James Stewart. The 59-minute program is your typical bloated Award Show dinner, but it has itís funny and charming moments, even including tributes by the likes of Claudette Colbert and Peter Falk. Thereís also a nice, even funny section where members from around the room stand and pay their respects to Capra, with a particularly amusing one from Steve Martin. Capra of course shows up at the end to accept his award and gives a thankful speech. With some nice personal bits and reflections it may be worthwhile.
The disc then closes with the filmís theatrical trailer. The included insert then includes an essay by Farran Smith Nehme, who goes over its influence and adds more detail about its somewhat troubled production (itís explained in the features how people had little faith in the film, but a few more points in here really hit home how true that was).
Iím surprised there isnít more scholarly material but what we get doesnít a decent job satisfying that aspect, and I enjoyed the features on Capra. A strong collection of material on the whole. 8/10