It Happened One Night, 1934, Columbia Pictures. Starring Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 105 minutes.
Spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has eloped with dashing King Westley, much against the wishes of her father, who plans to do everything in his considerable power to keep the marriage from going forward. Ellie jumps ship while in Florida and hops on a bus to New York in an effort to reunite with King, and it’s there she meets up with down-on-his-luck reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable).
It doesn’t take Peter too long to figure out just who Ellie is and what a story he has on his hands, and he takes full advantage of the situation. What he doesn’t count on, of course, is falling for the foolish, yet appealing, Ellie, and she in turn begins to feel something for him. But that doesn’t stop her from wanting to defy her father and stay married to King.
This was one of the last films released before the Motion Picture Production Code began to be enforced, and it shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There’s still the distinct element of propriety between a non-married couple, even when Clark Gable strips down to his underwear (sans t-shirt, which is said to have cost that industry thousands of dollars for about a decade because of one simple scene. If Gable didn’t wear a t-shirt, well, your average American male apparently didn’t feel a need to do so, either. No doubt a legend of some truth, some myth).
But the dialogue is subtly racier, and details surrounding the case are as well. If you aren’t familiar with the restrictions of the Code, you may not pick it up, but the sexier, saucier quality is there in spades. It’s largely a product of the chemistry between the two stars, who transcend the almost stereotypical nature of their roles and create a film that proves witty dialogue can compensate for an average plot line.
It Happened One Night won what are considered the top five major Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin) — a feat matched only by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Interestingly, it didn’t initially do well at the box office, but eventually took off as word of mouth from moviegoers and critics got around. Critics remarked on its original dialogue more than the story itself, as well as the interaction between the two stars.
Both Colbert and Gable were said to have been reluctant to star in the film, but contractual agreements brought about the pairing. Colbert, after shooting was completed, told friends she’d just finished “the worst picture in the world.” At the time, Columbia Pictures was best known for B-movies, and for other studios to lend their stars to Columbia was generally a punishment or a desperate move in bargaining.
Colbert did not expect to win the Oscar and didn’t plan to attend the ceremony. She was at the train station when studio representatives arrived to “drag her to the awards” if necessary, by orders of producer Harry Cohn, who’d learned she would, in fact, win that night (winners were announced prior to the ceremony at that time). She arrived just in time to accept her award, and turned around to return to her waiting train.
The film has been remade countless times in countless ways, including a variation that is substantially different in tone and ending than It Happened One Night, but parallels with the concept of the dissatisfied, well-off young woman who runs from her situation straight into the arms of the errant reporter, and that is Roman Holiday. A good director with the right writer can take a strong idea and make a movie that is right for the times, classic for the ages, and different from what’s been done before. Both films should be on the must-seen list of all classic film fans.