It Happened One Night: Love in the Era of the Depression

TWO GREAT LOVERS OF THE SCREEN IN THE GRANDEST OF ROMANTIC COMEDIES!

ithappenedonenightThe first film to sweep the five major categories at the Academy Awards certainly did not start out well. Director Frank Capra, who had not yet had a major hit, was trying to hire stars but none of them had faith in Robert Riskin’s script. Eventually, MGM offered Clark Gable as a loan. Legend has it that he was being punished for one reason or the other, but that has been refuted; Gable did what he was ordered to do, but wasn’t happy about making the film in the first place.

Maybe he had changed his mind by the time he accepted his Oscar; It Happened One Night single-handedly lifted the fledgling Columbia Pictures out of “Poverty Row”, a group of B-movie studios.

Spoiled heiress Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is in trouble. She’s about to marry “King” Westley (Jameson Thomas), but her father (Walter Connolly) is against it. He knows what Ellen refuses to see – that Westley is only after her money. She won’t believe him and escapes from their yacht in Florida, making her way to a New York City-bound bus. She’s hoping to unite with her lover in the Big Apple; in the meantime, her father does everything to try to track her down. On the bus, she meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a newspaper reporter who’s just been sacked. They take an instant dislike to each other, but it’s hard to find privacy on a crowded bus…

A perfect Hollywood script
Modern audiences will find this story very familiar. It is an example of a perfect Hollywood script that has been used in many variations over the years. The story itself has no surprises; we understand right from the start that the reporter and the heiress will come around and fall in love. There are obstacles but they’re meant to amuse us, and they do. Locations are well varied, the dialogue is pretty sharp and there are sexual innuendos that were about to disappear from Hollywood movies; this was one of the last films made before the Production Code was enforced later the same year.

It’s been said that the film’s most famous scene, the one where Ellen and Peter are forced to share a room and he separates the beds by putting up “the wall of Jericho” (a blanket hanging from a rope), came about because Colbert didn’t like the idea of undressing in front of a camera. There have been many other examples of what Colbert didn’t like on set. Considering what we know about the awkward start of the production, it’s amazing to see how well Gable and Colbert play their parts and how their characters develop during the story. They have a series of wonderful, testy moments together, like the one where he tells her that she’s dunking her donut all wrong, and when they’re trying to hitch a ride and he’s eating a carrot and talking (a scene which allegedly inspired the creator of Bugs Bunny).

Charm is certainly essential here, although the filmmakers even manage to remind us in at least one scene that there’s a Depression on. For the most part, though, it’s hard to imagine better entertainment for an audience longing to escape the reality of the Depression.

There are a lot of things about It Happened One Night that look like a fairy tale, not just the romantic story and the rise of Capra and Columbia. It consistently beat the odds. Not a great hit at first, the film was “rediscovered” later by audiences. After making it, Colbert called it “the worst picture” she ever appeared in and was so convinced she wouldn’t win the Oscar that she planned to leave town the day of the awards show. Little did she know that her film would largely serve as a blueprint for a whole genre of romantic comedies.

It Happened One Night 1934-U.S. 105 min. B/W. Produced by Frank Capra, Harry Cohn. Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay: Robert Riskin. Short Story: Samuel Hopkins Adams (“Night Bus”). Cast: Clark Gable (Peter Warne), Claudette Colbert (Ellen Andrews), Walter Connolly (Alexander Andrews), Roscoe Karns, Alan Hale, Ward Bond.

Trivia: Constance Bennett and Myrna Loy were allegedly considered as Ellen; Robert Montgomery and Fredric March as Peter. Remade as Eve Knew Her Apples (1945) and You Can’t Run Away from It (1956).

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Gable), Actress (Colbert), Adaptation.

Last word: “What struck me about ‘Night Bus’ – the Samuel Adams story from which we made ‘It Happened One Night’ […] the fact that the action too place along a bus route. That’s why we took it. In more conventional surroundings, it might have been just another boy-and-girl romance, but the background seemed to hold new entertainment possibilities that made it worth doing. Incidentally, I think I enjoyed that picture more than anything I’ve done.” (Capra, “Frank Capra: Interviews”)

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