The romantic comedy that defined the genre
“It Happened One Night” is a double whammy. Not only it is a truly enjoyable film and one of the top classics, but it is also among the most influential films ever made. There were other comedic romances, but this is the film that defined and jumpstarted the romantic comedy genre. Watching it you can see how variations of this film have been made hundreds of times through the decades. All the Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, and Sandra Bullock (among many others) rom coms have this film to thank. Critics and film scholars think of it as one of the first “Screwball Comedies” (I explain “Screwball Comedies” in the “Bringing Up Baby” entry). While it has some of the elements of a Screwball Comedy, I don’t think of it that way. “It Happened One Night” is the definitive romantic comedy. Nominated for five Academy Awards and winning them all, “It Happened One Night” set a record for winning all big five Oscar categories: “Best Picture”, “Best Director”, “Best Actor”, “Best Actress”, and “Best Screenplay”. It held that record for 41 years until 1975 with the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”!
The director of “It Happened One Night”, Frank Capra, found a short story called “Night Bus” and eventually decided to make it into a film. He teamed with writer Robert Riskin (with whom had a partnership, and together created many classic films) and they altered the story and changed the title to “It Happened One Night”. It seems no one wanted this film to be made but Capra. The studio was leery since there were two “road pictures” that took place on buses which flopped at the box office at the time. Stars Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable both hated the script and did not want to make this film. It has been said that Clark Gable was loaned to Columbia (a much lesser studio at the time) as punishment by MGM (the studio he was signed with) for refusing a role. Capra approached star Claudette Colbert for the female lead after several other actresses (including his first choice Miriam Hopkins who you saw in “The Heiress”) turned it down. Claudette was reluctant as she was about to go on vacation and had made a previous film with Capra that flopped. She said she would do it if they doubled her salary and shoot for no more than 4 weeks. Columbia Pictures and Capra agreed and she was paid $50,000 for 4 weeks work. Not a bad salary even for today! Despite the concessions Colbert was very unhappy on the set. Just after filming finished she was quoted as saying she had just made the worst picture of her career. Even with all those difficulties, the two stars have dazzling chemistry and in my opinion give the best performances of their careers. They laugh and giggle together throughout the film which somehow makes the viewer fall in love with them even more. Their flawless and joyful acting is definitely part of the reason this film is so timeless. I think other than Jean Harlow, Colbert is Gable’s best onscreen partner. The fact that the film is so excellent is also due to the immense talent and incredible movie making instincts of director Frank Capra. He was an expert at how to tell an entertaining story. And let us not forget he created this masterpiece while under a four week deadline.
Frank Capra, another giant of a film director, was the most successful Hollywood film director in the 1930s, and one of the most important in the 40s as well. Born in Italy, his family relocated to Los Angeles when he was six. They were poor and didn’t speak English. Growing up, Frank worked hard educating himself as he kept chasing the American Dream. After struggling and taking many different jobs, he started working in films just before 1920 - first as an extra and then a gag writer for silent comedies. He directed his first short film in 1922, and his first feature in 1926. In the 1930s he was so successful audiences knew his name - rare for a director. Starting as a poor immigrant and finding success, Capra actually lived the American Dream, and most of his films reflect that in one way or another. He loved America and his best known films are patriotic, showing an idealized, hopeful version of how the individual and dreamer can succeed. He helped make Barbara Stanwyck (with whom he had a relationship with for several years) and James Stewart movie stars (we’ll see each of those giants in upcoming films). Capra’s films were entertaining, well made, very pure, and are always extremely well edited. We take it for granted today, but in the 1930s cinema was still relatively new and the artistry and techniques of film were still being created and explored. Capra's creativity certainly helped push the medium forward. “It Happened One Night” is a milestone in his career and in cinema. It has some of the most beautiful lighting I’ve ever seen onscreen. Not just the ultimate romantic comedy, it is very much a Capra film about the individual, freedom, and ultimately love. Capra won a “Best Director” Academy Award for “It Happened One Night” - the first of three he would win out of six career nominations. Some of his other classics include “You Can’t Take it with You”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”, “Lady for a Day”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Platinum Blonde”, “Meet John Doe”, and arguably his greatest film “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Many of his films will be the subjects of upcoming blog entries.
Clark Gable, who stars as “Peter Warne”, is an actor I mention in the “Red Dust” entry where you can read more about him. In “It Happened One Night”, there is a side of Gable I’m not sure he shows in any other of his film performances. Here he is not his typical macho hero type, but instead is playful, wisecracking, and vulnerable. He is truly outstanding and brings a joy and tenderness unique to his performance in this film. Even when he’s just looking at Colbert while she speaks he is magnetic. I’m not sure if MGM wanted to protect his macho image, but it is sad he didn’t get to do more roles of this type (remember this is a Columbia Pictures film and they had no stake in maintaining his screen persona). Gable certainly is fantastic in it. As I mention in the “Red Dust” blurb about Gable, being perhaps the biggest star in Hollywood he was nicknamed “The King”, and “It Happened One Night” cleverly plays tribute to that in the very first scene in which he appears. It is a very smart and fun moment! Underlining the influence films and movie stars had on the public, the scene where Gable is undressing and turns out to not be wearing an undershirt made undershirt sales go down, along with textile stocks.
Claudette Colbert, who stars as “Ellen ‘Ellie’ Andrews” (or “Brat” as “Peter” calls her in the film). was a true Hollywood star and a really fine actress. She is so natural, so real, and is still so modern. The brilliant director Vincent Minnelli once said “Acting is hearing something and saying something for the first time”, and Colbert does this in pretty much every part I’ve seen her play - including this film. Watch the way she listens and reacts to her fellow actors. Amazing! A truly superb dramatic and first rate comedic actress with big eyes and an unusual and round face, she exuded sophistication, wit and charm. Colbert was famously known for wanting to be filmed from only her left side. In her career she was nominated for three “Best Actress” Academy Awards, winning one for “It Happened One Night”, and she was voted number 12 of the women on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. She also happened to have been my grandmother’s favorite actress (along with Mary Pickford and Shirley Temple). Claudette was born in France and when she was three, she and her family moved to New York. She began her career on Broadway in the 1920s, and started making films in 1927. By the mid 1930s she was one of the top stars in the world and would remain so until the mid 1940s. She was to play the lead in the film “All About Eve” (the first film listed on this blog), but hurt her back and had to drop out - luckily for Bette Davis. Claudette appeared in only one film after 1955 focusing on television until 1961. She did appear in a few stage productions at that point in her career, and later appeared in the TV miniseries "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" in 1987. In addition to “It Happened One Night”, classic films in which she appeared include “Since You Went Away”, “The Palm Beach Story”, “Imitation of Life”, "Drums Along the Mohawk", "Boom Town”, "The Sign of the Cross”, "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife”, and the title role in Cecil B. DeMille's “Cleopatra”. Frequent costars were Fred MacMurray and Fredric March, as she appeared with each in four films (and both of whom you will see in upcoming blog entries). Claudette Colbert died in 1996 at the age of 92.
There are so many extremely talented supporting actors and actresses in classic films and as you start watching them more and more you’ll begin to recognize some of them as you see them over and over. Walter Connolly, who plays “Ellie’s” father “Alexander Andrews”, is one actor you will see time and time again in films of the 1930s. He usually played the gruff, irritable man who often had a big heart in the end. He also had a distinct speaking voice and style. Other classics you will find him in include “The Good Earth”, "Lady for a Day", "Twentieth Century", "Libeled Lady", "Nothing Sacred" and "The Bitter Tea of General Yen”, several of which will eventually be featured on this blog. Walter Connolly died in 1940 at the age of 53.
Also recognizable is Alan Hale, who appears as the singing car driver. He was a prolific character actor appearing in well over 200 films (often as a jovial fellow) up until his death in 1950. Just some of the classics (including silents) he appeared in include “Robin Hood”, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", "Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)", "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm", "Of Human Bondage", "Stella Dallas", "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex", "Dodge City", "They Drive By Night", and his best remembered role as “Little John” 1938’s "The Adventures of Robin Hood”. He is also the father of actor Alan Hale Jr. (who looks just like him), best known as the “The Skipper” on the 1960s classic TV show, “Gilligan's Island”.
Roscoe Karns, another character actor I feel I must point out, is hysterical as "Oscar Shapeley” in “It Happened One Night”. He started in silent films, and appeared in many classic films of the 1930s and 40s, including "His Girl Friday", "Twentieth Century", "Woman of the Year", "Old Acquaintance", and "They Drive by Night”. He died in 1970 at the age of 78.
“It Happened One Night” is a Pre-Code film made immediately before the Motion Picture Code was being enforced (you can read more about the Code in the “Red Dust” entry). While it’s not as racy as many Pre-Code films, some of the situations, undressing, as well as some of the language in this film (including the word “nuts”) would later be considered against Code rules and would be banned from future US films. After the Code was enforced even the iconic “wall of Jericho” scene would be impossible to do.
The plot of "It Happened One Night" revolves largely around a newspaper story, and the character of “Peter Warne” is a newspaper reporter. In the 1930s, newspapers were the prime source of news, so it is natural they would in some way appear in films (just the way internet or cell phones appear in films today). Also, many newspaper men became screen writers and wrote about what they knew - the newspaper world. There are many films, especially from the 1930s, that are about getting the story or in some way about the reporter. You will definitely see several more films with reporters or “headline” stories in upcoming blog entries as many of these films are classics.
If you haven’t seen “It Happened One Night”, you are in for a really fun time. If you have, I urge you to revisit it. I’m sure you’ll find it is even better than you remember. Get ready to enjoy one genuinely gratifying ride in one of the all time greats, “It Happened One Night”. Enjoy!
YOU CAN STREAM OR BUY THE FILM HERE:
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Claudette Colbert refused to appear nude or be portrayed as obviously sexual in "It Happened One Night", so for the famous hitchhiking scene she originally refused to use her own legs. A leg stand in was hired and when Claudette saw the woman’s legs, she didn’t think they were as shapely as her own and ended up doing the scene herself. Good thing she did, as that scene, and Claudette's legs, have become one of the most iconic in history.
And one last interesting observation, "It Happened One Night" is probably the only romantic comedy in history where the two characters who fall in love never kiss.