It Happened One Night (1934)

Picture 58

Director: Frank Capra

Writers: Robert Riskin (screenplay), Samuel Hopkins Adams (short story)

Producers: Frank Capra, Harry Cohn

Photography: Joseph Walker

Music: Louis Silvers

Cast: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale, Arthur Hoyt, Blanche Friderici, Ward Bond

Introduction 

Romantic comedies don’t go around sweeping the Academy Awards. They just don’t. They usually carry the chick flick stigma and are lucky to get even one Oscar nomination. But in 1934, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night got more than nominations. It got wins, and in all five major categories: Best Picture (Capra, Harry Cohn), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Director (Capra) and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin).

Such a Big Five Oscar sweep has only been matched twice, by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), proving it a tough task for any genre, let alone a comedy. But a comedy it was, making It Happened One Night a truly groundbreaking moment in cinema history and an underdog triumph that no one, except Capra and Riskin, saw coming.

“It’s one of the few times that the so-called seriousness of the Academy just had to fall to its knees and say, ‘We love a romantic comedy,'” said Cameron Crowe, writer/director of romantic comedies like Say Anything (1989) and Jerry Maguire (1996). “… I’m surprised that more romantic comedies haven’t charmed the Academy Awards into acknowledging them more. But the ones they’ve acknowledged — Annie Hall and It Happened One Night — are great.”

Plot Summary

We’re introduced to spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Colbert) on her family yacht, just off the coast of Miami. She argues with her tycoon father, Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly), who disapproves of her relationship with the wealthy King Westley (Jameson Thomas). “You’ve been telling me what not to do ever since I can remember,” Ellie argues, before literally jumping ship and swimming to freedom.

Trying to elude her father’s men and planning to reunite with Westley in New York, Ellie boards a night bus, knowing it’s an unlikely form of transportation for a millionaire’s daughter to take. Once aboard, she thinks she’s in the clear, until she steals a seat from a drunk, recently-fired journalist, Peter Warne (Gable), who says, “Excuse me, lady, but that upon which you sit is mine.” That’s 1934 innuendo for “Your ass is mine.”

Before long, Peter pegs her as the tycoon’s heiress and hatches a scheme to break back into the newspaper biz. She is precisely the big scoop he’s been waiting for; plus, she’s cute. So the negotiation is made — Peter will help her reach her husband in New York if she gives him an exclusive story detailing her runaway. And so the two must travel together all the way to New York, from depot to depot, even sharing a little bungalow where they separate their beds by throwing a blanket over a clothesline, which they dub “The Walls of Jericho.”

As Gable says, “That’s the whole plot in a nut shell, a simple story for simple people.” But even a simple fix such as this turns into one of the all-time great yarns of quip and roadtrip.

Trendsetting Screenplay

Based on Samuel Hopkins Adams’ story “Night Bus,” published in Cosmopolitan magazine, It Happened One Night laid the groundwork for all romantic comedies to follow. Its plot format has become standard practice in the genre — two strangers meet by chance, build sexual tension while claiming to hate each other, realize they’ve fallen for each other, but just as they’re about to express their true feelings, an unforeseen obstacle keeps them apart, until a final choice creates a rousing happy ending.

Today, some 75 years later, if a romantic comedy follows this same path, it’s often bashed as cliche. After all these years, the rom-com structure has been done into the ground. So when you hear critics trash a new chick flick by saying, “There’s nothing new here,” this is precisely what they’re talking about. It’s all already happened. It happened one night.

While the title remains somewhat of a mystery — we follow Ellie and Peter for four nights, not one — the script itself is one the finest ever written, voted #59 on the Writers Guilds’ 101 Greatest Screenplays of All Time. Not only is it groundbreaking in romantic comedy structure, it’s also way ahead of its time in terms of its post-modern sense of itself.  Riskin repeatedly, from Gable’s “plot in a nutshell” comment, to Peter’s editor telling him during an “all is lost” moment: “That’s the way things go. Think you got a great yarn and then something comes along and screws up the finish.” Within the confines of the story, the character is talking about Gable’s newspaper article, but Riskin is commenting on the very script he’s writing.

Ironically, that very dialogue, about something coming along and screwing up the finish, highlights one of the few criticisms about the story. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists says the film “cops out in the end,” saying it would be more realistic if the lovers didn’t get together. Others might have the opposite reaction, disappointed at not getting to see the two lovers finally embrace on screen after 100 minutes of watching them grow closer.

Both arguments show why I think Capra played it just right, appealing neither to the ultra-cynical or the ultra-sentimental — showing the lovers get together without actually showing it, instead providing answers through a symbolic blanket falling to the floor. The wondrous “Walls of Jericho.”

Gable and Colbert

Capra’s ending may have been one of necessity over artistry, as the film had to be cut short because both Gable and Colbert had to leave for other projects. Had both stars known It Happened One Night would give them the only Oscars of their respective careers, they might have stuck around longer.

For Gable, it was a role far grittier than anything MGM would have given him before. This was a character who drank and made wisecracks. There was nothing majestic about it, and it turned out, that was the role Gable was born to play. His charisma is natural as the down to earth guy corralling the high society girl, likely because Gable admitted he was lucky to have become the King of Hollywood. Which is why I marvel at the scene where Gable, drunk and out of a job, staggers down the street as his fellow reporters say to make way for the king.

He had made his debut in 1931, and became an instant star by appearing in 12 pictures that year. Then, he tragically killed a woman in a drunk driving accident, for which a Metro executive had to take the blame and serve jail time. (E) There was also increasing tension between he and MGM over money demands, and when Gable refused a part opposite Joan Crawford, the studio loaned him out to Paramount as “punishment” to do a silly little picture that wouldn’t amount to a thing. (D) That picture was, of course, It Happened One Night.

As the laughing hand of fate would have it, it turned out to be Gable’s only Oscar, sparking the finest stretch in his career — Call of the Wild (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), San Francisco (1936), Too Hot to Handle (1938), Idiot’s Delight (1938) and Gone With the Wind (1939). While the latter-most film provided his career role in Rhett Butler, part me almost enjoys watching him more in It Happened One Night, as we see him deal with a brat as spoiled as Scarlett, but one whom he ultimately gets with. His part is irresistibly charming, whether it’s pretending he’s asleep in the back of the bus, cracking one eye open to see if Colbert will come sit with him, or reluctantly answering whether he’s in love with Colbert: “Yes! But don’t hold that against me. I’m a little screwy myself!” For gals, Gable’s a hunk; for guys, he’s a man crush on par with Cary Grant.

Gable was just as surprised as anyone to win the Oscar, saying, “I feel as happy as a kid and a little foolish they picked me. … It’s a grand and glorious feeling, but I’ll be wearing the same size hat tomorrow.” (D) For years, that Oscar statuette became the stuff of commercial exploitation, until 1996, when Steven Spielberg anonymously bought it and gave it back to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Spielberg said he could think of “no better sanctuary for Gable’s only Oscar than the Motion Picture Academy.” (F)

Colbert’s Oscar for Best Actress was a much more controversial affair. Bette Davis had given a magnificent performance in Of Human Bondage (1934), and Hollywood insiders were outraged when it didn’t make the ballot. After much protest, The Academy agreed to allow the first sanctioned write-in, and Davis’ win was so sure that Colbert booked a ticket to New York with no plans to attend the ceremony. When Colbert surprisingly won, an Academy official had to rush to the train station to pick her up, and Colbert rode to the ceremony in the sidecar of a police motorcycle. She accepted the award in a daze, then hurried back to catch her train. (D)

Davis swore she lost because Jack Warner convinced Warner Bros. employees not to vote for her. The real irony was that Davis had originally turned down Colbert’s part, as did Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, Constance Bennett and Margaret Sullavan. Colbert didn’t want to touch it either, as she was leaving on vacation the day after Capra and Riskin came to pitch it to her. She said she only had four weeks free and demanded $50,000, twice her normal salary. Capra called up co-producer Harry Cohn, who agreed to Colbert’s salary and if Capra promised he could make the film in four weeks. (A)
How was it possible? The film certainly had an awful lot of ground to cover. But the idea of a road trip comedy actually helped the cause, as Gable and Colbert could wear the same outfit in every scene and hardly any set pieces were needed. The bungalow and bus interiors were the only sets built, and the rest was shot outdoors. (A)

This approach actually lends authenticity to the feeling that we are actually out on the road. And Capra strikes gold every step of their journey from Miami to New York: the jolly bus-riders singing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”; Gable and Colbert posing as a bickering husband and wife to avoid police questioning, with Colbert bursting into fake tears and Gable yelling “Quit bawling!”; Gable’s clever tricks to repel the annoying bus passenger Oscar Shapely (Roscoe Karns); Gable carrying Colbert across a river, asking her to “Hold this for a second” and then smacking her rear; Colbert coming to view Gable romantically as the two sleep in a farmer’s hay.

Still, two other moments stand as the film’s most lasting touches. The first is the “Walls of Jericho,” Gable’s nickname for the blanket-draped clothesline used to divide their sleeping quarters. The image works in a variety of ways, as an instrument of sexual tension, a symbol of the characters dividedness, a barrier they need to break through, a frame divider for Capra’s shot composition, and the enabler of the film’s suggestive finale, where the walls come tumblin’ down. Blow that trumpet, baby. #8 AFI Laughs, #38 AFI Passions indeed.

The second is the hitchhiking scene. After Gable brags that he’s a hitchhiking expert, car after car zooms right by. As he’s about to give up, Colbert hops off a fencepost and shows him how it’s done, hiking up her skirt and causing the next driver to jam on his brakes. The moment is such a hoot because it’s the first time Colbert turns the tables on Gable. And the skirt-hike hitchhike is only so funny because Gable had just lectured her with a detailed demonstration of proper thumb technique.

Pop Culture Influence

Such a conversation of “thumb technique” — giving complex thought to a trivial matter — provides perhaps the first traces of Seinfeldian comedy. Riskin might have made a great co-writer with Larry David, and Gable a great Jerry, describing not only proper thumb technique for hitchhiking, but also the proper methods of doughnut dunking, piggybacking, and getting undressed (“Once knew a guy who took his hat off last. Come to find out he was bald”). When When Harry Met Sally (1989) and other romantic comedies picked up on this style, they only built upon what It Happened One Night had started. They also benefited from its increased sexuality, apparent in such moments as Gable saying, “Remember me? I’m the fellow you slept on last night.” The film deserves nothing less than the #3 spot on the AFI’s Top 10 Romantic Comedies of All Time.

More immediately, the film had a direct influence on the kind of madcap, screwball genre that flourished throughout the ’30s and ’40s. It was remade as a musical twice with Eve Knew Her Apples (1946), starring Ann Miller, and You Can’t Run Away from It (1956), starring Jack Lemmon and June Allyson. (B) Its plot was also heavily influential on Roman Holiday (1953), where Gregory Peck’s reporter makes a similar proposition with Audrey Hepburn’s in cognito princess. In With a Song in My Heart (1952), Susan Hayward says she had to do the Claudette Colbert routine of raising her dress to get a cab. It’s had title references in TV shows from every generation, from M*A*S*H to Bob Newhart, Family Ties to Wings, Family Matters to Step by Step, Spin City to Dharma and Greg. Its wedding scene was spoofed in Spaceballs (1987), where Lone Starr follows Gable in giving up his reward and only taking recovery of expenses, while the Walls of Jericho element was repeated in Bandits (2001), starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett.

Still, the biggest pop culture influence is the creation of one of history’s most famous cartoon characters. Gable, jabbering away while chewing carrots in one scene, and describing an imaginary hitman named “Bugs” in another, inspired animator Friz Frelang to create Bugs Bunny. Likewise, Frelang credits Connolly’s Alexander Andrews as the inspiration for Yosemite Sam, and Thomas’ King Westley as inspiration for Peppy LePew. (B)

And if you still aren’t convinced of the film’s pop culture influence, try taking your shirt off. If you are now bare chested, you owe it to this film. There’s a scene where Gable removes his shirt to reveal his bare chest, and that moment incited a decrease in American undershirt sales. (C) It’s like Tom Cruise donning those Ray-Bans, only when it comes to wisecracking studs, I’ll take Gable over Cruise any day. As for Colbert’s influence, bus travel by females substantially increased as a result. (B)

The impact of the film was beyond the wildest dreams of those making it, as no one thought it would be a hit. After shooting wrapped, Colbert famously said, “I just made the worst picture I’ve ever made in my life,” not knowing the full extent of how Capra envisioned the film in his head. Initially, It Happened One Night didn’t even make enough money to be held over for a second week at Radio City. (D) But as the film began playing in small-town theaters, word of mouth spread. Audiences fell more and more in love, as did the critics, who gave it glowing reviews. (B) What started out as a film with just a $325,000 budget went on to hold the record for the number of theater playdates for many years. And it was the one film that made Columbia as a legit competitor against the other major studios. (E)

Capra The Director

It’s all a credit to Capra for seeing this thing through. He had always had a knack for comedy, starting out as a gag writer for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett’s silent comedies. But when he got the director’s chair, he moved into social dramas, like The Younger Generation (1929), The Miracle Woman (1931), American Madness (1932) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). At this point he was going by Frank R. Capra, and finally by 1933, he shed the “R,” and the drama, and picked up his first Oscar nomination for the comedy Lady for a Day (1933), also written by Riskin. The following year, It Happened One Night launched him into that upper echelon of directors, where he became known as The Man Above the Title, as he would later title his autobiography.

The film cannot be broken down as complexly as an Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock picture. Capra is just as famous in movie history, but he was never on their level as a pure filmmaker. Still, It Happened One Night features some sweeping shots with a moving camera, proud use of rear projection, a change in light to show Gable’s change of heart toward Colbert, and a desire to follow what Eisenstein was doing in Soviet Montage, making use of “inserts” — those tiny detail shots inserted into a scene to give it punch.

Billy Wilder praised Capra’s use of such shots: “She lifts the skirt, and now comes the great insert—not her leg, but the insert of the old farmer when he steps on the brake and you just see the wheels. That is the power of the picture and what we should always remember.” (G)

Legacy

The film not only earned Capra two Oscars, as director and producer, it earned him a nomination for the Mussolini Cup at the Venice Film Festival. After such critical success, he did make future comedies, but he seemed more inclined to want to make more “important” pictures — films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) and his masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). These are the films most associated with Capra’s legacy, yet ironically, his three Best Director wins came for his comedies — It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

Perhaps this is because these are the types of films Capra was meant to be making all along. Perhaps “Capra-corn” was better suited for comedy. And perhaps he was the real-life embodiment of Sully in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), fighting his comedic urges in quest to make serious social pictures “like Capra.” In the end, Capra is still one of the most entertaining filmmakers in history, and It Happened One Night perhaps the single most enjoyable picture in the first 30 years of American feature film.

Citations:

CITE A: DVD Special Feature: Frank Capra Jr Remembers…It Happened One Night
CITE B: Tim Dirks, filmsite.org
CITE C: Turner Classic Movies broadcast
CITE D: Piazza and Kinn, The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History
CITE E: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE F: IMDB Clark Gable Awards page
CITE G: Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age


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