- Production Company: Columbia Pictures
- Year Released: 1934
- Directed By: Frank Capra
- Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
- Expect to Pay: $12-45
It Happened One Night is a film of many firsts. It was the first nonmusical comedy to win Best Picture, arguably the progenitor of the screwball comedy subgenre and was the first Best Picture winner to win what is known in the business as “The Big Five” (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress). To this day, only One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 have matched his feat. It currently has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and like Grand Hotel, it is currently being preserved by the government as a culturally and historically important film. Unlike Grand Hotel however, I actually enjoyed this movie. In fact, I more than enjoyed it. It Happened One Night is one of the best comedies ever made, and its influence has been far reaching, even into films of today and in some surprising places such as dramatic anime.
The plot, based off a short story called “The Night Bus”, is relatively simple. A rich, pampered heiress named Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) marries a man named “King” Wesley (Jameson Thomas) against her father’s wishes. Her father, who hates Westley, tries to get their marriage annulled, and Andrews escapes by jumping off her father’s boat. She gets away, and while on the run on a bus, bumps into Peter Warne (Clarke Gable), a newspaper man who has a slight drinking problem. After realizing who Andrews is, he promises to take her from Florida to New York on the condition that he gets dibs on a news story about the trip. If she refuses, he will turn her in for the $10,000 reward for her capture.
What happens next is a race against time, with Andrews’ father’s bounty hunters after them all he while. Along they, they fall in love, and she has to decide between money and prestige or what her heart desires. It’s a classic setup that was popular before the 30s and is popular now. With such a plot, it basically set the standard for every Hollywood romantic comedy to come. It also inadvertently set up another subgenre. Because most of the pictures takes place on a bus and later on by hitchhiking, it can be argued that this is the first “road trip” movie. However, not everyone was keen with it being set on a bus.
When the screenplay was being shopped around, no studio wanted to finance it. The Great Depression was still very much alive during 1934, so Hollywood naturally wanted to give them flash and spectacle and fantasy to take their minds of the fact that some people (such as my grandpa) were literally living under bridges. Even Claudette Colbert lacked confidence in the film’s chance of success. After it was over, she said “I just finished the worst picture in the world.” It is more ground in reality compared to other films of the time. After all, King Kong had just come out the previous year, and the horror genre, courtesy of Universal, had begun its golden age of monsters. However, there are still some elements of fantasy in it; subtle fantastical elements that would have resonated well with audiences in the 30s. Andrews, having spent all her life in high society, now has to schlep it with the plebeians of the country. Warne tells her to stop spending her money so willy-nilly if she wants to make it, and Andrews gets rebuked by a group of women for skipping line for a communal shower, and is forced to get to the back of the line. Warne later rejects Andrews’ father’s money when he thinks that’s all he was after. Having working class people tell the wealthy to stick it up their ear would have been wonderful to see and hear for a world-battered America, and in the hands of Frank Capra, ever the champion of the little man, it turns into poetry.
Speaking of poetry, the acting of the two main players is tremendous and shows the amount of professionalism rarely seen in Hollywood now. Neither of them wanted to do their parts. Gable was on loan from MGM, and some have said that this was a punishment. As for Colbert, she only agreed to do it after her salary was doubled to $50,000. Their reluctance to be there didn’t stop them from turning in masterful performances. The chemistry between these two feels very much real.
They obviously didn’t like each other at first, but by the end, it’s almost as if they’re chewing the scenery to get at each other, if it only weren’t for “the walls of Jericho.” Over the course of the film, each time they rested in a room, Warne erects a wall of blankets suspended by a rope known as “The walls of Jericho” to give them privacy, more for her sake than his. It’s also metaphorical, as the wall represents the class division between the two. But if you know your Bible as well as I do, you would know that the walls of Jericho fell to the powers that be. This culminates in a joke at the end of the movie involving a trumpet that I won’t spoil here. This gag about the wall of Jericho has later showed up in other places, such as the famous anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, when Asuka erects a “wall of Jericho” to keep Shinji out.
The “wall of Jericho” is just one of the famous scenes this movie has. Perhaps the most famous scene of the film is when Andrews, in an effort to hitch a ride, hikes up her skirt and bears her leg. This strategy is effective, and it almost didn’t happen. Colbert did not want to do it, so Capra brought in a body double. When Colbert saw the double, she became incensed and said, “Get her out of here. I’ll do it. That’s not my leg!” I am grateful that she went through with it, as the film would be less without the scene.
In fact, the film industry as a whole would be less without this film. It set the standard for many romantic films to come. And while the plot is predictable, it is important to remember that it set in motion a lot of the tropes we take for granted. Taken for a picture of its time, it’s one of the best that the golden age of Hollywood has to offer. As a piece of film history, it’s a colossal masterwork. With quality acting, a tight script, a subtle economic message and all the while still managing to be funny over 80 years after its release, It Happened One Night is one that cannot be missed. The Academy was absolutely right in picking this one.
Now, after this return to form, the Academy chose Mutiny on the Bounty as the Best Picture of 1935. I have high hopes for this sea epic, so I hope to see you all again when I speak of it.