In his book about Hollywood screenwriters, Talking Pictures (1975), the critic Richard Corliss suggested you could summarise the plot of this film in a single headline couched in the style of its reporter-hero: ‘Star Reporter Trails and Nails Heiress – for Life’. On the run from her wealthy father (Walter Connolly) who disapproves of her marrying a playboy aviator, King Westley (Jameson Thomas), Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has hopped on a bus to New York to be united with King, but, in so doing, she inadvertently occupies the seat of a brash reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who has just been fired from his job. Warne quickly sizes up her situation, but promises to help her if he can report her story exclusively and win himself back into his editor’s favours. As the journey proceeds, they fall in love.
If the plot is slight, the film, thanks to the inventiveness of Capra and Riskin, teems with memorable bits of comic business. The antagonistic interplay between Gable and Colbert is incessant, ranging from the best way to dunk a doughnut, in which he mocks her refined habits, to the best way to hitch a lift, where she undercuts his arrogance by demonstrating that the display of a shapely leg is more effective than the waving of a thumb. Most famous of all perhaps is the blanket Gable drapes across the middle of their shared motel room – the so-called ‘Wall of Jericho’ – that decorously separates their living space and which might be Capra’s and Riskin’s joke at the expense of the new Production Code which was tightening up on Hollywood’s depiction of sexual morality. When Gable’s character reveals during this section that he wears nothing under his shirt, movie legend has it that the revelation led to a 40 per cent reduction in the sale of men’s vests: evidence of Hollywood’s influence on the fashions of the time!
It Happened One Night was a runaway hit about a runaway heiress. Opening modestly in New York to respectful rather than rave reviews, it began to gather word-of-mouth recommendation amongst audiences in second-run theatres in the United States and by the end of the year had become one of 1934’s most successful films. It then proceeded to win all the major awards at the Hollywood Oscars in 1935 – best film, best actor, best actress, best director, best screenplay – a feat that was not to be equalled until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) 40 years later.
The popularity of the film had taken Hollywood by surprise. It was a modest subject without lavish production values, and was produced by Columbia Pictures which at that time was a minor studio without previous Oscar success. (It was essentially this film that put Columbia ‘on the map’.) The original material, a short story called ‘Night Bus’ by Samuel Hopkins Adams, had been bought for little money and there was comparatively little enthusiasm for the project when it looked like proving difficult to sell as a movie. Two ‘bus movies’ – MGM’s Fugitive Lovers (1933) and Universal’s Cross Country Cruise (1933) – had failed with the public the previous year and there was little expectation that this new vehicle would fare any differently.
Casting also proved a major headache. In his autobiography, The Name above the Title (1971), director Frank Capra recalled that several actresses (including Miriam Hopkins, Myrna Loy, Margaret Sullavan and Constance Bennett) turned it down before Claudette Colbert accepted it, although only on condition it would be finished in five weeks so that she could go on holiday and that she would receive twice her usual salary. She still seemed unconvinced the film was anything exceptional, even when it proved popular and garnered Oscar nominations; she had booked a journey to New York on the night of the awards and had to be driven hastily to the ceremony with a motorcycle escort. On loan from MGM, Clark Gable was only cast for the leading role when Robert Montgomery turned it down (on the grounds that he did not want to do another bus movie). With the possible exception of Casablanca (1942), it is hard to think of another classic film that had such an unpromising preparation and launch.
Capra was later to claim that a key turning point came with the intervention of the studio’s story editor, Myles Connolly, who identified the weaknesses of the original script. Make the heroine not just an heiress but a reluctant heiress, Connolly argued: this will make her more sympathetic to a general audience. Also, if you change the hero from an artist to a working man – a journalist, say – he too becomes a character with whom a popular audience can more readily identify. The plot – a familiar standby about a couple whose initial antagonism on meeting turns to love as they share various adventures – was essentially a modern variation on The Taming of the Shrew and that has invariably proved a winning formula. Capra’s regular screenwriter at this time, Robert Riskin, got to work on this new concept with his customary intelligence and imagination and the material suddenly seemed to jell.
The spark that ignited all these ingredients was Capra himself, who was just entering the most creative phase of his career and about to become arguably the major Hollywood director of the decade: he was to follow this film with best directing Oscars for Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Can’t Take It With You (1938) as well as making classics like Lost Horizon (1937) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Comedy had always been Capra’s particular forte. He had begun his film career in the silent era as a gag-man for the legendary Mack Sennett and then written and directed the early hit comedies of Harry Langdon, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), which had briefly put Langdon on a par in terms of popularity with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Always ferociously ambitious in reaction against his impoverished childhood, Capra had moved to Columbia Pictures and had rapidly become their star director. He had made a bold and stylish film about racial prejudice and misunderstanding, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933); and then been nominated for an Oscar for Lady for a Day (1933), being left to squirm with embarrassment when, responding to the call of the presenter Will Rogers, ‘Come and get it, Frank!’, he realised halfway to the podium that Rogers was actually summoning another nominee, Frank Lloyd to collect the award for Cavalcade (1933). This only made Capra more determined to win, and although It Happened One Night might not have seemed immediately to be the kind of property that would bring this about, it did have all the components that played to Capra’s comic strengths: pace, situations that were funny but also believable, and, above all, a strong and sympathetic sense of humanity across a broad social spectrum. Capra’s best films were always to be optimistic fanfares to the common man.
Like Dickens, Capra also always gave as much life to his minor characters as his major ones, knowing that they too had a story to tell, a history and a mystery about them. Roscoe Karnes has an excellent cameo as a salesman on the bus who tries to ingratiate himself with Ellen and then uncovers her identity, only to be frightened off by Peter who pretends to be an armed gangster and that Ellen is part of his kidnapping plot. (It was daring of Capra and Riskin to make a joke about kidnapping so soon after the notorious kidnapping of the child of Charles Lindbergh and its tragic outcome.) Alan Hale storms into the picture when he offers the couple a ride, cannot stop singing in the car, but is revealed to be a small-time thief when he attempts to run off with their things. (Peter somehow manages to overtake his speeding car on foot: by this time, the film is obeying its own comic logic.) There is an especially happy sequence that seems spontaneous and semi-improvised when the passengers on the bus take turns in singing a verse of ‘That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’ and where even the driver, hitherto a peripheral and rather gloomy figure, is so caught up in the joyful spirits that he joins in. It is a scene with the kind of vigour and generosity of spirit that is quintessential Capra. Hitchcock used to say that if you have four good scenes, you have got a picture; It Happened One Night was taking no chances – it has close on a dozen that live in the memory.
The film has been seen as a trailblazer in being the first successful example of a new genre – the so-called ‘screwball comedy’. The term ‘screwball’ derived from baseball, describing a pitch with a wicked and unexpected curve on it, and also tied in with the English expression of ‘having a screw loose’ to suggest someone behaving in a lunatic manner. Generally speaking, screwball comedy was noted for its verbal witticism, frantic pace and slapstick craziness, with a particular emphasis on an evenly balanced battle of the sexes and also often a class conflict with a significant wealth divide between the two antagonists that love reconciles. Both Twentieth Century and The Thin Man had opened in the same year as It Happened One Night with some of these characteristics, but the former lacked the sympathetic characterisation of the Capra and the latter allied (and diluted) the sizzling verbal wit exchanged between husband and wife, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) with a murder mystery plot. Screwball comedy was to achieve its most complete expression in classics such as Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), Howard Hawks’s Bringing up Baby (1938) and Preston Sturges’s Palm Beach Story (1942).
Much has been written about It Happened One Night in the context of the screwball genre: how characteristic it is and whether it can truly be claimed to be the originator. How far is the film a sophisticated striking back at the Production Code, appearing to adhere to its rules (even down to its ‘Wall of Jericho’) whilst actually circumventing them? No one could miss the sexual elements in the film even though no intimacy is shown. The film’s sexual politics has also generated a lot of discussion over the years. Beneath the wit and the supposed equality of the characterisation, is the film still reinforcing the values of patriarchy, as a rebellious young woman is brought to heel by a man who can control her; or is it alternatively showing a new kind of heroine prepared to sacrifice wealth and position for the freedom to make her own moral, material and marital choices? Whatever one concludes, there is no doubt that It Happened One Night was one of those rare screen comedies, like The Graduate (1967) in the 1960s, like Annie Hall (1977) in the 1970s, that caught the mood of the time, answering an audience’s need for romantic escapism and its hope for a harmony between wealth and worth. Capra himself had the simplest explanation for the film’s popularity and it may in the end be the most plausible: ‘It succeeded because it was pure entertainment, well done entertainment, believable entertainment, and unfettered with any ideas, any big moral precepts, or anything else. Just sheer entertainment, fun’.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Columbia Pictures. Director: Frank Capra. Screenwriter: Robert Riskin. Cinematographer: Joseph Walker. Music: Howard Jackson and Louis Silvers. Editor: Gene Havlick. Cast: Clark Gable (Peter Warne), Claudette Colbert (Ellie Andrews), Walter Connolly (Alexander Andrews), Jameson Thomas (King Westley), Roscoe Karns (Oscar Shapeley), Alan Hale (Danker).]
Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title, London, Macmillan, 1971.
Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures, Newton Abbot, David & Charles, 1975.
Richard Maltby, ‘It Happened One Night’ in Film Analysis: A Norton Reader, Jeffrey Geiger and R. L. Rutsky (eds), New York, W.W.Norton, 2005, pp. 216–37.
Ed Sikov, Screwball: Hollywood’s Madcap Romantic Comedies, New York, Crown, 1989.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.