It Happened One Night (1934)

"It Happened One Night." Detail from movie poster.

It Happened One Night (1934).  105 minutes.  Directed by Frank Capra.  Starring Claudette Colbert (as Ellie Andrews), Clark Gable (as Peter Warne), and Walter Connolly (as Alexander Andrews).

It Happened One Night is a distinguished film, perhaps most famously because of its five Oscars.  It swept all five major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay), and that feat has rarely been achieved since.  But for a production of such legendary industry success, it certainly had humble origins as a film that was developed at Columbia, then a struggling studio, and whose script was passed over for various reasons by a number of stars including Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, and Bette Davis, and Margaret Sullavan for the female lead.  It took some finagling to secure Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in the lead roles. An apparently legendary story claims that Gable was farmed out to Columbia to work on the film as a punishment for being uncooperative in the casting process for a previous film.  Colbert was offered double her salary and a short shooting schedule as enticements to be in the movie, but supposedly when she came to the end of the shoot, she announced, “I just finished the worst picture in the world.”

It is always delightful to witness an extreme and happy reversal of fortune.  It Happened One Night is a pleasure through and through, a road movie that is of necessity constantly in motion.  It involves a yacht, a bus, a car, and (yes) even an autogiro.  Some truly wonderful scenes take place in various auto camps and along the side of the road.  None of the locations involves stability or permanence, and yet Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and Peter Warne (Clark Gable) manage to forge a relationship (we are led to believe) of some lasting quality, based on their time together in transit.

The plot involves Ellie, a wealthy heiress, who has eloped with King Westley, a pilot.  When she reveals her elopement to her father, he disapproves.  At first, trapped on her father’s yacht off the coast of Florida and away from Westley, she goes on a hunger strike to make her case, then dives off the side of the boat. When we next see her, she is boarding a bus headed for New York (and for Westley), where she encounters Peter Warne, an out-of-work reporter who is quickly clued in to who Ellie is.  Sensing that Ellie does not want her father to know of her whereabouts, Warne makes Ellie an offer: either that he will help her get to Westley in New York and that he be granted exclusive rights to her story, or that he will turn her in to her father.  She accepts his help in exchange for his right to tell her story, and the two of them set off for the North.

One of the loveliest aspects of this film is its characterization of Warne, who shares many of the attributes of the other Gable characters of this period (intelligence, confidence, playfulness).  Warne considers himself to be an expert on many commonplace aspects of life, such as how to dunk a doughnut correctly and how to hitchhike effectively.  This is all incredibly silly stuff, and it does not strictly need to be there to help Ellie reach her New York destination, but that is the charm of a movie like this.  It is interested in patiently fleshing out its characters and their unique quirks.  Some of those quirky characters include the passengers on the lengthy bus sequence in the first half of the movie — specifically one Oscar Shapeley (played by Roscoe Karns), who is seated next to Ellie for part of the ride.  Shapeley is everyone’s nightmare fellow passenger.  Shapeley is his name, and, as he enthusiastically tells Ellie, it is also how he likes his women.  Ellie snaps at him and he enjoys it.  It takes the imposing form of Clark Gable standing up from across the bus aisle and towering over small Shapeley to make him retreat — and even then, of course, Shapeley manages to thwart Ellie and Warne’s plans to ride the bus all the way to New York.

The bus sequence contains a lovely scene in which the characters sing the popular song, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”  Each verse is sung by a different passenger, none of whom is a professional singer but all of whom relish their turn at performing for the bus audience.  The bus is where we also find what is to my mind the most typically “Capra” moment of the film — the mother who has not eaten all day and faints from hunger, and her distraught son who must be persuaded by Ellie and Warne to take money for food.  The mother/son pair injects a nice bit of Depression-era reality into the story, and I think Capra is holding back here (mercifully) by making this a small moment rather than a major event in the story.  It works nicely.

I must admit that I am not a huge Capra fan, mainly owing to the sentimentalism of many of his films, but I treasure this movie for its romance and humor.  It Happened One Night has been called one of the earliest screwball comedies, a type of film that Columbia became especially famous for making in the 1930s.  As such, it is also one of the earliest romantic comedies in film, or “romcoms” as they are sometimes known.  (I suspect that “romcom” is a somewhat derogatory term for this genre, so you will not find me using it often.)   And romance there is: mostly between Ellie and Warne. There is a lot of sexual teasing going on in this film.  When Ellie and Warne have to share a room at the auto camp, the latter, in a genteel but taunting way, erects a curtain between their beds that he refers to as “the walls of Jericho,” then suggestively ponders what it would take to bring it down.  We watch as he begins to strip down for bed, having handed his pajamas over to Ellie, who has lost her luggage, and only Ellie’s retreat to her side of the curtain prevents us from seeing the full removal of Gable’s ensemble.  In addition to seeing Gable’s bare chest, we get to see a fair amount of Ellie’s leg in the roadside sequence, where she is determined to show Warne how to hitchhike after his own attempts fail.  It is a film that selectively flashes flesh, you might say.

On that note, I must add that It Happened One Night has the distinction of being one of the last films to be released before the Hollywood censorship code was enforced.  Premiering in February 1934, It Happened One Night came along after the establishment of the Hays Office in 1930, which functioned as the American movie industry’s private censorship board, but before the establishment of the Hays Production Code Administration (PCA) in June 1934, which was endowed with the muscle to enforce the Hays Office’s guidelines and initiated the official certification process that was to dominate the industry for the following decades.  One could say that It Happened One Night originates from an era of uncertainty, when there was a code but there was not a clear process by which the Hays Office could impose that code on pictures.

If you care about comedies, it would be a great shame for you not to see this film.  Colbert and Gable are very amusing in their roles and are stunning to look at.  Colbert, for her part, wears one outfit for most of the film, a perfectly tailored striped sweater and skirt, and although her wardrobe is limited, she manages to ooze beauty and elegance, even while sleeping on a pile of hay.  I have always found Gable to be a slightly odd looking actor, but odd in a wonderful way — perhaps because of those famously large ears.  He has enormous presence in this film.  As is the case with all romantic comedies, it is not hard to divine how things will turn out, but then part of the point of this movie, a road movie through and through, is that (if you will pardon the cliché) the journey means at least as much to us as the destination.