It Happened One Night is a 1934 screwball comedy directed by Frank Capra, in which a pampered socialite (Claudette Colbert) tries to get out from under her father's thumb, and falls in love with a roguish reporter (Clark Gable). The plot was based on the story Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams, which provided the shooting title. It Happened One Night was one of the last film romantic comedies created before the MPAA began enforcing the 1930 production code in 1934. The final title is an oddity, as the movie takes place over several nights and none is particularly key to the plot.
The film was the first to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), a feat that would not be matched until One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and later by The Silence of the Lambs (1991). In 1993, It Happened One Night was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Boarding a bus to New York City, she meets fellow passenger Peter Warne (Clark Gable), an out-of-work newspaper reporter. He recognizes her and gives her a choice: if she will give him an exclusive on her story, he will help her reunite with Westley, otherwise he will tell her father where she is and collect the reward. She agrees.
Various adventures follow. When they have to hitchhike, Peter claims to be an expert on the subject. When nothing he tries works, eventually, out of frustration, he ends up thumbing his nose at passing cars. The sheltered Ellie then shows him how it's done. She stops the next car dead in its tracks by lifting up her skirt and showing off a shapely leg (see image below).
One night, when they are nearing the end of their journey, Peter leaves to make some arrangements. The owners of the auto court in which they are staying see that his car is gone and assume he has left without paying. They roust Ellie out of bed and kick her out. Believing Peter has deserted her, Ellie calls her father, who is so relieved to get her back that he agrees to let her have her way. Ellie has fallen in love with Peter, but she thinks he betrayed her for the reward money, so she agrees to have a second, formal wedding with Westley. Meanwhile, Peter believes he's the one who's been double-crossed.
Peter gets in touch with Ellie's father to settle up. Mr. Andrews offers him the large reward promised, but Peter will have none of it. He just wants to be paid $39.60 for the expenses incurred on the trip. Intrigued, the father badgers the reporter until he gets the truth: Peter loves Ellie (though he thinks he's out of his mind to do so). Peter leaves with the check he asked for.
While walking his daughter down the aisle, Andrews tells her what he has found out and encourages her to run off again, telling her there is a car waiting for her out back; at the last moment, she does. Her father pays off Westley, who agrees to have the marriage annulled, enabling Ellie to marry Peter.
Filming began in a tense atmosphere as Gable and Colbert were dissatisfied with the quality of the script. However, they established a friendly working relationship and found that the script was no worse than those of many of their earlier films. Capra understood that they were unwilling participants and tried to lighten the mood by having Gable play practical jokes on Colbert, who responded with good humor.
Both Gable and Capra enjoyed making the movie. Colbert however continued to show her displeasure on the set. She also initially balked at pulling up her skirt to entice a passing driver to provide a ride, complaining that it was unladylike. However, upon seeing the chorus girl who was brought in as her body double, an outraged Colbert told the director, "Get her out of here. I'll do it. That's not my leg!" Through the filming, Capra claimed, Colbert made "many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me," however "she was wonderful in the part." After her acceptance speech at the Oscars ceremony, she went back on stage and thanked Capra for making the film.
The sensibilities of the time played a role in some of the key scenes. Riskin specifically wrote scenes where throughout the film, Peter hangs a blanket over a rope between their beds for Ellie to have some privacy, calling it "the Walls of Jericho". The end of the film has a telegram from Peter who has run off with Ellie as they both await news of the annulment with Westley, in part, it says, "the walls of Jericho are starting to topple". The final scene depicts an auto court and the couple who manage it discussing how they wonder if the two people they have just rented a room to are really married, because the young man asked for a rope, a blanket and a trumpet. The husband tells his wife he knows they are married because he saw the license. The scene closes with a trumpet sounding, the "Walls of Jericho" falling and the lights going off in the room in which Peter and Ellie are staying. Due to the strictures of the time, the device was the only plausible one that would be acceptable to a "general" audience.
Harry Cohn suggested Colbert, who initially refused the role. Colbert's first film, For the Love of Mike (1927), had been directed by Frank Capra and was such a disaster that she vowed to never make another with him. She subsequently agreed to appear in It Happened One Night only when her salary was doubled to $50,000, and on the condition that her part be completed in four weeks so she could take an already planned vacation. According to legend, Gable was loaned to Columbia Pictures, then considered a minor studio, as punishment for refusing a role at his own studio; however, this has been refuted by more recent biographies. MGM did not have a project ready for Gable and was paying him $2,000 per week, under his contract, to do nothing. Louis B. Mayer loaned him to Columbia for $2500 per week, making a $500 per week profit.
|Clark Gable||Peter Warne|
|Claudette Colbert||Ellie Andrews|
|Walter Connolly||Alexander Andrews|
|Roscoe Karns||Oscar Shapeley, an annoying bus passenger who tries to pick up Ellie|
|Jameson Thomas||"King" Westley|
|Blanche Friderici||Zeke's wife|
|Charles C. Wilson||Joe Gordon|
The film won all five of the Academy Awards for which it was nominated:
At the 7th Academy Awards for 1934, It Happened One Night became the first film ever to win the "Big Five" Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing). To date, only two subsequent films have achieved this feat: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.
On December 15, 1996, Clark Gable's Oscar was auctioned off to Steven Spielberg for $607,500; Spielberg promptly donated the statuette to the Motion Picture Academy. On June 9, the following year, Colbert's Oscar was offered for auction by Christie's. No bids were made for it.
The unpublished memoirs of animator Friz Freleng's mention that this was one of his favorite films. It has been claimed that it helped inspire the cartoon character Bugs Bunny. Three things in the film may have coalesced to create Bugs: the personality of a minor character, Oscar Shapely, an imaginary character named "Bugs Dooley" mentioned once to frighten Shapely, and most of all, a scene in which Clark Gable eats carrots while talking quickly with his mouth full, as Bugs does.