Throughout his filmmaking career, Frank Capra directed a number of revered classics, including It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, and others. Also on the director’s résumé is 1934’s It Happened One Night; a funny, breezy romantic comedy which hit the right spot with Depression-era audiences. Due to favourable word-of-mouth, the film was a box office smash that put Columbia Pictures (a “Poverty Row” studio) in the big league as a real player. Interestingly, while this is one of the most beloved movies in history, during pre-production the screenplay was deemed so uninspired that numerous stars turned down the chance to appear in it, and even the eventual leads expressed reservations. Despite such concerns, and in spite of the fact that It Happened One Night is essentially a light and fluffy comedy, the film went on to win all the Oscars for which it was nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay (i.e. the five major categories). Try to imagine something like When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle accomplishing that!
The story of It Happened One Night is simple, and was based on a short story called Night Bus which was featured in Cosmopolitan magazine. Ellie Andrews (Colbert) is the spoiled daughter of a rich Wall Street newspaper magnate who’s used to having her own way. Ellie married fortune hunter King Westley (Thomas) against the wishes of her father (Connolly), but her father retrieved her before the marriage could be consummated and practically holds her hostage on his boat. To escape, Ellie jumps overboard and swims for shore. Incognito, she boards a bus bound for New York City to go see Westley. On the bus, she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a down and out reporter who has been sacked by his editor. The two immediately dislike each other, but soon form a pact: Peter will get the inexperienced Ellie back to her husband in order for them to have a “proper” wedding if Ellie gives him the exclusive story.
While this masterpiece was hardly the first screwball comedy (or, according to some, a screwball comedy at all), it proved to be very influential for the burgeoning madcap genre which dominated Hollywood during the tail end of the 1930s. Unlike most modern rom-coms and screwball comedies, Capra’s film takes time to develop its characters. Ellie would have been unlikeable and unrelatable if she was left as a stereotypical spoiled rich girl, but Capra unobtrusively included glimpses of her back-story to allow us to see her as a virtual prisoner and a rebellious spirit against her pampered existence. Admittedly, It Happened One Night begins wearing thin towards the end, especially when the story creates a misunderstanding that results in Ellie almost going through with her ill-advised marriage. The pacing slows to a crawl for this section, yet it’s truly worth the wait for the picture’s final moments, which make good on the longstanding promise to bring “the walls of Jericho” crashing down.
The screenplay by Robert Riskin was so well-written that one may almost believe the hook-up is not going to happen. The pacing throughout is almost uniformly perfect, teasing us until we cannot stand the thought of Ellie and Peter being apart. Far from lovey-dovey or mushy, the dialogue is sharp, witty, and at times heartless. The outcome may be obvious from the onset, but the road to this predictable destination is paved with anger, arguments and misunderstandings. The road is also frequently funny, clever and at times risqué (especially for a ’30s movie). Being a Capra film, It Happened One Night was blessed with several Capra-esque flourishes. Yet, unlike other notable movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night does not have a real social commentary. Instead, the storyline is surface-level; purely revolving around the warring couple and how they change, with Ellie realising she knows little about the real world and with Peter softening his hardened exterior.
Frank Capra was not exactly a technical director – he did not have a knack for setting up exciting shots or utilising new ideas with his camera. Capra was, however, a master of getting the most out of his simple, linear directorial style. It’s not always about complicated set-ups or fancy shots – it’s about getting the characters from point A to point B, and ensuring a viewer will enjoy the ride. It would seem Capra had a firm understanding of this, and that’s why he stands among the greatest directors in history. Like the best romantic comedies, It Happened One Night is primarily fuelled by the interactions between the protagonists – not only the comedic bantering, but additionally the slow burn that melts away their friction and reveals the full bloom of unlikely love. This is not a forced motion picture – the story flows naturally and the characters seem real, and therefore we can laugh at the jokes, find the romance heartfelt, and follow along with the message about love and not short-changing people.
As the script for It Happened One Night was deemed by many to be uninspired, Capra was unable to recruit the pair he originally wanted for the lead roles (Myrna Loy and Robert Montgomery). Consequently, the director ended up settling for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, neither of whom were exactly enthusiastic to do the gig. Remarkably, considering the reluctance of the pair to participate, Gable and Colbert’s fabulous chemistry is what makes the film so endearing. Gable displayed a playfulness here that’s not often evident in his work, while Colbert managed to make her spoilt brat role likeable. Needless to say, Gable and Colbert were happier about their work when both of them earned Oscars. Gable was nominated three times in the Best Actor category (also for Gone with the Wind and Mutiny on the Bounty), but It Happened One Night earned the actor his only Oscar. Likewise, this was Colbert’s only recognition by the Academy. Interestingly, Friz Freleng noted on several occasions that the fast-talking manner of Bugs Bunny is based on Gable’s performance here, right down to how he eats a carrot.
Seen in the 21st Century, It Happened One Night feels more familiar than it did back in 1934, but this is a case of a movie being victimised by its popularity and influence. Countless copycat stories have been produced over the decades with similar plots which diminish the freshness and spontaneity associated with Capra’s original masterpiece. Nevertheless, nothing can diminish the strength of Gable and Colbert’s performances or Capra’s deftness in crafting this type of feel-good movie. The screwball comedy elements of It Happened One Night work as effectively as the love story, which is almost unheard of when it comes to romantic comedies.