Almost eighty years ago, the Academy Awards saw a clean sweep of its top five categories—screenplay, actor, actress, director, and picture—not by a grandiose epic or searing social drama but by a romantic comedy, a sparkling, gossamer thing about the love of a pampered heiress for a just-fired, often-drunk scamp of a reporter.
The film begins with the heiress already married to an obvious fortune hunter. Her father has imprisoned her on his yacht, demanding that she accept an annulment. She runs away on a Greyhound bus and finds herself mixed up with that scoop-hungry reporter. They spend one night together, then another. They fall in love. A bare plot synopsis hasn’t got much heft. And yet after all these years, It Happened One Night (1934) is almost universally acknowledged as one for the ages, its gorgeous spirit haunting all the romantic road trips, all the unlikely courtships, all the bickering, smitten couples that have come after.
It’s a movie both escapist and egalitarian. Director Frank Capra, that great American cheerleader, assures everyone that this fair country’s wide-open spaces, while not without peril, are full of fellowship and democracy. Our land can bring out the good in Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert), who is so spoiled that, in the first scene, she flings an entire steak dinner out a porthole. Her father (Walter Connolly) delivers a roundhouse slap, a moment that shocks them both. But for a Great Depression audience, one that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would still describe, in 1937, as “one-third . . . ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” wasting a lavish meal would have bordered on the criminal. Comeuppance must be on its way—and so it is, in the guise of reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). When Pete is introduced, he’s on the phone with the editor who canned him. As an appreciative audience gathers to listen, Pete tilts a bottle of booze down his throat and defends an unprintably bad story with “That was free verse, ya gashouse palooka.” He remains fired, of course, wasting something else that was scarce and precious in 1934: a job.
Thus these lovers share a definite recklessness. They distrust authority, cant, and, more problematically, each other. It’s often said that social progress has weakened love stories by removing all the important obstacles—the most obvious being the bygone taboo of sex before marriage, but another being the class system that’s woven throughout It Happened One Night. Yet, viewed today, the movie’s predicaments aren’t tintype relics of the fussy old days. A modern woman forced to spend the night with a hard-charging reporter she has just met is still likely to want reassurance that the room is all she’ll be sharing. And now, as in the 1930s, the rich tend to court and marry the rich.
Capra and his great collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskin, use these very obstacles to make the audience believe in the equality of this surface mismatch. When one lover tastes victory, it’s always temporary. Ellie steals Pete’s seat on the bus, and when he objects (“That upon which you sit is mine”), she smoothly gets the backing of the driver (Ward Bond, as ubiquitous a character actor as American cinema has to offer). Pete tries to talk to her during a pit stop, and she high-hats him, only to be told that while she was smoking a cigarette and ignoring her déclass´ surroundings, a thief had time enough to scram with her cash-stuffed suitcase.
In what must be the movie’s most famous scene (although it has a lot of competition), Pete demonstrates, at length and with a fantastic amount of condescension, the proper way to hitchhike: “It’s all in the thumb.” Ellie, splendidly deadpan, watches an entire traffic jam’s worth of cars zip by Pete and his magic thumb, then slinks over and lifts her hem to reveal one of the loveliest legs in movie history. Cut to slamming brakes, then the couple in the rumble seat of a car. But here’s the thing: The man who has stopped (played by Alan Hale) turns out to be a road thief, bent on stealing their remaining suitcase. For all Ellie’s triumph, the creep was looking for a mark, and probably would have stopped in any event.
That’s the rhythm of It Happened One Night, a dance of syncopated folly and banter. Banter is distinct from mockery—it’s a seesaw, not a slingshot. It’s lust, sure, and love too, at least in the final reel. But before that clinch, banter is a sniff to say, “Your ego is absolutely colossal,” and a cheerful reply, “Yeah, yeah, not bad, how’s yours?”
Produced during the last hurrah of the so-called pre-Code era—those Edenic days before stringent enforcement of Production Code censorship began in July 1934—Capra’s movie straddles the two sides of thirties filmmaking. There are a few reminders that the gimlet eye of head censor Joseph Breen wasn’t on this film, such as the lines that bus-seat lecher Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) delivers to Ellie, complete with exaggerated up-and-down leers: “Most girls you meet on the bus ain’t nothin’ to write home to the wife about.” When the bus passengers sing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” it’s an explosion of joy, the group united, from the Woody Guthrie–ish musicians in the back to the off-key driver in the front. But the song is even more inclusive than it at first seems. When a sailor sings a verse, he suggests the trapeze man’s biggest fan was male: “He blew him a kiss, and he shouted, ‘Bravo!’” Too, the sight of Clark Gable’s bare chest—still capable of eliciting audience gasps—might have given pause once the Code was ascendant. (It seems that undershirt sales did indeed plummet soon after the film’s release, but one wonders if that was because average American men were delusional enough to think they’d look like Gable or if they merely realized that the King had demonstrated a new way to scrimp on wardrobe spending.)
But for the most part, It Happened One Night sounds the trumpet for a new era. In that shirtless scene, Ellie and Pete have been forced to spend the night at an autocamp (forerunner of the motel), and Pete hangs a blanket between the beds—the “walls of Jericho.” What takes this setup from the cute to the ravishing is what happens when the lights are shut off and the full beauty of Joseph Walker’s cinematography takes hold. The rain outside makes the windows sparkle, and the light from them outlines Colbert’s form as she stands there in her slip, trying to calm her nerves. It’s a shot that, at the time, could have revealed more of Colbert’s state of undress, and indeed that’s how Capra had planned it. But Colbert objected, and Capra later said the scene was sexier in the near dark. It Happened One Night made the sexual longing unmistakable, but did it in a way that showed future filmmakers how to stay on the right side of the censors.
An ideal romantic comedy doesn’t ignore reality; it converses with it. The Depression may be softened by moonlight and shining eyes, but it is everywhere visible in It Happened One Night, from the woman on the bus who faints from hunger to the freight car full of hoboes who wave back at a joyous Pete as he races to propose to Ellie. One of the loveliest shots in the movie is the exquisite track that follows Ellie as she makes her way to the autocamp’s communal shower, while children chase each other and weary adults prepare to get back on the road.
How It Happened One Night made it to Oscar night is a Capra movie in itself, a tale of moxie at a low-rent studio and moneyed stars who learned the virtues of roughing it. For once, it’s safe to print the legend: Almost no one wanted to make this movie. No one, that is, except Capra, who pulled Samuel Hopkins Adams’s short story “Night Bus” from a file of possibilities. Even so, according to Capra biographer Joseph McBride, it wasn’t love at first sight. Riskin recalled Capra describing the plot to him: “It’s about a runaway couple.” Riskin responded, “Sounds cute.” Capra then pondered it alone in his office and popped back out to tell Riskin they’d do it. Riskin had already forgotten which story they were talking about.
With this ringing endorsement, development got under way—like it or not. McBride quotes Walker as saying he was “unhappy about doing this one.” Capra’s nephew and sound recordist Joe Finochio described the general attitude as “Hell, let’s get this stinking picture over with.”
At least Harry Cohn, the fearsome head of the cut-rate Columbia Pictures, was amenable to the project. The Depression was about to enter year five, millions of people were still on the road looking for work, and a bus was much cheaper than a train. Surely this meant the public might find a pleasing identification with bus riders on-screen. And whatever else you could say about Capra’s latest proposal, it indisputably had a bus in it.
Trouble is, Hollywood’s big ideas have always been mysteriously contagious. Capra envisioned MGM’s Robert Montgomery in the lead, but Montgomery, wouldn’t you know it, was already attached to an MGM movie with a bus in it (1934’s Fugitive Lovers). Universal was making something called Cross Country Cruise (1934), with said cruise also taking place on a bus. The Columbia team needed to get a move on, but they couldn’t even cast the leads.
Myrna Loy hated the script (and years later was philosophical: “Claudette had the legs for it”). Nixed by Miriam Hopkins, who supposedly called it “just a silly comedy.” No-go from Margaret Sullavan. Constance Bennett was interested only if she could buy the whole story. Warner Bros. said no, you can’t have Bette Davis. Carole Lombard was making Bolero. Cohn suggested Loretta Young, but she wasn’t Capra’s spoonful of sugar.
At last Cohn came up with Colbert, who had made her film debut with Capra in the 1927 silent For the Love of Mike—a film that was neither a success (it’s now lost) nor a happy working experience. But Colbert was a canny woman (“I hear that French broad likes money” was how Cohn put it). She agreed to parachute in for Capra’s latest if the studio wrapped things up in time for her Christmas skiing trip, and paid her $50,000. That was twice her normal salary and close to a cool million in today’s dollars; the budget for the entire movie was about $350,000.
MGM loaned them Clark Gable, not because Louis B. Mayer had suddenly gone all milk-of-human-kindness but because Gable was on the rise and making noises about wanting more money. It Happened One Night was the equivalent of Mayer telling Gable to go to his room and think about what he’d done. Gable reacted by (according to Capra) getting plastered before the first preproduction meeting and informing his director that Columbia might as well be Siberia. Capra claimed that Gable then wove his way outside the office to yell at startled studio workers, “Why ain’t you wearing parkas?”
Riskin and Capra had originally wanted to buy the rights to Mutiny on the Bounty as a follow-up to their previous collaboration, the hit Lady for a Day (1933), but the studio told them the property cost too much. Preparations for It Happened One Night probably made a nice desert island look pretty good. Filming was also a pain in the neck, or Capra claimed that Colbert was, anyway, with the star arguing about whether she would show her leg until he threatened to use a double, a chorus girl, whose gams didn’t measure up to Colbert’s own. Somehow they all powered through, and the artists involved were too smart not to suspect, after a while, that they might be on to a good thing. “I think the wop’s got something,” Gable remarked midway through filming. Colbert herself later said she’d realized the movie had something only when she spotted her maid’s enthralled reaction to the filming of the “Man on the Flying Trapeze” scene.
Even after it was released, It Happened One Night encountered some bumps. Reviews were mostly good, but attendance in big cities dropped steeply in the second week, and it was pulled. Smaller theaters still showed the film, though—and kept showing it, week after week, as audiences came back again and again to relive their favorite bits. “The people discovered that movie,” Capra later stated, with a flash of his unique gift for mythological patriotism. He was right, though, and Capra’s contemporary Otis Ferguson told his readers the film made “a pattern of life as we all know it, with the unfailing tough surface and the grace beneath that we at least hope to find.”
When film artists set out to make a Deeply Serious Masterpiece, sometimes they bore people to death. By virtue of everyone’s treating this movie as though it were an annoying kid sister, It Happened One Night became a how-to guide for countless imitators to come. Everybody gave it the brush-off, and then at some indefinable moment—perhaps when Columbia’s 1934 grosses began to come in—they all realized that here was true love. And true love may not always stick around in real life, but up on the screen it lasts as long as people watch it. You can’t get much more Capraesque than that.