IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

  • Director: Frank Capra
  • Writer: Robert Riskin, based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams
  • Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale, Arthur Hoyt, Blanche Friderici, Charles C. Wilson, and Ward Bond
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#46), 5 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Frank Capra, Best Actor – Clark Gable, Best Actress – Claudette Colbert, Best Adapted Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with ads on Crackle, stream win subscription on the Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

It Happened One Night has a reputation of nearly a century as one of the original (maybe the original) great romantic comedies. It was the first really big critical and commercial hit from the now-legendary director Frank Capra, and it was also the first movie to win all of the “Top Five” Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay), a feat since duplicated only by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs. I had never seen it before, and I enjoyed it perfectly fine. I’ve seen a good number of movies for this site that worked just as well today as they did at the time, even really old ones. I’m not sure this is one of them. What I did find endearing was its gleefully madcap quality, a sort of basic Screwball sensibility leading to a sort of heightened reality.

It is perhaps fairly well known that Clark Gable was among the primary influences for the character of Bugs Bunny. What is perhaps less well known is how directly Bugs seems to have been inspired by this particular movie. Gable’s character is referred to repeatedly as “Doc” and chomps a cigar with one side of his mouth while smiling gleefully at how clever he is with the other, but more than that, he’s larger than life. You get the sense that if you hit him over the head with an anvil he’d pop right back up. At one point he literally gets in argument with a bus driver (future famous character actor Ward Bond in a bit part) about what seat he’s supposed to sit in. The two of them go face to face and sneer “Oh yeah?” “Yeah!” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah!” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah!” Gable then backs down and says, “You got me. Yeah.” All that’s missing is their foreheads touching and comical music stings.

Claudette Colbert plays a sheltered millionaire heiress whose tycoon father (Walter Connolly) refuses to allow her to marry an extremely 1934 bad boy, a famous aviator named “King Westley” (Jameson Thomas). She literally dives off his yacht and swims to shore, where her intention is to get a greyhound bus from Florida to New York in order to meet up with him. On the bus she runs into Gable’s slightly soused reporter, Peter Warne, who realizes who she is and decides this is his big story, after which the plot plays out almost exactly as you might predict. Despite initially disliking each other, they keep getting thrown together, he helps her adjust to being out in a world she does not have survival skills for, they have to pretend to be husband and wife, they eventually do get to New York, but she leaves “King” at the altar and runs back to Peter.

Colbert is perhaps not as much a household name today as her contemporaries Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, but she was just as famous as them, if not more so, in her heyday, and on two separate years was listed as the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Born in France, she emigrated with her family to New York at the age of 3, and pronounced her name the same as modern talk show host Stephen Colbert. She has a very distinctive look defined by her very large eyes; she kind of looks like a cartoon herself. In fact, she is credited with partially inspiring the looks of Betty Boop, who was literally a cartoon, and Cyndi Lauper, who is basically a cartoon. She had worked with Capra before on one of her least successful films, and insisted on double her usual salary to work with him again. She reportedly didn’t like the experience of working on the movie and didn’t think it was particularly good until she received her only Oscar for her role. Though married twice, biographers do now believe Colbert may have had several serious romantic relationships with women, as well, including Helen O’Hagan, who she met on the set of her final film and who Colbert instructed her friends to treat “as her spouse.”

One thing I really found interesting about the movie is that, just as it’s unlikely a 2021 romantic comedy would be able to get away from the pandemic, It Happened One Night is either unwilling or unable to extricate itself from the reality that it’s happening in the middle of the Great Depression. In one scene, a woman on the bus (Claire McDowell) collapses, and her young son (George Breakston) explains that she it’s because neither of them has eaten since yesterday and that they spent all their money on bus tickets to New York because she heard there was a job there. Later there’s a bit where Clark Gable is happy and in love, so he’s stopped by a train crossing (by a dude with a flag, because I guess those arm things that come down had not been invented to put him out of a job) and he waves happily to the flag guy, then to the train engineer (who bizarrely waves back), then to a random bunch of hobos riding on the train. This feels like the 1934 version of making a joke about the reception on Zoom calls.

Perhaps the most famous, or at least oft-imitated, scene in the movie comes when Gable and Colbert’s characters are forced to stay together at the last room at a motor inn, where they tell the management that they are married. Gable hangs up a sheet between their beds that he calls “the Walls of Jericho.” When Colbert remains skeptical about going over to her side, Gable gets to her leave by starting to undress. His removal of his shirt to reveal a bare, shaved chest is credited with substantially reducing sales of undershirts to men nationwide, and sends Colbert scurrying from sheer manliness. Once they’re together, in the last scene, Gable blows on a trumpet and we see a blanket fall. The Walls of Jericho have been breached. In the other most famous scene, when the pair resort to hitchhiking, Gable fails miserably at flagging down a series of cars with his thumb, at which point Colbert walks to the side of the road and partly pulls up her skirt to show off one leg and the very next car skids to a halt. She quips in the backseat of the car that she has “proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.”

None of these bits would likely have been approved even a few months after this movie’s release, as it hit theaters only about three months prior to the full enforcement of the Hays Code in Hollywood movies. You will often hear online movie people refer to certain movies as “pre-Code,” meaning they are from a very specific late-20s/early-30s period where there sound was a thing but some aspects of artistic freedom had not been clamped down on yet, and this is one of the last of those movies. If I had to guess, a modern viewer will find it charming but entirely predictable, sometimes painfully so. That isn’t really the movie’s fault: it was inventing a good portion of the clichés viewers will now see in it. 

One aspect of the movie that was much discussed at the time will in fact likely be entirely invisible to modern viewers: the fact that it’s partly set on a Greyhound bus. Cars had only really been in mass production for maybe a decade and a half at this point, and buses from city to city were really a brand new thing. This movie (mostly) made riding on a bus from town to town seem… pretty fun? The passengers have sing-a-longs and everything. Today this would be false advertising, I’m not sure about 1934. I don’t know if this was the first “road trip movie,” probably not, but it probably is the first one that was a big hit. In any case, the movie is credited with exposing Greyhound buses to a national audience, many of whom had never heard of them before. I also feel compelled to mention the title of this movie, which is fairly generic but I found more inexplicable than maybe any other title of a movie on this list. It takes place over several days, not one night, nor is it clear what is meant, exactly, by “it.” I prefer to believe that what happened that one night is the two lead characters banging each other, but maybe that’s just me.

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