Since Hollywood began handing out gold plated statues in 1929 for the recognition of excellence in the movie industry, only three films have ever won all five major awards – the Oscar Grand Slam – Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. The most recent was in 1992 when The Silence of the Lambs swept the board and Hannibal Lecter declared to the world his penchant for fava beans and a nice chianti. Prior to that it was Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976. The first time occurred forty one years earlier when It Happened One Night became the movie that helped put the then minor studio of Columbia well and truly on the map.
Frank Capra, a rising star when the silent era morphed into the ‘talkies’ directed It Happened One Night and would later go on to make such Hollywood gems as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In total, he would win three Oscars out of six nominations for his directing and another three out of seven nominations for Outstanding Production/Best Picture.
Numerous actors were considered for the two leads before Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert signed on. Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy were among them but rejected the parts because they didn’t feel the script wasn’t good enough. It’s said that Gable was lent to Columbia by MGM’s boss Louis B. Mayer as some form of punishment for refusing roles at his contracted studio but while this may or may not be true, it does give an air of plausibility to Gable apparently turning up for work on the first day of shooting and grumbling – ‘Let’s get this over with.’
The atmosphere on set was pretty tense as filming got under way but Gable and Capra enjoyed making the movie. However, it is said that Colbert did not. She was the sixth actress to be offered the role and reluctantly accepted the part only after Capra had agreed to double her salary to $50,000 and guarantee that she would have to work no more than four weeks. One might think that would make the pill easy to swallow but she was reportedly difficult on set and whined about something virtually every day. When filming had wrapped, she complained to a friend, “I just finished the picture in the world.”
After opening to luke warm business and indifferent reviews, it gained a secondary movie house release, word of mouth spread and the box office receipts went through the roof. It became Columbia’s biggest hit to date and had an immediate impact on the public. One scene has Gable undressing for bed, taking off his shirt and revealing himself to be bare-chested. This was because removing his undershirt as well didn’t fit in with his humorous dialogue and so the undershirt was abandoned altogether. It apparently lead to a noticeable decline in the sales of men’s undershirts. Also because the two characters travel on a Greyhound bus for a significant part of the film, the public’s interest in bus travel increased nationwide.
Although the plot may be well-known to our modern audiences, at the time it was a story largely untapped. Spoiled heiress (Colbert) runs away from home because her father has forbidden her to marry a man he doesn’t like. She boards a bus to New York City to reunite with her husband-to-be and runs into a struggling newspaper reporter (Gable), fellow passenger and all-round charming rogue. She’s soon without the means to get to her desired destination and so he (recognising who she is) offers to help in exchange for her story. She agrees out of necessity and they form a squabbling, travelling alliance. Their adventures together leads them to fall in love but in the finest tradition of great storytelling, it’s not as straightforward as it might sound.
There’s great humour throughout this wonderful film and both leads play their parts superbly (regardless of how they felt). The scene where they first meet aboard the bus sets the standard but a hitch-hiking scene later on is possibly the highlight. Gable’s assurance that he’s an expert in thumbing a lift and Colbert’s subsequent belittling him is an absolute joy to watch. Gable’s nibbling on a carrot while rapidly talking at the beginning of this sequence is rumoured to have influenced the creation of Bugs Bunny too. The subtleties of Gable’s performance is a perfect blend of rapidly delivered wisecracking dialogue and moments of romantic tenderness but he never loses that hard-as-nails streak of downright manliness that personified him throughout his career and helped cement his status as The King of Hollywood. When he tells you to “Beat it!”, you really don’t want to hang around to find out what’ll happen if you don’t. Likewise, Colbert’s portrayal of the spoiled brat who suddenly finds herself roughing it outside of the pampered world she’s only ever known is a marvel. It’s no wonder she would soon become the highest paid actress in Hollywood and I’m sure as the box office receipts piled up, Capra would have admitted she’d been worth her hefty fee.
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.” I think the word ‘significant’ is a good one to wrap this review up with. It is a significant film and a sublime example of a romantic comedy of its time. In cinema terms, it also epitomises the word ‘classic’.