IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

BEHIND THE ENDURING LEGACY OF ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL PICTURES OF ALL TIME

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
By Dave Lee
15th February 2024

While many will first associate Frank Capra's name with 1946 holiday favourite 'It's a Wonderful Life', it is 'It Happened One Night' that is inarguably the crowning achievement of his spectacular career. Not only was it the first movie in history to sweep the Oscars by taking home "the Big Five" (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay to Robert Riskin, Best Actor to Clark Gable, and Best Actress to Claudette Colbert – an achievement only repeated by 1975's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and 1991's 'Silence of the Lambs'), but it would also go on to make a gigantic impact on pop culture – shaping the future of comedic cinema, inspiring a very Looney wascally-wabbit, and even making a dent in the sales of men's undershirts (you read that right!). However, 'It Happened One Night' (hailed by the American Film Institute as one of the Greatest American Movies of All Time) almost didn't... well... happen at all. Pooh-poohed by every exec on the board of Poverty Row studio Columbia Pictures and turned down by every major star approached (roles filled by two stars who didn't want to be in the movie!) – it was destined for failure. Capra fought against all odds to produce and direct one of the most seminal pieces of U.S. cinema, which, in 2024, turns 90 years old.

In only six years, filmmaker Frank Capra had directed 20 pictures for Harry Cohn's Columbia Pictures – a minor so-called film studio pumping out B-Pictures. While he adored his craft, Capra strove for higher recognition – vying to one day win the coveted Best Director and Best Picture Academy Awards. Unfortunately, "Poverty Row" studios like Columbia were then ineligible for such recognition. Regardless, Capra knew his worth and continually strove forward to win the adoration of his peers and audiences. In 1933, his comedy-drama 'Lady for a Day' found itself nominated for four Oscars – winning none. It was a personal shame for Capra, but it quickly turned to embarrassment when he stood up to accept the Best Director award when a different Frank (Frank Lloyd, 1933's 'Cavalcade') was called for the award.

Destined to prove himself, Capra was on a mission to make the best darned picture of his career. He found it in a 1933 issue of 'Cosmopolitan Magazine' – Samuel Hopkins Adams' short story 'Night Bus'. The story told of an unlikely pair of strangers – a snooty, rich, heiress, and a tough-as nails, no-nonsense reporter – who find love on an interstate bus trip. With a keen eye for a good story, Capra knew it would make one hell of a picture, and dog-eared it for his next production.

Capra rallied frequent collaborator Robert Riskin to write a screenplay and hurriedly pitched it to Cohn and the executives at Columbia. Much to Capra's annoyance, the execs unanimously hated it. They hated the story, they hated the leading woman, and they hated the bus (there were, at the time – apparently – "too many bus pictures"). Defiant, Capra took on board some criticism, fixed a few issues, and tasked Riskin with re-working his screenplay; which he did in only a week. Re-presenting it to Cohn and the execs – they still hated it. However, Cohn, despite being ruthlessly aggressive and temperamental, had a soft spot for Capra – whom he'd mentored and shaped into somewhat of a "Golden Boy" for him and the studio. He agreed to greenlight the movie, as long as Capra could get two star names to sign on for the film.

'IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT' TRAILER

Capra approached Robert Montgomory and Miriam Hopkins for the picture – both declined. As did the likes of Myrna Loy, Margaret Sullavan and Loretta Young. Word got to Capra that both Bette Davis and Carole Lombard were interested, however, couldn't make contracts work (Davis was contracted to Warner Bros. and Lombard to Paramount – neither of whom would dream of lending their stars to a "Poverty Row" studio... especially not Columbia, who the industry had dubbed "the Germ of the Ocean").

Eventually, the lead roles would go to screen diva Claudette Colbert and rising "King of Hollywood" Clark Gable – two performers who had absolutely no interest in the film. An oft-disputed legend (proliferated by Capra in his 1972 autobiography 'The Name Above the Title') suggests that producer Louis B. Mayer called the studio to get Clark Gable (an MGM contract player) off his hands. Capra claims that Gable, getting a bit big for his boots, was turning down roles and asking for more money and had become a "Bad Guy" in Mayer's eyes. Mayer wanted to punish him by "forcing him into a Poverty Row picture," tantamount to "exile to Siberia for hoity-toity MGM stars." Cohn jumped at the chance. Colbert balked at the idea of working with Capra, after he'd directed her on her ill-fated screen debut 'For the Love of Mike' (1937) – a tumultuous production on which the pair notoriously despised working with each other. She ultimately agreed to sign on if Columbia paid twice her usual US$25,000 salary and could shoot the film in four weeks from the day of signing. These were absolutely ludicrous terms, but Cohn agreed – how could a B-Studio turn down the potential to produce a picture with Gable and Colbert?

Naturally, the pair – described by Capra as "Truculent Gable and 'brat' Colbert" had an "intense mutual dislike" for one another, and when cameras rolled, the tension was palpable. All Capra asked was for the pair to be civil, and instructed them to keep the tension on the screen – as it would fit the characters perfectly. Capra claims he told Colbert that "all she had to do was bug Gable on camera as she bugged me off camera." As a result, the pair produced one of the greatest on-screen couplings in the history of cinema – bringing a legitimate, sweltering tension to the picture that simply radiates off the screen. With Colbert unhappy with the picture's steamier moments (it's often considered the last pre-code comedy), the pair's sexual tension was off the charts. A scene in which Colbert was intended to appear in lingerie (the famed Walls of Jericho sequence) was re-written at the last moment with the star unwilling to dress down on the screen. Instead, Gable took the hit – and stripped down, bare-chested as he undresses for bed; tipping the scales for the depiction of masculinity and male eroticism on the screen. Colbert did, however, agree to show her bare legs on the screen in a sequence where her character hails a cab. She initially refused, but when the studio brought in a Chorus Girl in to double, she quipped "Get her out of here. I'll do it. That's not my leg!" (Capra was thankful, later quipping, "There are no more luscious gams in the world than Colbert's - not even Marlene's!") Likewise, the hitchhiking sequence became one of the screen's greatest, and the image of Colbert's leg one of the most iconic.

'It Happened One Night' remains a masterclass in screen comedy. A brisk 105-minute picture that moves with hurried performances by its leads, Riskin's spectacular mile-a-minute dialogue, and Capra's snappy direction. It's one of the very few faultless films, a lightning-in-a-bottle production where everything comes together stupendously – and against all odds.

The film, unusually for the time (particularly for a Poverty Row picture), was "mostly shot in real locations: buses, highways, byways, coffee shops, and among the new phenomena that had sprung up on the American scene – motels". It gave the movie a curious feeling of reality – and paired with Colbert and Gable's real-life chemistry (or lack thereof), made for one of the most authentic pictures produced to that time.

At the end of the filming, studio execs still hated the film and Colbert was overheard telling friends, "I've just finished the worst picture in the world." Despite this, it opened to uproarious reviews from critics, was embraced gigantically by audiences, and swept the Oscars ceremony – winning Capra, Colbert, Gable, Riskin, and Cohn their first awards. Wowed by the image of Gable headed to bed half-naked, it's said that sales of men's undershirts plummeted, much to the dismay of flailing clothiers around the country. Gable's popularity, however, soared – becoming an instant icon of the silver screen. He became so in-demand, Mayer had to triple his salary... how's that for a "punishment"?

'It Happened One Night' became so iconic that it would inspire pop culture for years to come. Its fast-paced script, heightened performances, and over-the-top situations would go on to form the basis of the screwball comedy which became ever-popular between the middle-30s and late-50s – paving the way for the likes of Cary Grant, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Katherine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy; and heavily inspiring the films of screenwriter/director Preston Sturgess. As such, the film also paved the way for the more contemporary romantic comedy – with almost every one borrowing the film's never-dying formula. Perhaps its most enduring influence, however, was on the creation of cartoon icon Bugs Bunny at the Warner Studio in 1937; the iconic image of him chomping on a carrot while fast-talking inspired by the same action performed by Gable in one of the film's scenes. The film would also be remade in 1956 by Dick Powell as the comedy musical 'You Can't Run Away from It' starring Jack Lemmon and June Allyson. While a competent film it pales in comparison, with Lemmon and Allyson poor substitutes for the inimitable Gable and Colbert.

90 years on, 'It Happened One Night' remains a masterclass in screen comedy. A brisk 105-minute picture that moves with hurried performances by its leads, Riskin's spectacular mile-a-minute dialogue, and Capra's snappy direction. It's one of the very few faultless films, a lightning-in-a-bottle production where everything comes together stupendously – and against all odds. It is, without a doubt, one of my favourite pieces of cinema – ever; a film that only gets better with each and every viewing. Gable and Colbert became instant favourites of mine (performances which, I believe, they never bettered), and peaked my interest in the works of Capra.

'It Happened One Night' made stars and icons of everyone involved – including Columbia, who survives as the last remaining "Poverty Row" studio (their most recent release 'Madame Web' continues their reputation for being the B-Movie King), and, naturally, changed the face of cinema for the better. Perhaps, in a day and age where pooh-poohing execs are trashing films for the sake of a tax-cut, Hollywood can still learn a thing or two from Capra's opus.

'It Happened One Night' is available on Region-B Blu-ray from the UK arm of the Criterion Collection, and in a stunning new transfer on 4K UHD Blu-ray as part of Sony's 'Columbia Classics Collection: Volume 3', in which it's paired with Powell's '56 curio 'You Can't Run Away from It' on Blu-ray (both UK and U.S. editions are region-free). It can be purchased or rented in 4K UHD on Apple TV+.

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