NOTE: I’ve committed to watching and reviewing a Clark Gable film every Monday for the remainder of 2021.
Most romantic comedies in the present day owe a debt of gratitude to Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. Conceived as nothing more than a lighthearted romance during the grim World War II-era, its ho-hum box office returns wouldn’t have suggested the enviable legacy it would have. The film wound up sweeping all five major categories at the Academy Awards — Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay — and would be the only work to claim that feat until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, and later The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.
You almost can’t discuss It Happened One Night without contextualizing the nightmare the film’s production was. The suave Clark Gable was only offered the leading role after Robert Montgomery and others rejected it. Moreover, Claudette Colbert once vowed never to work with Capra again after her experience on-set of his earlier film, For the Love of Mike in 1927 (which served as her debut, although now deemed a lost film). Capra himself swore he’d never direct another feature, but we all say a lot of things over the course of our lives. Moreover, Myrna Loy, Margaret Sullivan, and Constance Bennett were just some of the actresses who were approached but ultimately declined playing the likable but snooty Ellie Andrews.
Colbert finally conceded, and apparently told a confidant after production, “I just finished the worst picture in the world.”
Columbia’s apparent lack of faith in the project was only compounded by a low-key marketing campaign that led it to be a box office disappointment upon release in February 1934. Nevertheless, positive reviews came out en masse. Then the Oscars followed. And now, 87 years later, you can’t quantify how influential It Happened One Night has been on contemporary romance movies.
With its trailblazing tropes, astutely drawn characters, and dual leads displaying their best qualities on-screen, this is an undeniably entertaining picture.
The film opens by introducing us to Ellie Andrews (Colbert), a spoiled socialite who has eloped with the adventure-seeking King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Ellie’s father, Alexander (Walter Connolly), has other plans. He separates the newlyweds before the marriage can be consummated. Ellie is essentially held hostage on daddy’s boat just off the Florida coast. She’s so beside herself and desperate, she jumps overboard and swims to shore, intent to catch a bus bound for New York City to meet up with Westley.
During her excursion, she comes across a down-and-out newspaper reporter named Peter Warne (Gable). Their meet-cute is stifled a tad due to the worst tendencies of their personalities emerging: Peter’s mannerisms can be caddish while Ellie reveals her bratty-side amidst the slightest inconvenience. With some time, the two realize they can both benefit from their wholly different situations: Peter can reunite Ellie with Westley so the two can have an actual wedding while Peter can use her escape and the surrounding hysteria as his next juicy story.
Whatever on-set misgivings both Gable and Colbert revealed do not adversely seep into the final product. The two ignite a perfect chemistry built on modest affection and their ability to get on one another’s nerves just by being themselves. Therein lies the “love/hate” dynamic we see in this genre ad nauseum. Gable is playful and cocksure; Colbert is selfish, but not to an insufferable degree. It’s the balance achieved by the duo’s ability to incorporate screwball comedy elements so deftly into a romantic template that assures the final result is buoyant and beautiful.
Then there’s the famous “leg scene” that occurs as Ellie bests Peter’s self-proclaimed prowess with hitchhiking. Famously parodied — seldom better than when Carrie Bradshaw successfully nabbed a cab in Abu Dhabi by doing her best Claudette Colbert impression — it’s a scene that’s wistful even prior to that risqué bit. Peter bloviates about how hitchhiking “is all in the thumb,” even going so far as to say he might even write a book about his talents. Both characters are humbled in the face of hubris. Screenwriter Robert Riskin, after many rewrites apparently, nailed that narrative balance.
Seen today, It Happened One Night suffers from what I call “the Godfather problem.” That’s when a film or a piece of work has been spoofed so prolifically over multiple decades that seeing the original work could merit some disappointment. The ubiquity of romantic comedy tropes seen in Capra’s film makes you feel like you’ve seen this formula several times in the past. Because you have, to a certain degree.
That aside, reserve some well-earned praise for what helped start it all.
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Jameson Thomas, and Roscoe Karns. Directed by: Frank Capra.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!